Saturday, October 15, 2005

Thoughts on the video iPod and future directions

In my previous iTunes 6 article I lamented the fact that Apple has chosen to limit video downloads to files with a resolution of 320x240 (or smaller), and expressed hope that Apple would release 720x480 (480p) standard definition video in the future through iTunes.

Unfortunately, Apple's video format of choice, H.264, is extremely hard to decode. The new iPod is likely hardware limited to speeds sufficient only to decode H.264 files up to 320x240 at 30 frames per second. Thus, Apple has a hard cap on the video resolution and bitrate. I also mentioned in the article that while 320x240 was watchable on a computer, it is of fairly low quality. Similarly, that output would look mediocre to poor, played from an iPod on a medium-sized or larger TV. Now, before you bring this up, I am well aware of the similar arguments made when it was announced that Apple had chosen 128 Kbps AAC for audio for iTunes. I have always felt that 128 Kbps AAC, although not perfect, was adequate for this purpose. Video is a very different situation however, and I feel that 320x240 is subjectively much lower quality for video playback than 128 Kbps AAC is for audio playback.

To rectify this issue, Apple would need to release a new iPod that supported decoding of higher resolution video. That video could played at native resolution from the iPod's video output to a TV for optimium quality, but could be resized on-the-fly for the iPod's small screen. Apple could choose one of several options:

1) Orphan the current iPod in the future, and only release higher resolution video for newer iPods and computer playback.
2) Start releasing multiple versions of the same video at the iTunes video store, with smaller ones for the 5G iPods, and larger ones for 6G iPods and beyond.
3) Provide software for the consumer to transcode higher bitrate video files to lower bitrates video files for the 5G iPod.
4) Stick with 320x240.

Option #4 could happen, but I just hope not. Option #3 seems unnecessarily complex, and would be very slow too. It's easier just to have the video pre-recorded and ready for download. This brings us to Option #2. This could be doable especially for a short time, during a transition period, but it also seems unnecessarily complex for the average consumer. A variation on Option #2 would be to have iPods remain at 320x240, but have larger videos for computer set top boxes or future Mac mini-like home theatre machines, but that also seems like a fairly cumbersome solution. We're left with Option #1, which would be dependent solely on having new iPod hardware, capable of fast enough decoding to make it work.

It appears that implementing Option #1 would be a ways off yet, since there may be no available chips that are currently both fast enough for higher datarate H.264 decoding, while remaining low power enough to be useful in an iPod. Also, the higher the resolution, the harder the decode, and the longer it would take before such an iPod could be released.

With this and other issues in mind, it seems I may have been too quick to push for 480p material. After looking at the potential internet bandwidth requirements, I think 480p may be probitive, due to cost, storage requirements, and download times. Bandwidth is increasing but the reality for the near and mid-term is that bandwidth will continue to be an issue. Reasonable quality 480p H.264 might take as much as 20 MB per minute of video, and at today's home broadband speeds in North America, that could mean 30-60 minutes of download time for a single TV episode and that's clearly not ideal.

Fortunately, 480x360 video and 480x270 widescreen video actually looks reasonably good on medium-sized screens, if encoded at high enough bitrates. Such video is in the ballpark range of about 8 MB per minute, and full length 1 hour TV episodes would be somewhere in the range of about 350 MB each. (A TV hour is only about 44 minutes. Yes there are that many commercials.) This essentially halves download time compared to 480p, yet still maintains reasonably quality, at a level that is noticeably better than 320x240 (or 320x180) even to the eyes of average customers. Interestingly, the PSP, which Sony is marketing partially as a portable movie device, has a widescreen resolution of 480x272. Obviously Sony feels that the 480xXXX screen size is a good one. Apple wouldn't have to use the same size screen, but could create an iPod that can downsample 480x360 H.264 to the current 320x240 screen size, to maintain the iPod's nice form factor yet give it support for better quality video for TV display. Such files would also look good played back from iTunes directly on the computer's screen. Ironically, before iTunes 6 launched, Apple itself encoded and distributed music videos at 480x360, so it seems that Apple too felt the 480xXXX resolution was the sweet spot. Unfortunately, hardware limitations have Apple's hands tied... for now. (Ironically, the iPod is already able to play back up to 480x480 MPEG4, but Apple seems to have made up its mind not to use MPEG4 for this. The present and the future for Apple is H.264.) Still, I would be overjoyed if Apple could somehow implement a system with 640x480 "fullscreen" and 640x360 (or even 720x480) widescreen standard definition video. 480x360 is a good compromise appropriate for next year, but a maximum 640x480 resolution would be almost ideal from an image quality point of view, other issues notwithstanding. As for high definition, let's not even go there.

