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Originally published Friday, July 2, 2010 at 12:00 PM

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Streaming options for music, video need not be space hogs

It's inevitable that, as the amount of storage in our personal electronic devices increases, we find more and larger content to fill them up.

Special to The Seattle Times

It's inevitable that, as the amount of storage in our personal electronic devices increases, we find more and larger content to fill them up. An iPad with 16 GB of memory sounds like a lot until you try to sync a good portion of your music and video library to it, or choose to rent HD movies (which weigh anywhere from 1 GB to 5 GB) from the iTunes Store.

There are ways to get around space limitations, like setting up smart albums in iTunes for syncing, but that takes advanced planning. I also don't want to use up valuable storage in case I feel like watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark" while relaxing on the couch.

I had hoped the iPad, advertised as a great way to consume media like this, would pick up the Apple TV's great ability to stream video or audio from any computer in the house without first copying it to the device. Alas, no luck.

Fortunately for my lazy self, other developers have delivered exactly that capability.

AirVideo, StreamToMe (www.inmethod.com/, projectswithlove.com, each $2.99): These are apps you can purchase and run on the iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.

Both apps are universal, which means the same app runs fine on the iPad as well as on the iPhone or iPod touch. You don't need to buy separate versions for the iOS platforms if you own more than one device.

You also download free server software from the developer and install it on a Mac or Windows PC that has the content you wish to share. Point the server software at the directory on the computer's hard drive that contains your media files; StreamToMe automatically includes the Movies folder (in your Home directory) as well as the iTunes library.

Neither program can play protected media, such as movies you buy from the iTunes Store, or movies that offer a digital edition when you buy the DVD (which often just triggers a free download from iTunes).

In my case, I've been steadily digitizing my library of DVD movies using the excellent HandBrake (handbrake.fr, free). It's not a large library, but the discs have spent most of the past several years in a drawer or a box because of the hassle to locate the disc and play it either in the DVD player attached to our TV or on a computer.

With AirVideo or StreamToMe, I don't have to store the movie files on the iPad at all. As long as I'm on the same wireless network as the server, I can stream a movie.

StreamToMe also supports streaming audio, so I can listen to music that isn't synced to my iPhone.

Video quality is great. I rarely notice I'm watching a live video feed. Both server applications are also capable of converting video on the fly for movie files that aren't natively supported by formats built into the iOS.

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Another benefit is I don't need to encode separate versions of a movie to run on an iPad and the iPhone. The software scales the images as needed, so I just digitize the movies using HandBrake's "Apple TV" preset.

Netflix (www.netflix.com): Another option for watching streaming video is the Netflix app. If you're a Netflix subscriber, you get unlimited free streaming of movies available in the company's Watch Now selection. Netflix is available free for the iPad, and has announced an upcoming iPhone version.

The danger with Netflix (and other streaming sources, such as the ABC Player app) can be the data consumption: you're better off watching a movie when connected to a Wi-Fi network than over the cellular network.

When I received my 3G iPad, I turned off Wi-Fi so I could get a sense of how long it would take to use up my bandwidth allocation ($15 for 200 MB). I burned through my data allocation for the month in just over an hour of video.

If you have an Unlimited data plan that was grandfathered (AT&T's Unlimited plan went away in June, but existing subscribers could keep it if they remained on the plan), you can pretty much consume whatever you want, wherever you are.

I used to think watching video on an iPhone or iPad was really suited to frequent travelers, but now, thanks to streaming options, my definition of "travel" often includes the distance between my home office and the living-room couch or my bed.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/

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