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Et tu, video iPod?

The new video iPod so far doesn't seem different enough from many similar past devices that underestimated the public’s willingness to embrace a portable unit that requires a home computer.
The new, top-of-the-line iPod does audio and video.  It comes in 30GB and 60GB configurations.
The new, top-of-the-line iPod does audio and video.  It comes in 30GB and 60GB configurations.Apple

Wow! A video iPod. I can’t wait to get my hands on one. Bet you feel the same way. (Apple is betting on that, too.)

I’m afraid, however, that after the initial coolness factor wears off, the video iPod will wind up in the same dresser drawer as the Zvue, the Zen and other portable video devices that have come and gone over the years.

Don't get me wrong: If there's any chance of a portable video device being a smashing success, I think Apple has the best shot of making it happen. But the new video iPod so far doesn't seem different enough from many similar past devices that underestimated the public’s willingness to embrace a portable unit that requires a home computer.

Let’s look at the iPod. The original one, that is. Apple wasn’t the first to market a portable compressed music file player — but they took the idea and ran with it. They designed a beautiful device with a lot of storage and figured out how to wean people away from illegally downloading music files for free and convince them to willingly spend a buck a song to download songs legally. The rest is history.

But video is a very different medium — and I don't just mean the moving pictures. MP3s originally became popular because they allowed people to listen to the songs they wanted. People were reacting to having to buy a $15 CD when all they wanted to listen to was one song on the album.

TV is basically free already. Yes, people pay monthly fees for cable and satellite services, but for the most part, millions still watch network TV shows every night. Some record them on VCRs. Others record shows on DVRs (digital video recorder) like TiVo, etc. Still others are content to wait for a rerun to catch a show they’ve missed.

Apple and ABC are betting that you’re willing to pay. If you miss an ABC show you’ll be able to buy that episode for $1.99 the next day. I'm not saying that there isn't some video people will pay for — the music fans who flock to iTunes may very well be willing to pay for special programming such as music videos, movie shorts and even movies, plus items they can’t watch anywhere else for any price. But the TV shows they could watch for free the day before? We'll see.

Then there’s the iPods themselves. As terrific as they are for listening to music, I’m not sure everyone will be as thrilled to watch a video on such a small screen. I realize that you’ll also be able to watch the near-DVD quality video files downloaded from iTunes on your computer’s monitor screen, which is why the ABC deal may be of bigger importance than the video iPod itself. But this is supposed to be about portable video players and I'm just not sure how many people will be satisfied with watching Eva Longoria on a 2 1/2 inch screen.

You can listen to your iPod at work, at home, at the gym, in the car. Basically, that means everywhere. But watching your iPod might not be as convenient. It will be tough to watch at work or while jogging. And in the car? Passengers, yes. Drivers, no.

Then there's the issue of how the video gets on the iPod to begin with. Maybe the computer model made sense for music, since most of us had to digitize our collections anyway. But TV? Aren't many of us already getting a digital TV signal?

I believe a portable media device needs to be able to gather video without being attached to a computer. The people at Archos have been making devices like that for years. 

Yes, Apple’s styling beats everything else on the market — but the Archos devices plug right into your cable or satellite box and record programs directly from there. Consider it a mobile DVR.

I’ve been playing with a new Archos AV 500 for the past few days. The Archos secret is that their devices don’t record digital feeds. They allow you to make analog recordings from your cable/satellite box or DVD player, etc. —  like using a VCR — via the composite or S-video outputs these devices already have. And because the recordings are analog, there's no pesky digital rights management software to get in the way. Video iPods and Windows portable media centers such as Creative's Zen can’t do that.

Archos devices can also plug into your computer via USB 2.0, and store music and photo files. You can even hook up the Archos to your TV and use it as a playback device. The AV 500 is remarkably small for what it does, but still larger than any iPod.  It sports a very watchable 4-inch screen. It comes in 30 GB (up to 130 hours of video for $499.95) and a 100 GB (up to 400 hours for $699.95) models. There’s even a video camera attachment ($199.95) so you can make your own movies. Archos also markets the AV700 with a 7-inch diagonal widescreen screen.

Of course, Archos doesn't have anywhere near the buzz of Apple. And, as I've said, I'm not convinced how big the market is for portable video to begin with.

Which brings me to what I think was Apple's more interesting announcement: The new iMac comes with a remote control — and the ability to let you control what you’re listening or watching to from across the room. I think that’s the next step for home computers.

I’ve been testing a Mac mini as part of a top-of-the-line music reproduction system. It revolves around an amazing little box that lets you plug your computer into your hi-fi and let you throw away your CDs. More about that next week.