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Video is the new audio for portable players


Portable media players have come a long way since the iPod debuted in October 2001. And the new wave of players arriving in stores this fall have more storage space and larger screens as more video content makes its way into the portable realm.

Apple’s newest player is the iPod Touch, which features a 3.5-inch screen and wireless networking for searching the Web or downloading videos from YouTube. Touch comes in an 8GB version for $299 and a 16GB model for $399. Apple also upgraded the Nano to play video and added a 2-inch screen and up to 8GB of storage space.

Microsoft in November released its Zune follow-up with three new versions of the Zune 2. Its top-of-the line model comes with 80GB of storage space, a 3.2-inch screen and a price of only $249. And SanDisk has its Sansa View player with 16GB of storage space and a 2.4-inch color screen for $199.

NPD Group analyst Ross Rubin said the portable media market is still driven by lower-priced MP3 players with flash memory that target kids listening to music. But the new wave of players, with built-in hard drives and larger screens, are designed for consumers who want the option of watching movies, TV shows or home videos while they’re on the go. “No doubt, video is an emerging area of interest,” said Rubin. “But there has yet to be a real go-to source to get all the studio content and TV shows.”

The list of sites offering downloads includes CinemaNow, MovieLink and , but none has emerged as a major player as downloads still account for less than 1% of total sales.

That fact is reflected in Microsoft’s approach to selling content online for the Zune 2. “Microsoft offers TV shows and movies for Xbox on its Marketplace, but doesn’t offer them in its Zune store,” said Rubin.

But movie studios see portable players as a potential growth area and they’re peaking interest in downloads by embedding them for free on select DVDs. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment last month added a downloadable version of the movie “Live Free or Die Hard” on its two-disc special collector’s edition, and Warner Home Video is making the same offer on its Dec. 11 special edition of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

In both cases, versions are provided for download on a PC and portable player, though “Die Hard” can only be viewed on players like the Zen Portable Media Device from Creative Labs with Play for Sure digital rights management (DRM). Players not on the Play for Sure list include all Zune and Apple media players, which leaves millions of consumers out of the loop.

Rubin says the lack of a one-size-fits-all version of DRM is a stumbling block for studios looking to expand viewing of content on portable players. “There hasn’t been anything that crosses the entire gamut of different DRM schemes,” he said. But the industry is expected to create a universal system soon, especially if watching movies on portable players begins to catch on.

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