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Producing for iTunes Distribution

Table 1. Relevant configuration options for Apple devices from specs on www.apple.com.

Table 1. Relevant configuration options for Apple devices from specs on www.apple.com.

Producing video for iTunes used to be simple: All devices had a 320x240 resolution display and could accept a maximum size of 320x240 when encoding with H.264 video. Back in the early days of iTunes, most video was 4:3, so the round peg easily fit into the round hole.

Then, round about the iPod 5G (fifth generation), Apple boosted device power to play 640x480 resolution video, though the screen was still 320x240. Some models had external video ports, and certainly video produced at 640x480 looked better when viewed on TV sets, but the penetration of pre-5G models convinced most producers to stay at 320x240 because the 640x480 video wouldn't load or play on older devices.

Then came the iPod Touch and iPhone, and things started getting hinky. Most producers started shooting in widescreen, and 16:9 video looked great on the 480x270 screen featured on these new devices. However, video produced at 480x270 (or 640x360) wouldn't play on pre-5G devices, and the 320x240 4:3 display would show the center portion of the video by default, cutting off the edges (known as center-cut viewing), or you could opt for letterboxing, which inserted black bars on the top and bottom of the video, and made what was left really, really tiny. Then came the iPad, in its 1024x768 4:3 glory and the new iPhone 4 and iPod touch with the fabulous 960x640 16:9-ish Retina display. Gotta love those Apple marketing folks; it's an awesome term.

What's a producer distributing on iTunes to do? Well, that's what I aimed to figure out when I started downloading files from well-known producers on iTunes and analyzing their encodes. And that's what I'll be sharing in this episode of Final Cut Pro Insider. Next time out, I'll review device presets in Apple Compressor and apply what we learn to the presets in other Mac encoding programs including Sorenson Squeeze and Telestream Episode.

Spec overview


Let's take a quick look at the specs for all relevant devices, as compiled in Table 1. To be clear, Screen res is the resolution of the screen on the device, while Resolution is the specified maximum playback resolution of the device. These are all derived from the excellent spec sheets that Apple makes available whenever it ships a new device.

A quick scan of the specs lead to multiple questions that will serve as the focus of this column. Specifically, these include:

  • Should you abandon the pre-5G iPods and forget about 320x240?
  • Should you produce at 720p and forget the small screens?
  • Should you produce at 640x480 or 640x360 and leave it at that?
  • Should you produce at multiple resolutions, and if so, how should you present them?

As always, the best source of direction is to poll current iTunes producers and see what they are doing. So, I spent a few hours downloading podcasts from iTunes (all free, by the way), ultimately accumulating 47 that served as the sample for this exercise. I tried to grab videos from high-profile sites like the three-letter networks and a sprinkling of videos from a broad base of interests and industries, including Barack Obama's site and the "X-Play Daily Video" broadcast. I simply couldn't resist downloading "Sex Cred with Doctor Ruth," but I promise not to include any screen shots.

For all producers that I found, once I downloaded a single file, I searched to see if there were other files at different resolutions. Here's what I found.

Figure 1. Oprah presented her large and small files in the same channel.

Figure 1. Oprah presented her large and small files in the same channel.

Should you abandon 320x240?


Of the 47 files that I downloaded, nine were 320x240 or smaller, including one at 320x176 and several others at 320x180. These videos included files from Dr. Ruth, President Obama, CNET, Revision 3 (Tekzilla), CBS, CNBC, CNN and Oprah. Three of these sites included higher resolution versions, including CBS at 384x216, CNET at 720p, Revision 3 at 640x360 and 720p, and Oprah at 640x360. Doing the math, that means that six of these sites, including CNN and CNBC, did not offer higher resolution versions of these shows, though CNBC offered higher resolution versions of other shows.

Clearly, if you're shooting for the broadest possible audience, you shouldn't ignore the pre-5G devices.

Should you produce at 720p and forget the small screens?


This one is easy. Of the 11 sites that uploaded files at 720p, 10 also uploaded an alternative, lower quality file, and the 12th was Revision 3's HD Nation, which discusses only HD-related topics. Of these 10, six produced their alternative files at 640x480/640x360, one at 480x270, one at 320x240, and "Tekzilla" at both 320x180 and 640x360. Another site produced their "small" file at 720p, but at a lower data rate, which makes no real sense because that doesn't deliver compatibility with any additional devices. If you're going to produce two files, it makes the most sense to target the files towards different devices.

Should you produce at 640x480 or 640x360 and leave it at that?


Eighteen producers uploaded files at one of these two resolutions, of which nine also uploaded a smaller and/or larger file. Of these, six uploaded a 720p file, one a 320x180 file, one a 480x270 file, and "Tekzilla" again at both 320x180 and 720p.

Should you produce at multiple file sizes?


Twelve producers supplied files of the same show at multiple sizes — including Oprah, CNET and Revision 3 — and many smaller producers such as London Landscape TV, Finding America, Dive Film, Jokes.com and Sanctuary did the same. Other producers, such as CBS and CNBC, offered different shows at different parameters. For example, CBS uploaded "The Evening News" at 384x216 while producing "Katie Couric's Notebook" at 320x240. CNBC produced its news shows at 320x240, and "Mad Money with Jim Cramer" and "The Suze Orman Show" at 640x360. As mentioned, Revision 3 produced some shows at three different resolutions.

Presentation of these multiple files occurred in different ways. For example, Oprah mixed sizes within a channel, so you could choose which size to download (Figure 1).

Figure 2. Revision 3 created size-specific channels for the same show.

Figure 2. Revision 3 created size-specific channels for the same show.

The other approach, used by Revision 3's "Tekzilla," was to create size-specific channels, as shown in Figure 2. I like Revision 3's approach, primarily because iTunes often blocks the right side of the text description, so if there's a long description, it would be tough to tell which file is large and which is small.

It's tough to be against Oprah, though, so if you want to present all sizes in a single channel, that approach has obvious credibility as well.

OK, that's it. By now you should know how you want to configure the video files that you want to upload to iTunes. Next time out, we'll discuss more detailed issues such as data rate, H.264 profiles and audio parameters.