You Can Take It With You: TV On The Small, Small Screen

A 50-inch plasma display may be cool, but try fitting one in your pocket. We show you a variety of options for taking TV wherever you go--without a wheelbarrow.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 24, 2006

4 Min Read

Self-Recorded Content

Suppose you already have the content you want to watch on your handheld? If you own the DVD you want to watch, or you've recorded the show on your TiVo or other DVR, you have a number of options.

Do It Yourself
For the true do-it-yourself type, you can convert the content to a format supported by your handheld. These days, even high-end cell phones have the ability to play some variety of video file stored on a mini-SD card, and PDAs can usually play just about anything. MP4 format is usually a safe bet across all platforms.

The key to making this work is picking the right bit rate. Original source material could be encoded at bit rates up to 8 megabits per second (MB/s). Your typical handheld device (especially a cell phone) doesn't have nearly the horsepower to decode that much data and reformat it for a small screen, and might require a bit rate as low as 200 KB/s. If you poke around, you may be able to find recommendations for your specific device on the Web.

You'll also need software that can transcode your source material to the new format, such as Pegasys' TMPGEnc MPEG Editor. If you want to watch material copied from DVDs on your handheld, you'll also need a DVD-ripping program such as the one included with the Nero Burning ROM suite. (This applies only to DVDs you've made -- commercial DVDs' built-in copy protection will stymie most legally marketed DVD rippers.)

The other thing to know is that the transcode is a slow procedure. Don't be surprised if it takes as long to transcode a show as to watch it, or even longer. The transcoding is also going to bog down your desktop machine to the point of unusability, so it's something best left to run while you go to bed. Also prepare yourself for a lot of trial and error, getting things set up just right. It's best to start with short video clips, so that you don't waste a lot of time transcoding a two-hour movie, just to find that you got the settings wrong.

If you have a TiVo Series2 DVR, you can use the TiVoToGo feature to transfer content onto a video iPod, Palm Treo (650, 700p and 700w), PSP, Creative Zen, Nokia N80 or Toshiba Gigabeat S device. You'll also need a PC hooked up to the same network as the TiVo to transcode and transfer the content. This will allow you to watch programming recorded with your TiVo on the handheld.

The Archos line of DVRs is a strange hybrid of a DVR and a personal video player. As with any DVR, you hook these devices up to your TV, DVD player, VCR, or cable/satellite receiver to record the movies and shows you want, but you can disconnect them and take them on the road, watching your content on the built-in LCD screen.

The AV 500 model sports a 4-inch screen, while the AV 700 provides a whopping 7-inch screen. Of course, you can't record programs when you're using it away from your home, so you might be faced with the choice of taking your shows with you or recording the episodes you're missing at home.

Setting Expectations

Whatever solution you choose, remember that at the end of the day you're going to be watching your video on a device with a screen smaller than your hand. Independence Day is not going to look as good on a PDA as it did on your big screen, and might be almost unrecognizable on a cell phone. If you're watching streaming content via a network or cell phone connection, don't be shocked if you encounter the occasional stutter, and you'll be limited to locations with Wi-Fi or high-speed wireless data service.

Depending on the type of mobile device you own, and the type of content you want to watch, getting video on handhelds can range from simple to fiendishly complex. But if you go into the venture with a reasonable understanding of the limitations, your next airport layover might be a much more pleasurable experience.

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