How all this pans out in the next year or two will be very interesting. This week's iTunes 6 launch isn't yet the revolution for video, but several of the pieces are now in place, and the revolution may just start soon, with better quality video, better video selection, and a simple download concept to provide reasonable quality video for our computers, for our iPods, and for our TVs. And indeed there is hope. Steve Jobs didn't push this iPod as a video iPod. He pushed it as an iPod which also happens to play video. Perhaps 2006 will see the appearance of a "real" iPod video.

[Update 2005-10-15]

The first comment in response to my article is an interesting one:
Jobs doesn't feel the portable video device has much usefullness or market demand. The new iPod is more of a trojan horse to establish momentum and move the content providers to get into the action. Apple's working with Intel on future technologies so we may see better video quality in future hand helds; but the bigger market is home consumption. "Front Row" is only the first small step. The delivery and processing of HD video is the ultimate target. As Intel moves into the TV chip business we may well see Apple move with them.
I will respond by saying that there are couple of fundamental issues which make video downloads problematic:

1) 99.9% of TVs do not have any sort of computer connected to them
2) Apple's video download service offers no way of burning the content to video DVD.

Most people, like me, hate watching movies and TV shows on their computers. and require the use of a TV for this purpose. Apple has a few options to solve this problem.

1) Create a new set top box that can access content on the iTunes Store. Basically it would be a set top box with recording capabilities for video on demand. However, this is remarkably similar to the boxes already provided by the cable companies.
2) Sell a Mac mini-type computer for use with the TV. The computer could function as sort of a set top box as above, or stream video from a 2nd computer on which the videos are hosted. This would work but would require some sort of network connection. Wireless would be doable, but it would depend upon the size the house, the strength of the wireless signal, and having multiple computers.
3) Sell an iPod which can output higher resolution video.

Options #1 and #2 are in many ways very similar in concept, and just differ in implementation. Option #3 is quite a different beast, but has a lot of potential to move a lot of iPods. If I knew I could buy missed TV show episodes for $2 to play on my TV (which has no computer hooked up to it), I'd be buying quite a few of them, and I would buy a new iPod too, to act as the very convenient and portable source.

However, this requires good video output from the iPod, and 320x240 does not qualify as good, at any bitrate.

There is also another option, a revamped Airport Express that also does video. This seems like the logical progression of Airport, but Apple may wait until 802.11n is available before moving on and selling this. However, when they do release an Airport Video Express, a single file size for video downloads (that worked on the Airport Video Express, computer screens, and the iPod) would still be preferred, since it would mean less confusion for consumers.

[Update 2005-10-16]

I have been told that most digital broadcast video is 352x480 (60 fps interlaced). That's just 2% less pixels displayed per second compared to the 480x360 (30 fps progressive scan) I was advocating, so it sounds like the digital broadcasters think that is the sweet spot too. (FYI: I'm not a video guru, nor do I play one on iTunes TV, but apparently 352 is used because it is a multiple of 16, the size of a single 4x4 macroblock.)

Oh and just one more thing... Ironically, Apple's free H.264 stream of the "One more thing..." keynote is 640x360, three times the resolution of Apple's $1.99 videos on iTunes. :)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Safari is no longer a memory hog

The latest official release version of Safari suffers from memory leak problems, which means that after several hours of surfing, the memory usage of Safari can go up to several hundred megabytes.

However, the Safari team is now releasing binaries of its Webkit nightly builds, and the latest builds seem to have largely fixed the issue. Even after a day of use of the Friday, October 14 Webkit build, the memory usage has stayed within reasonable amounts, mostly in sub-100 MB territory.

The gold-rimmed Webkit icon is rather fetching too. :)

Oh and One more thing... yet again

Apple is getting people together for yet another invitation-only press event next week to announce "Apple’s latest pro innovations". This is only one week after the "One more thing..." event which took place two days ago, where Apple announced new consumer products and services: iMacs, video-capable iPods, and a video download store.

If we don't see new Power Macs (quad G5 that is, with PCIe and DDR2) and PowerBooks, I'll eat my hat. We shall see in a few days, but in the meantime I'm off to look up some hat recipes.

[Update 2005-10-14]

The Apple Store now states the 15" & 17" PowerBooks and all the Power Macs will take 3-5 business days after purchase before they are shipped. Such increases in shipping times for stock configurations of Macs are often a sign of imminent updates.

