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Ask the MACist

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Thanks to all of you who submitted questions. Your enthusiasm for this column is much appreciated. Obviously, there are a few Mac users out there. If you don't see your question answered this time, don’t worry. Just keep sending in questions. You never know, you might get your question answered next week. So, keep trying. Ok, here we go:

The first question is from Ying Lee in Hollywood. He asks, "What is a good web cam to get for my iMac and within a reasonable budget (not the $150 iSight cameras!).

Sad to say but the state of web cams for the Mac is pretty poor. There are very few options these days unless, of course, you want to use Apple’s iSight. Now that Apple has started including iSight cameras in its iMacs, Mac Books and Mac Book Pros, the need for third-party web cams on the Mac has dwindled almost to nothing.

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However, there is at least one company still making a web cam for the Mac, Macally. They sell a camera called the iceCam. This camera is small and light and does a pretty good job. All you need is a free usb port for the camera to plug into and you’re on your way.

There are a few other possibilities out there but they require some work on the part of the user. For example, some Logitech webcams, such as the QuickCam STX or the QuickCam Pro 4000 can work with a Mac, provided you install a set of third-party drivers. However, as these cameras are not made specifically for the Mac and are not supported, according to Logitech, your mileage may vary.

But, if you want to try it, the drivers are called maccam and you can get them here. Keep in mind that these drivrs are not made by Apple and not supported by Apple or Logitech so use them at your own risk.

Plus, there's always eBay. With more and more Macs including built-in cameras, people are getting rid of their external iSight cameras. I found at least ten during a recent search so you could probably find one too. If so, the iSight is really the best camera for your Mac. Not just because Apple makes it so it just works but also because it’s a really good camera. One of the best made for any computer, Mac or PC. So, you might want to take a look at eBay, just in case.

The second question comes from Tony Mark in Studio City. He asks "I have an iPod and also a PSP, what's the best way to get video on them so I can watch stuff on the road?"

First, let me say that any discussion of putting video on an iPod, PSP or similar device may include details on taking video from commercially available DVD's (the ones you buy at Wal Mart or whatever) and converting it for use on those devices. This action (aka "ripping" video) is currently considered a violation of Federal Law under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA for short) and could land you in jail.

That said, I am presenting this for informational purposes only and if you do decide to rip video from a DVD you got at Wal Mart, you do so at your own risk. There, now that the LAist legal team is happy, let's move on.

The video-capable iPod and the PSP opened up a lot of possibilities for those who like to take their video on the road, to school or to their local coffee house. Not to get too technical here but for the sake of background, here it is: Both the iPod and the PSP only play H.264/MPEG-4 encoded video with AAC audio tracks and not much else. Within that, there are limits to the resolution and bit rate of the video files you can use on each device.

For the iPod, you are limited to a display of 320 x 240 but the iPod supports video up to 640 x 480. However, if you have video that is encoded for 640 x 480, it will still be 320 x 240 if you play it back on the iPod’s built-in screen. You can also play video out of your iPod and onto your television if you have the proper cables, such as these, from Apple. If you do that, you can play the video at 640 x 480 resolution.

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As of a few days ago, video purchased from the iTunes store is available at 640 x 480 resolution so it seems Apple might be heading in the direction of much higher resolution. They may even go to High Def someday. Maybe even next year sometime. But for now, this is what you can play on the iPod.

For the PSP, you can get slightly better resolution as the PSP actually supports three different ones. They are 320x240, 368x208, 400x192. Mostly, however, you will probably end up encoding the video to the same resolution you would for your iPod, 320 x 240, just to make things easier and allow you to go back and forth between devices. Also, encoding the video just once at 320 x 240 will also save space on your hard drive, as you won’t have to have multiple copies of a video in multiple resolutions.

This may all sound complicated and it could be. Fortunately, the software I am going to talk about here takes factors such as video resolution, audio format and many other things into account and ends up making it very easy to get video on your devices. These three pieces of software are: Apple's Quicktime, iSquint and Handbrake.

First, Apple's Quicktime software. Quicktime forms the basis for most media playback on the Mac and ships with every Mac sold. Unfortunately, to use Quicktime to encode video for your iPod, you need to spend $29.99 for the “Pro” version. Once you have Quicktime Pro, you can then open up the piece of video you want to convert for your iPod and select the ‘Export to iPod” command. In a few minutes (or more) you will have a nice H.264 video file that can play on your iPod. Amazingly, it should also now play on your PSP as well.

One quick thing before I go on to the next tools. Both of the next tools are what is considered Beta software. Even though they are very stable and have worked very well for me and countless others without issues, as always you should be careful when installing and using any Beta software. With any Beta software, bad things can happen so use these tools at your own risk. Ok, glad that's over. Moving on.

The next piece of software is called iSquint. iSquint’s developer touts it as better than Quick Time Pro and it might be. The one major thing iSquint has going for it over Quicktime Pro is that it’s free. So, that alone makes it a better choice. It also has a few more advanced features but really, all you have to do is select the kind of device you want to convert your video for: iPod or PSP and click a button. iSquint does the rest. It’s also a universal application so it will run pretty fast on non-Intel Macs but it will run very fast on Intel Macs.

The third piece of software is called Handbrake. Handbrake is like the previous two pieces of software but it does one more thing that could be very important to you. Handbrake can rip video files off of a DVD and convert them for playback on your iPod or PSP. Quicktime Pro and iSquint will convert video for your iPod or PSP that you already have on your computer. Videos that you downloaded from YouTube or Google Video, for example. Or, got from some other online source.

Handbrake will do all of the conversions for you as well. But, if you happen to have a DVD copy of “Pirate’s of the Caribbean” around and you want to watch it on your iPod during your trip to Cleveland and you don’t want to buy it from iTunes because you already bought it on DVD, then Handbrake will be your tool of choice. Try it, you'll like it.

About Chris Ullrich (aka the MACist): Chris is a frequent contributor to LAist as well as other publications and also tweaks Macs (and PCs) for clients in the Entertainment Industry.

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