What would you normally do to watch a video while you’re on the move, just whip out a PMP or your multimedia phone and start watching? It wasn’t that simple about a decade or so ago, though. Options were few and far between – beginning with portable DVD players (PDPs) and only much later branching out to portable media players (PMPs), mobile phones and tablets. Let’s go back in time and figure out why we should be thanking our stars for all the transitions that have taken place.

Devices and Technologies
The portable video trend entered its infancy stage when Portable DVD Players launched back in 1998. Panasonic and Philips came out with various PDPs and their screen sizes ranged from 7-inches to 12-inches. Although still in production, these players are not really sought after thanks to their weight, bulk and an otherwise average video quality, even if LCD and LED screens are the norm now. Video players started becoming more portable some years later with Archos’ Jukebox Multimedia in 2002 and Apple’s 5th generation iPod (aka iPod Video) in 2005. Optical media was replaced by in-built memory, with storage space increasing by 10 times and more.

The first ever PMP

The first ever PMP

Archos’ Jukebox Multimedia is considered the first ever PMP, because it played both audio and video. The player had a 1.5-inch LCD screen and came in 10 GB and 20 GB variants. Its primary interface was the now-outdated USB 1.1 technology and some serious refinement only came around in 2005, when Apple launched the fifth generation iPod, which was also called the iPod Video. The player had a 2.5-inch 320×240 QVGA screen and came in capacities of 30 and 60 GB. An update in 2006 upgraded the capacity to 80 GB and a firmware upgrade allowed iPod games for the device.

The PMP scenario has just gone uphill ever since. Of late, the maximum storage capacity has gone all the way up to the 120 and the 160 GB that the iPod Classic and Cowon X7 boast of. The iPod Touch has a 3.5-inch screen and the fourth generation of the device even has a Retina Display that bumps the resolution up to of 960 x 640 pixels. It is worth mentioning that audio formats have also undergone some noticeable changes that have made watching movies and music videos a lot better.

The iPod Video brought about a revolution

The iPod Video brought about a revolution

The display screens for mobile phones have undergone quite a few changes as well. One of the earliest multimedia phones that many of us have fond memories of, the Nokia 6600 which showed up in the early 2000s, had a 2.1-inch TFT screen. The phones have since moved onto LCD, OLED and Super AMOLED screens with sizes of around 4-inches, something like what we have seen on the Samsung Galaxy S. In other words, the screen sizes and technologies in mobile phones have improved in terms of viewing and ease of use.

If 4-inch screen sizes are still not enough for you, take a look at the tablet. These devices are the closest when it comes to portable gadgets that can churn out some good quality video. While Apple’s iPad has a 9.7-inch IPS screen with a 1024 x 768 resolution, Notion Ink’s Adam has a 1024 x 600 pixel 10.1-inch Transflective display. There’s a big likelihood that tablets are going to be the gadgets for portable videos in the future.

Nokia 6600 - 3GP ahoy!

Nokia 6600 – 3GP ahoy!

Well, displays and devices are not the only things that have evolved, though. The videos themselves have undergone transformations too, even if they aren’t as drastic. Let’s have a look.

Formats and Resolutions
Before we begin, we’d like to explain why the formats and resolutions videos are encoded in are important. While the smaller screens of portable devices compared to PC Monitors or TVs mean we can get away with slightly lower quality and resolutions, their impact themselves cannot be understated. The smaller screens actually give us opportunities to view video in high quality, even if the source itself isn’t, because of one simple reason – videos look better if they’re higher in resolution than the screen they’re played on. So if a device supports a video resolution that’s higher than its screen resolution, that’s a good sign.

Let’s take for example an 848×480 screen- it has the capacity to display 407040 pixels at any given point (simple multiplication). If a device with such a screen has the ability to play a 720p (1280×720) video, which will have 921600 pixels, that means it will be downscaling the 921600 pixels to fit a 407040 pixel screen, which will avoid pixelation and lead to an increase in quality. It works on the same principle as image resizing – a 1280×720 image resized to 848×480 will look better than an 848×480 image or a 640×360 image resized to 848×480. While the difference isn’t huge, it definitely exists.

The 4th Generation iPod Touch

The 4th Generation iPod Touch

We’ve already explained why H264 is awesome, so any portable device that supports the video format is headed in the right direction. The quality-for-filesize ratio of H264 is much higher than other formats, which is even more important for portable devices than PCs, because of their limited storage. Of course, support for various other formats is important too, just so users have a choice. Anyway, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on.

Considering the fact that the first portable video players were PDPs, the format in which videos were encoded was the same as any other DVD, i.e MPEG2 or H263 as it is otherwise known. Even though their screen sizes varied from 7 to 12-inches, a major complaint against these players was that the video quality got worse the closer you got to the screen. This happened simply because the low resolution the videos were displayed in – even now, the current industry standard for PDP screen resolution is only a meager 480×234, so you can imagine how bad it must’ve been more than a decade ago. Especially when you consider that the video codec used was MPEG2, which wasn’t really the best codec in terms of quality even in that era. So while PDPs were a great technological advancement for their times, their specs – and therefore quality – are nothing to write home about.

The Galaxy S - awesome video playback in a smartphone

The Galaxy S – awesome video playback in a smartphone

There has been a much more visible improvement in the PMP arena though. What started off with DivX, XviD and MPEG4 (Simple Profile only though) at 352×288 in AVI on the Archos Jukebox Multimedia has now evolved into 1280×720 H264 support on the 4th Generation iPod Touch. That’s not all, Cowon’s upcoming PMP, Cowon 3D will even support 1080p video playback in stereoscopic 3D!

Mobile phones are now starting to catch up to that standard, even though started at a much lower level. 3GP files at a resolution of 320×240 were all the rage years ago, and if you’ve ever tried playing them on your computer or just on a larger screen, you would’ve noticed how low the quality was. Phones now are almost level with PMPs though, as the recent smartphones support most popular codecs and containers. Take for example the Galaxy S, which supports 720p mpeg4, H.264, H.263, Sorenson codec, DivX HD/ XviD, VC-1 videos in the 3GP (MPEG-4), WMV (Advanced Systems Format), AVI (divx), MKV, FLV containers.

Motorola's Xooming ahead video-wise

Motorola's Xooming ahead video-wise

Tablets are all the rage now, with everyone and their mothers clamouring to release one this year. These devices are great for video playback because of their larger screens in comparison to PMPs and Smartphones. Take the upcoming Motorola Xoom for example, which will have a 10.1-inch screen and support 720p video playback. It will also support all the popular formats, so your bases are covered. Just imagine walking around with that device or whipping it out when on the bus to watch your favourite TV show in high quality – now that’s what we’re talking about!

Closing Comments
It really is amazing how many technological advancements us humans make. And it is so like us to lose sight of all we’ve done, unless we turn around and take a look back. Portable video really has come a long way from when it was a pipe dream or a twinkle in someone’s eye, to actually being possible and in high quality even.

Where do we go from here? Well, the obvious first step is to make products that don’t need video to be converted so that they can be played on the devices. We’re already seeing that in some devices, but it needs to be more widespread. Manufacturers have nearly caught up to the High-definition trend and now with 3D being the new hot word among companies, it wouldn’t be farfetched to see it happening and soon. Cowon’s upcoming Cowon 3D PMP and Nintendo’s 3DS handheld gaming console are going to support playback of 3D videos as will LG’s G-Slate tablet, if rumours are to be believed.

We’ll just have to wait and watch. Watch our videos on-the-go, that is.

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