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3/24/2006
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Review: Apple iPod Vs. Wolverine MVP

Two portable media (read: video) players go head-to-head in this comparative review.

If you're old enough, you may remember the first time you saw someone with one of those tiny portable TV receivers, probably at a sporting event. The picture was small, and black and white, but you were still probably impressed.

These days, the emphasis is on big. 42" DLP monitors. 61" LCD displays. No matter how large living room or office displays get, the thrill of pulling a TV out of your pocket never fades. Portable DVD players have been around for a while, but they're bulky and chew up batteries. Enterprising PDA owners have been watching shows scrunched down to fit onto memory cards as well. But with the introduction of portable media players (PMPs), the concept of taking your video with you is finally starting to become mainstream.

We recently had a chance to play with two fairly new PMPs, the Apple iPod (with video capability) and the Wolverine MVP. As will become clear, getting a player is only the first step to actually watching video on the go.

To start with, let's take a look at the units themselves. The iPod offers either 30 or 60 GB of hard disk space. (Ours had 30.) As you'd expect from an iPod, it's designed to fit comfortably into a shirt pocket (measuring around 4" x 2", and under a half an inch thick) and weighs a negligible 5 ounces. It comes with a 2.5" LCD screen, and has all the normal iPod functionality, including iTunes compatibility. In spite of its small size, it stood up well in our battery test, clocking in at 140 minutes of continuous video playback.

By comparison, the Wolverine unit is huge, looking a lot like those old pocket TV receivers. It's more suited to stick in a jacket pocket than a shirt pocket, measuring in at 5" x 2.6", and more than one inch thick. It's also just about twice as heavy as the iPod. Part of the reason is to accommodate the seven different memory card readers built into the device (CF, Smart Media, Memory Stick, SD, MMC, Microdrive and XD.) There's probably not a camera on the planet whose photos you can't view with this puppy. In spite of the large form factor, the battery life was nothing to write home about, conking out after 110 minutes.

Which picture is better? That depends on your taste. The iPod's LED-backlit LCD display looked softer and more natural to us, but was a bit dark at times. In contrast, the Wolverine's display was brighter, but scan lines were more visible in the image. Put another way, the Wolverine looked more like you were watching TV. Again, which you prefer will largely be a matter of taste.

If you go with the iPod, you are going to be limited to viewing Quicktime-encoded movies. There are two ways to go about getting those. Apple would probably prefer that you use the iTunes Store to buy content, which can be automatically installed on your iPod. Single episodes of TV shows such as Lost and Battlestar Galatica can be purchased for $1.99, or you can "subscribe" to an entire season.

The alternative is to create your own Quicktime videos. To begin with, you need some existing video content. That might be a show you recorded using a PC tuner, or a DVD you ripped. Next, you need to convert it to the appropriate Quicktime format. The iPod is fairly picky about the size and bitrate of the video it will play. The Apple-approved way to do this is to use Quicktime Pro, which has a preset value for the Video iPod. Unfortunately, in testing, Quicktime Pro was also very picky about the source video it would handle. Converting video captured by the open source MythTV DVR crashed Quicktime Pro.

There are also third-party converters, such as Xilisoft's iPod Video converter, that are much more flexible with their input requirements. Either way, don't be shocked if it takes your PC as long to do the conversion as it took to record the show originally.

With the Wolverine, you're going to be pretty much limited to your own video. You can't use iTunes videos on it, or digitally protected videos from any of the other online video stores. And since the MVP is as fussy as the iPod about the format of its files, you'll need to use a tool such as TMPG's Tsunami Video Encoder Xpress to massage your video into the right resolution and bit rate.

At the end of the day, it's hard to justify paying the $400 MSRP for the larger and more power hungry 60 GB Wolverine, when the same money will buy you the sleeker 60GB iPod. When you factor in the ability to use the iTunes Video store with the iPod, the MVP's main appeal seems to be for those who need its multiple card formats. But if you choose either, expect to lay out more cash for software before you can get your own video into your pocket.

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