How To Convert Videos To Play On The iPhone

Depending on whose numbers you care to believe, the iPhone—Apple’s new "smartphone"—is either hot (500,000 units sold in the first three days) or really hot (well over a million phones sold in the first week). In comparison, Motorola’s RAZR, the reigning king of handset sales, has sold approximately 6 million handsets since they were introduced in 2004.

But for all the hype that the traditional and live video blogging media (dubbed "eventcasters" by some) generated around the launch, followed by the frustration that some users faced when trying to activate their phones and the additional frustration of using the device on AT&T’s EDGE network, one thing is clear: the iPhone is heavily reliant on H.264 for its video playback and streaming video capabilities.

YouTube has converted a significant portion of its content to H.264, Apple’s codec of choice for iTunes TV shows, movies and music videos. Flash Video is currently not supported on the iPhone, due to a limiting of plug-ins for the iPhone’s integrated Safari browser, which also has the side effect of not allowing any video to play in the browser. Even Apple’s own content must launch an external video player, although some progress has been reported by a new startup named Next3 in forcing Safari to play content within the browser.

So for the rest of us who are interested in playing our videos on the iPhone, what are some of the tricks and tips to getting our videos into the H.264 format at the proper bit rate? This is by no means an exhaustive list, as it has been limited to cross-plaform conversion tools, but should provide a starting point for those interested in converting videos into iPhone formats.

Before you get started, remember the iPhone has several different options for videos that will play on it, one of which is designed to play across AT&T’s 2.5 generation data network, nicknamed EDGE, and another which is designed to play across a WiFi (802.11g) network. The approximately 1Mbps speeds for the WiFi network option are a bit deceiving, as they may not be available on all WiFi networks.

The options actually match those of the most recent iPod Video, which uses H.264 video, up to 1.5Mbps, 640 x 480 pixels, and 30 frames per second with low-complexity AAC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz stereo audio. On the lower end, bandwidths up to 768Kbps, 320 x 240 pixels, and 30 frames per second are also used, known as Baseline Profile up to Level 1.3. Both options can be output with .m4v, .mp4, or .mov extensions.

iTunes. The simplest way is to use iTunes built-in converter. Apple makes it fairly simple to convert videos to play on the Apple TV or iPod, which are also conversions that can be used on the iPhone. Any video that can play in iTunes, then, can be converted to play on the iPhone, and local files can also be synced directly to the iPhone via iTunes sync conduit, making for a fairly easy process. Two downsides: first, iTunes uses a "lowest common denominator" approach, meaning that there are no customized options for encoding into H.264. Also, some users have reported a bug in the most recent version of iTunes that creates video files with no audio, so don’t toss your original video clips until you’ve had a chance to test out the new H.264-compressed video clips.

Handbrake. Handbrake is the next most-popular encoding tool for both Windows and Macintosh platforms, and it’s available in a command-line version for Linux. Handbrake does a lot more than just H.264 conversions, but for purposes of this article, Handbrake would be used to transcode an MPEG-2 transport stream or other non-H.264 formats and codecs into H.264 video files. Speed on the product is quite good, and it has the option of a single-profile conversion (like iTunes) or the ability to customize encoding or profiles and then save the tweaks for future encodings. Handbrake has made a name for itself in DVD-to-iPod conversion, so the extension of Handbrake to the iPhone is one that many users trust.

Cleaner. Autodesk acquired this product several years ago, and it—like the Popwire products acquired by Telestream last year—is a very powerful desktop conversion tool. Cleaner still has one of the most extensive sets of customizable transcoding options I’ve seen, but the options aren’t for the faint of heart. Use a product like Cleaner to get the best possible output for iPhone viewing, but be prepared to spend time creating your customized transcoding option—and to pay a hefty price for the luxury of getting under the hood of today’s most popular codecs.

Squeeze. Sorenson Media, long a player in the video compression market, has one of the better H.264 codec implementations out there. The Sorenson Squeeze Suite 4.5 has watch folders, meaning that any video clip dropped into a particular folder will be automatically converted into the formats of choice (including conversion of a single file into several video formats), although the baseline product is limited to 1,500 encodes per month.

On any of the last three products, the H.264 files output from these products can be added to the iTunes library for uploading to the iPhone. For those choosing to put their iPhone-compliant videos on the web, it’s also helpful to choose hinted streaming to allow the videos to begin playing immediately rather than waiting for the entire cache to fill.

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