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Does Size Matter?

In a world of home theaters and big screen TVs, mobile video devices are starting to make an impact. Are we ready to embrace small screen TV?

By Sarah Klein

It’s not breaking news that the average American watches a lot of TV. Whether we’re watching on an actual television or streaming online, we spend a good deal of time in front of screens. In May 2008, we spent a whopping 127 hours of our leisure time—that’s almost 32 hours a week—watching TV. Then add on another 26 hours on the Internet, surfing the web, answering emails, and…watching more TV.

At first, some viewers appeared hesitant about the increase of online video availability and weren’t ready to watch their favorite shows and films on the small screen. But as we have slowly become more comfortable viewing movies and regular TV programming on cell phones, MP3 players, and other portable, small-screened gadgets, new opportunities for screen time are popping up all the time.

In July, the New York Times reported that 4.4 million people have a video subscription on their cell phones. This represents only a small fraction of the 217 million Americans carrying cells but these subscribers are racking up some serious screen time, watching on average more than 3 hours a month on screens that are sometimes not even 3 inches wide. A 2007 Nielsen survey found that 19 percent of people are using some sort of personal video device, whether it’s a cell phone, MP3 player, or in-car DVD system.

Many of the most popular devices have a wide range of features. One sleek gadget could be your phone, your web browser, your portable video player, and even your grocery list. Or you could opt for a portable device strictly for watching videos, where you’ll find perks like a (relatively speaking) larger screen and more memory. Opting for a portable video player with slightly smaller storage space can save you some money, and if you use removable memory cards you can still keep a lot of content at your fingertips.

The Best Options for Small Screen Viewing

So what are your choices when it comes to handheld video watching?

With a relatively large screen at 4.3 inches and great video resolution, the Archos 605 WiFi is your best bet if you’re thinking strictly video. Ranging from $210 to $300, it also won’t completely break the bank.

Now with a more affordable price tag, is another great portable device currently on the market, the iPod Touch, dubbed “the funnest iPod ever”. Full of entertaining features, the Touch allows users to not only download and watch thousands of videos from iTunes, but also email and surf the web, as well as download millions of songs and hundreds of games.

Another popular device is the Cowon A3, a video and music player with great audio quality, as well as video and audio recording capabilities. Its smaller and less flashy cousin, the Cowon O2, is more compact and cheaper, but with similar features.

If you don’t need video recording, the easy-to-use Creative Zen Vision W has just as much storage space as the Cowon A3, plus a nicer screen and built-in FM radio, but is a bit on the bulky and heavy side.

The Sony PCP, while it has extensive gaming capabilities, gets decidedly negative reviews as far as watching videos go. The built in Wi-Fi and web browser can’t make up for long load times and expensive memory cards.

Of course, many of these companies also make cheaper, smaller, or not-so-fully equipped video players. Apple has so many versions of its iPods, it’s hard to keep count, and many at lower prices have video capacity—and even tinier screens. Creative similarly has smaller devices that play video, like the ZEN Mozaic and V Plus, which both retail for under $100. Microsoft too has its own “iPod.” called the Zune, which plays both music and video and stores photos.

Will They Catch On?

Devices strictly for playing video got off to a rough start. When Archos launched its first version, the French electronics company sold only 300,000 video players in the first three years. Why so slow? One reason is that watching videos requires attention. Conversely, you can listen to music while doing anything from walking the dog to grocery shopping to mowing the lawn. (Note: Apple sold 400,000 iPods in its first year.)

Lack of quality programming for video players is certainly no longer an issue. To keep up with the masses of consumers now buying iPods, Apple’s music and video store iTunes has grown into a force of download availability, with thousands of full-length movies and TV shows.

Other MP3 players and handheld gadgets are compatible with numerous subscription music and video services, like Rhapsody and RealPlayer. Even some premium television channels like Starz offer subscriptions that allow users to download videos to a portable device. Even the TV revolutionizing TiVo has TiVo to Go, so you can record your favorite shows and then take them on the road.

In the current economy, the video players with price tags well over $300 don’t seem practical and may not gather a strong following. But if your MP3 player or phone happens to play video as well, wouldn’t you want to at least test it out?

Researchers say that more than cost or the availability of quality programming, it may be something inherent in the American way of life that is slowing the small-screen video phenomenon. In Europe and Asia, where many more people take public transit, personal video players abound. The majority of Americans drive to work though, which, needless to say, isn’t very conducive to watching TV.

Many of the first reviews of portable video players, dated from 2004 to 2006, pegged the gadgets as devices bound to waste away collecting dust on the shelves of Best Buys and Circuit Cities around the country. With cell phones and MP3 players equipped for watching videos, users already had the technology they needed. But don’t forget analysts also weren’t sure about the future of the DVD when it first hit the market, and now the VHS is practically extinct. It may still be too early to know for sure, but perhaps the home theater is headed for the same fate.

Sarah Klein is a freelance writer for both print and online media living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured in Health.com, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Scholastic Classroom Magazines. To read more of her work, visit SarahKleinWrites.com.

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