Thanks to its bigger screen and landscape orientation, the iPhone is a much better device to watch movies on than any previous version of the iPod.
The iPod, with its vertical, 2.5-inch wide screen, is an OK video platform — even better for shorter videos — but the iPhone and its 3.5-inch screen clearly had good video experience built in from the design stage. Not everything about watching a movie – whether a purchase, rental, or ripped DVD – on the iPhone is perfect, but portable video in your pocket now seems a much more appealing entertainment option.
iPhone Video: To Letterbox or Not to Letteorbx
When you begin watching video on an iPhone, the screen automatically changes to a horizontal orientation. This provides the best display of video, replicating the horizontal format of modern TVs. Generally this works well, but for some movies you’ll have to choose between cutting off the edges of the picture and watching a smaller, letterboxed image. It’s not a terrible choice, but it would be nice if the playback were smart enough not to force viewers to make it.
The choice becomes a little more complicated with movies that benefit from a bigger picture. Intense character-driven dramas don’t lose much from letterboxing, but one of my test movies was Transformers, a movie that surely increases in impact the bigger it gets. In order to see the whole picture and not lose the edges, I chose the letterbox display and its attendant smaller image. This may have dampened the excitement of certain parts of the movie, but seeing the whole picture seemed worth it.
Generally, video looks and sounds great on the iPhone. Of course this is determined, in part, by the encoding of the video, but anything purchased or rented from the iTunes Store ought to be pleasing to all but the very most discerning eye.
Holding the iPhone: Handcramps?
Just like with the iPod, holding the iPhone in your hands long enough to watch a full TV show or movie can be a little taxing. With a long movie, you’ll be holding the iPhone a few inches from your face, and at just the right angle (a little tilt in one direction of the other can make the image too light or too dark), for quite a while. With Transformers, I was clutching and tilting my iPhone for over two hours.
Some iPhone cases try to help with this by including built-in stands. I’m not sure I see the value of this since that assumes that you’re watching the movie in a place with a flat surface. If you’re in such a place, like a home, why not watch the movie on a TV (with adapter cables) or computer?
Best for Travel
It seems to me that the situation most suited to watching video on the iPhone is travel. Bringing a movie or two along with you on your phone for a long bus, plane, or train ride seems like a great way to pass the time.
Despite not yet being a flawless experience, watching video on the iPhone is a substantial upgrade over watching it on the traditional iPod and a great option for travelers.