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Handheld Hollywood

Apple Computer caused a big splash recently by introducing a new iPod that can play videos and by starting to sell videos, as it does songs, at its iTunes Music Store. This new iPod will very quickly become the bestselling handheld video device, mostly because people will buy it mainly for its music capabilities.

But as slick as it is, Apple’s latest baby isn’t the only path to portable digital video available to consumers. Others got there first. All, including the new iPod, suffer from a dearth of legal downloadable content, but that has begun to change as Hollywood and the television networks seem willing, suddenly, to sell individual episodes of television series.

Here’s a quick guide to some leading portable video devices.

Old reliables: All the new video gadgets should be measured against portable DVD players and laptops with DVD drives. The portable players combine relatively large screens with thin, light designs and low prices. The laptops are larger and pricier, but their advantage is that many people carry them anyway for other purposes. And both have a vast library of cheap content to draw from: DVDs. The downside is that you have to lug along a selection of disks.

Portable media centers: These are gadgets that are smaller than a laptop, but larger than an iPod. They use Microsoft software that mimics the nice user interface in its Media Center version of Windows. Leading examples are the Samsung Yepp PMC and the Creative Zen PMC, both of which cost $500, which is more than even the priciest video iPod. They have larger screens than the iPod, but smaller storage capacity. Little legally downloadable content is available for the PMCs, but users can transfer to them TV programs they have recorded on high-end Media Center PCs.

Sony: The new PSP, or PlayStation Portable, from Sony, has a large, bright screen that does a great job showing videos, even though it is primarily a game machine. This slick, black $250 gadget is handsome, but unlike the iPod, it’s too large to carry in a pocket. Also, getting video into the PSP is clumsy and expensive, mainly because it lacks either a hard disk or a standard DVD drive. You have to buy movies on special, small copy-protected disks. And if you want to transfer videos from a computer, you have to buy a high-capacity memory stick.

Archos: This small company has been a pioneer in handheld video and makes several models, in a wide variety of sizes and capacities, that cost from $500 to $800. In general, Archos buyers have been early-adopter techies and videophiles willing to do what it took to collect video clips and move them onto the Archos gadgets. But the company is now going mainstream, through a deal with EchoStar, the satellite TV firm. EchoStar will sell three Archos models, rebranded as PocketDISH players, that can copy and play back TV shows recorded by EchoStar set-top boxes with digital video recorders inside. The PocketDISH players range from $300 to $600.

iRiver: The Korean maker of portable music players has just introduced a tiny video player, smaller but thicker than the video iPod, called the U10. It’s a handsome gadget with a clever user interface: You select functions by pushing on the edges of the screen. But it has a meager storage capacity, only a gigabyte, in a top-of-the-line model that costs $250, just $50 less than a video iPod with a larger screen and 30 times the storage.

Apple: The video iPod, which Apple calls simply the iPod, comes in two models: a $299 version with 30 gigabytes of storage and a $399 model with 60 gigabytes. Like all iPods, it is beautiful, easy to use, and it’s thinner and lighter than the prior generation. Short videos look great on its screen. Apple is selling episodes of two hit TV shows, Desperate Housewives and Lost, for $1.99 each. Again, content for all these gadgets is sparse today. But as the availability of legal video downloads grows, so will the rationale for buying a portable video player.

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