February 08, 2006

iPod Nation - What to Do With Your New Gadget

Apple’s iPod is taking over the world! With over 42 million units sold since 2001, the preeminent portable digital music player has become a ubiquitous part of American daily life. Portable compact disc players were once the king of this field, but they’ve been bested in most ways by digital players: they’re smaller, less prone to skipping, and most have a built-in rechargeable battery. The iPod was first to popularize the advantages of portable digital music, and it has continued to lead the market.

Last year saw the introduction of two hugely popular iPod models: the fifth generation iPod with video, and the iPod Nano. The iPod Video is exactly what it sounds like: an iPod with the capability to play video files. Featuring a sharp color screen and a slight redesign, the iPod Video is available in 30 and 60GB (gigabyte) models. On the other end of the spectrum, the iPod Nano caters more to the casual listener, with a much smaller size and only 2 and 4GB models. Over 14 million units were sold in the last three months of 2005 alone, bolstered by the launch of these two models (especially the Nano).

If you’re one of the millions that already have an iPod, or you’re considering one in the future, you might be thinking “Now what?” You’ve (hopefully) figured out how to transfer music onto the unit via iTunes, but have you started using video or podcasts on your iPod? Do you even know what a podcast is? The iPod can do so much more than just play your music, and this article seeks to enlighten and empower your iPod experience.

The most significant change made to the fifth generation iPod is the addition of video playback capabilities. Apple revamped their iTunes online music store to include thousands of music videos, which can be purchased for $1.99 each. More notably, though, is the addition of downloadable episodes of popular television shows, such as Desperate Housewives and Lost. For less than two dollars, you’ll have a full-length episode that you can watch at your leisure, sans commercials.

What about all the videos you’ve already downloaded onto your computer? The iPod won’t play just any video, so you’ll need a software program to convert the file type. Only videos with the file extension .m4v are formatted to play on an iPod Video. The newest version of iTunes has limited conversion capabilities, though Apple will happily offer you Quicktime Pro ($30, apple.com), which will convert many more file types. Luckily, there are many free options for file conversion, though they may require a bit more technical know-how to operate.

Thanks to the passionate iPod online community, there are many freeware programs available for download that will make your various video files playable on your iPod Video. The Videora iPod Converter (videora.com) is a one of the most popular freeware programs available, though there are several other conversion programs available. Those looking to put their DVD movies on their iPod are also in luck. Programs such as Handbrake (handbrake.m0k.org) and the aforementioned Videora program will both convert DVD video to the .m4v format.

While these conversion processes are possible, they can also be fairly complicated, especially to non-experts. Luckily, there are many helpful how-to documents available online that will walk you through the process. Popular independent websites such as iLounge (ilounge.com) and iPod Garage (ipodgarage.com) feature links and detailed explanations that will have you converting in no time. Converting file formats with freeware software is a completely legal process, provided you own the rights to the file you are converting.

One of the more popular buzzwords to come out of the iGeneration lately has been “podcast.” The term is derived from broadcast, though podcasts aren’t streaming media. Still, many bear a resemblance to the radio serials of the past. Podcasts are audio files downloaded via the iTunes music store that can be listened to on your computer or on any iPod. Rather than individual songs or albums, a podcast might be a talk show, a comedy routine, or a themed playlist.

Podcasts are so popular in part because of their affordability: they’re all free. To locate podcasts, simply load up iTunes and click the “Podcasts” link on the left side of the screen. From there, click the “Podcast Directory” link near the bottom of the window. You will be sent to the iTunes music store, which houses the free podcasts. The first page displayed will show you prominent and featured podcasts, as well as the day’s top twenty-five most-downloaded podcasts.

If you find a podcast that interests you on iTunes, simply click “subscribe” and you’ll automatically download the newest episode when it is released. Considering how much money Apple has made via the iTunes music store, it’s encouraging to see them throw so much support behind free entertainment. There are thousands of podcasts available to download, with more being added everyday.

Podcasts may be used primarily for entertainment, but they’re also being used in the world of higher education. Many colleges and universities offer lectures via podcasts to assist with the learning process outside of the classroom. All of Harvard University’s medical lectures are available via iTunes, though only to registered students. Last fall, Harvard began teaching a computer science class entirely via podcast, which is even available to non-students. Even more impressive are schools that provide not only the podcast, but the iPod itself.

In 2004, Duke University gave every member of its freshman class a 20GB iPod, free of charge. Though initially criticized as a publicity stunt, the Duke Digital Initiative has soldiered on. This spring, forty-two courses at Duke are using the iPods for lectures or assignments, with more to be added next semester. Another high-profile program is the “iVillage” at Georgia College & State University, where iPods are made available to students in an attempt to foster community via a “virtual learning/living community.”

Though few schools are willing to shell out for the device itself, many are willing to make use of it, assuming the students already have an iPod of their own. Apple recently announced an expansion of their “iTunes U” program, which allows colleges and universities a customized version of iTunes for its students’ computers. From there, the students can access exclusive content, including lectures via podcast. Certainly this is something that Lewis University should consider as iPods are becoming quite common on campus.

Initially, podcasts were merely audio files, but in the last three months, video podcasts have become all the rage. The combination of video podcasts and the iPod Video provide you with a constantly updated source of fresh entertainment. Cable networks MTV and VH1 recently began posting video podcasts containing news and interviews, and cable network G4 has already posted several hundred video podcasts. ABC, CNN, and NPR are also represented… virtually all acronymic networks have released podcasts by this point.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the podcast is the fact that average people are using the format to get their work seen and heard. For every corporate podcast, there are several created in basements and dorm rooms. It should be assumed that many of these aren’t high quality, but many have caught on and become podcast sensations. Comedy podcast “Ask a Ninja” is one of the most subscribed-to podcasts. Anyone is eligible to submit their own podcast, provided you have a website to host it on. Certainly anything is possible… you could be the next podcast sensation!

The iPod made its name as a portable digital music player, but has adapted over the years and embraced new technologies and trends. With video playback and podcast support, Apple has transformed the way that we view portable entertainment. Commutes and car rides will never seem as long as they once were with an iPod in your hands. Surely some would be against the podcast supplanting the morning newspaper, but in a society where convenience is king, I think it’s entirely possible. Long live the ‘Pod.


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