Moving pictures, and how to get them

About five years ago, Steve Jobs memorably dismissed the idea of adding video to iPods, pointing out that while you can listen to music in the background, movies require that you actually watch them. “You can’t watch a video and drive a car,” he said. “We’re focused on music.”

This little blip in Jobs’ future-gazing capabilities is often used by detractors to show that even Apple’s great leader can and does get it wrong. Of course, they’re less quick to mention that – regardless of what Steve Jobs’ personal opinion on the matter might have been in 2004 – it didn’t stop the company from quickly adapting and making a truck load of money out of video-capable iPods and especially out of streaming video sales through the Apple Store. The last laugh is with Jobs and his bank account on this one.

Actually, though, I’ve always rather agreed with Jobs’ old opinion on this one. I use my iPod when I’m walking to work, or working at my desk, because music is something that doesn’t interfere with walking around and concentrating on other tasks. But add video and it’s quite different: it becomes an all-demanding immersive experience. You can’t walk along the street let alone drive a car while trying to watch a video.

But the biggest obstacle of all when it comes to mobile video seems to me to be: where do you get the videos to watch in the first place?

When I got my iPhone, I decided that I had to at least try the whole video thing once before deciding it was a waste of time. So I bought a couple of TV episodes from the Apple Store, put them on, used them for ‘demo’ purposes when talking to people about the iPhone, and … Never watched the episodes themselves. They’re still sitting on there, unwatched, a year later: I’ve never felt I’ve had the opportunity to sit and give my undivided attention to the episodes that my psyche tells me that ‘proper’ programmes must have to be appropriately watched. I’ve just never found a time when I’ve thought, “oh, perfect time to watch that” – yet the amount of music and podcasts and audiobooks I’ve listened to in that time is legion.

That little test run “proved”, to me at least, that video-on-the-go had very little appeal. Moreover it highlighted the problem that the content had to come from the Apple Store at a price (almost two pounds for an hour-long episodes), or … Where else? You could download BitTorrent TV programs, or find an illegal and nefarious way of ripping a DVD, but when it came to legal sources of video to watch on your iPod, then the alternatives were limited. And costly.

I did find one way of getting video content to the iPhone: I have a DVD Recorder that saves on-air recordings to a hard disc, which I could then burn onto a DVD, take the disc across the room to the Mac, and rip and convert this non-copy protected disc to iPhone format (H.264 since you ask) and then copy it into iTunes for syncing. Of course, this burning/ripping two stage process took as long if not longer than watching the source material in the first place, so you can imaging how many times I actually did this: once. A proof of concept run. But clearly this didn’t work in practice and I was still stymied.

I’ve always figured that the Apple TV product would be the eventual answer to this problem. When it first came out it seemed to me to be a rather pointless piece of hardware that added a hard disc to your TV to store downloads from the Apple Store, and not much else. I can see why Apple hobbled the product in this way – as it stands, Apple TV must drive a lot of sales form the Apple Store, after all. But I’ve always been mystified at why anyone would spend over two hundred pounds for something that is, essentially, doing exactly what your Mac or PC already does.

Surely Apple TV should let you watch and record TV as well? And allows you to watch the recorded programmes on your TV, Mac/PC or mobile device seamlessly, whichever you wanted? In other words, make it a PVR (personal video recorder) that bridges your TV, your Mac/PC and your mobile devices? As a way of making Apple TV relevant and worthwhile this had always seemed to me to be the obvious way forward; I could understand it not being in the 1.0 launch product, but surely it would be in the 2.0? But no – I’ve waited and watched and Apple TV is still about as dumb and pointless (to my mind) as when it first started. I guess it’s either legal copyright issues, or more likely that the sales it drives to the Apple Store that are worth protecting more than trying to boost sales of the product itself by making it, you know, useful.

Finally I decided to try to DIY it. I got a TV Tuner from Elgato, a company that specialises in video products for the Mac. I was a little wary of this since I’d be primarily using Freeview, and the reception in my area is patchy to say the least, so I could have spent a lot of money to get a product that didn’t really work. But I was lucky and with a bit of juggling with aerials I found that I could get a better signal for the Mac tuner than I can for my main TV set. I had finally added a capability that I’d wanted ever since my first computer back in the 80s – the ability to watch TV on my Mac.

At a stroke, what I got is the ability to schedule recordings of any Freeview channel, have it formatted for an iPod/iPhone and automatically sent to iTunes for the next sync to the mobile device. So at last, I have a purpose for video on an iPod – watching programmes that I’d recorded that I just didn’t have time to watch at home. Yay! But now the question becomes, “Was it the lack of source material after all – or just the fact that Steve Jobs was right all along and watching TV on a mobile device is just not that appealing?”

The first programme I recorded for mobile viewing was the practice sessions for the most recent Formula 1 Grand Prix (anyone who doesn’t know about my motorsport obsession clearly hasn’t checked out my companion motorsportind blog!) Since this was being held in Japan, the practice sessions started at an eye-watering 2am on Friday morning; and since I had work the next day and needed to show up reasonably sentient, watching live just wasn’t an option. Fitting in 90 minutes of viewing on the Friday evening wasn’t viable either, and on Saturday things would have moved on to the official qualifying session and Friday practice would no longer be relevant viewing. In the past that’s meant simply not watching it, but maybe now with video-on-the-go it would prove possible?

This first “proper” recording through the Mac tuner worked as advertised – the converted file was waiting, ready for synching in the morning and was duly put on the iPod nano (smaller screen, but perfectly fine for this type of thing – and I wanted to protect my iPhone battery life for other things such as calls, texts and tweets) to take into work. And sure enough, I watched it – on the train (only 15-20 minute stints on my commute, but good for catching snatches of something like this – not so good for narrative drama), over lunch in the COI café, and a couple of other opportunities throughout the day. There was still some left by the time I got home, but easy enough to finish off at this point. I was impressed by the quality and watchability on the iPod screen and I had a real childish glee of “Ooooh, look – I can watch TV on the iPod!” as I viewed.

Enduring success or one-hit wonder? The next thing to be recorded was – predictably – the Saturday practice session the next night at the same time from Japan, but by the time I was up and about the next morning it was already time for the proper qualification session, and that was such a breathless and exciting event that it rather eclipsed the earlier practice session, which now seemed rather … missable, frankly. So that’s still sitting on the iPod nano awaiting a viewing, several days after the Grand Prix weekend concluded. I suspect its chances are not good this long after the event.

I guess that makes the score currently one-all in terms of “will I watch video on the iPod with this new arrangement?” and it seems to come down to timing. It worked on the Friday because watching on-the-go was the only way of getting the programme watched in time; it failed on the Saturday because there was simply no such opportunity to watch it in time, mobile or otherwise. It also clearly depends on the source material, with just-aired sporting events having just the right sort of balance between timeliness and not having to watch too closely, as dipping in and out, stopping and starting is fine with this sort of sporting material but would kill a good drama or comedy. We shall have to await a tie-breaker and some longer-term data.

But regardless of whether the “watching on iPhone/iPod” experiment proves successful, the thing I’m really enjoying is simply having live TV on the Mac. It’s lovely being able to watch a programme as I work in a little box on the desktop; it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s totally different from trying to keep on eye on the actual TV while working on the computer; it’s particularly useful for having something like BBC News 24 on in the background as I work, which has been what has accompanied the writing of this blog post.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have to turn over the channel now and listen to In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 …


  1. Seb Crump

    Look at you getting all 21st century man 😉

    I would definitely recommend the videocasts from the Onion. They’re usually around 3 minutes each and perfect as an in between podcasts moment on the commute.

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