About this (Quad Power) Mac

Quad G5

I don't know if this is a fake or not. However, even though it would be easy to fake this (especially since it says DDR and not DDR2), I wouldn't be completely surprised if it's a real screen capture either.

We have all been predicting the quad Power Mac for just about forever now. It's about time it finally shows up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

New Apple trailers site - HD galore

Apple is pushing HD H.264 in a big way, and has put up a new QuickTime trailers site with lots of 720p and 1080p HD trailers. It's too bad Apple's new iTunes TV show store however does not even use 480p standard definition video.

iTunes 6 is out, now with TV show downloads

iTunes 6 was released along with new iPods that support video playback. Included in iTunes 6 is support for video purchases, including TV shows. Unfortunately, the selection of TV shows is small, and they are not available in places like Canada. Unfortunately, the videos are only 320x240, which although (barely) acceptable for now, are only about one quarter (or less) of the resolution of 480p DVD quality video. One can only hope that once this technology matures, internet bandwidth increases, and H.264 decoding speeds of the iPod improve, Apple will offer 480p downloads and the selection of available titles will increase.

Also, as expected, iTunes refuses to manage DivX files, but that shouldn't impact most customers. Unlike the past with MP3 music files, these formats of video files are not that important overall to the general paying public.

[Update 2005-10-12]

The biggest size H.264 videos the iPod can decode is 320x240 at 768 Kbps and 30 fps, hence the 320x240 size limit at the iTunes Store. I hate to say it, but I hope Apple decides to orphan these iPods in a year or two, by releasing a new widescreen iPod line that can decode 720x480 H.264 at 2 Mbps and 30 fps (and resize it in realtime to fit-to-screen), along with video content to match.

I just downloaded the Pixar Luxo Jr. short, and although it was watchable, it definitely wasn't pretty at that low resolution on my 20" iMac.

Is this the new iPod video?

I don't know where this originally came from, and I don't know if it's real, but we'll know very soon.

[Update 2005-10-12]

Indeed it is absolutely real. :)

Apple reports stellar quarterly performance, and the stock drops like a rock

Apple yesterday released its 2005 fiscal Q4 and fiscal numbers. Despite the stellar numbers, AAPL dropped like a rock in after hours trading, by almost 11% to US$45.99.

Sales of iPods were up 220% to 6.451 million units since the previous quarter last year, and sales of Macs were up 48% to 1.236 million units. However, the numbers, particularly for the iPod, were evidently simply not good enough for the investors. It seems the street believed the analysts' unrealistic rosy predictions for iPod sales and when those numbers were not met, decided to lock in profits. That is reasonable I suppose though, as gains on AAPL have been astronomical since last year. As they say, buy on rumours and sell on news.

Before the Apple financial conference call, I had made a (somewhat) flippant prediction at Ars Technica of 1234567 Macs and 6543210 iPods sold during the quarter. Ironically, that prediction beat all the analysts. ;) Sometimes it pays not to think too hard. :)

The big news for today however is what's on deck for Apple's One More Thing event, scheduled for 10 am in San Jose. I had predicted new Power Macs and PowerBooks, but just about all the rumour sites now state I am wrong, and this is about iPods. Perhaps, but even if so, we should expect new Power Macs and PowerBooks sometime soon.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Yonah is a power hog?

CNET News has published an article about the power output of Intel's next generation dual-core Yonah chips. It suggests that early predictions of Yonah power utilization as implied by Intel's Thermal Design Power (TDP) values (see diagram) may be somewhat optimistic:
The "T" class of Yonah chips, which are expected to be fitted in most business notebooks, will come with a maximum power consumption of between 25 and 49 watts. Right now, single-core Pentium Ms top out at 27 watts.
If true, that's not entirely unexpected given that these chips have two complete and independent cores, but it is still disappointing. Historically, Apple has preferred CPUs with a max power utilization under 30 Watts. However, the specifications published by CNET indicate that dual-core 2+ GHz Yonah chips are far above that 30 Watt barrier.

It does make one wonder how Apple will deal with this issue. Will Apple will choose to use Intel's fastest and hottest Yonah chips in some PowerBook models, or will Apple choose to use only slower and/or low voltage (LV) chips to save power?

[Update 2005-10-13]

The DigiTimes echoes CNET's article, but goes on to suggest that these numbers are actual TDP values, and not absolute maximum power utilization values. (TDP is a better representation of what would be expected as an effective maximum with real-world software, but it is lower than the absolute maximum power utilization possible, with say a power virus.)