[Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to welcome Frank Catalano, a veteran of the Pacific Northwest technology scene, as a GeekWire columnist. His new “Practical Nerd” column will appear regularly.]

Frank Catalano

If you want evidence of how single-purpose gadgets are converging on sleek tablet form, you need look no further than the lowly airline in-flight entertainment device.

Last week, Alaska Airlines announced its new digEplayer. I had the opportunity to use the new model on two five-hour flights between Los Angeles and Washington DC.

The digEplayer, when it was originally introduced in 2003, was revolutionary for in-flight entertainment. Until that point, airlines had to wire relatively heavy and expensive dedicated systems into aircraft seatbacks to provide movie (and sometimes other entertainment) choices to passengers. The first digEplayer, the model 5500 – developed by Alaska Airlines’ baggage handler Bill Boyer – had a roughly six-hour battery life, a boxy-thick early DVD player design, and was, marvelously, hand-held. If you had hands like the Hulk.

I was impressed enough to give it my Critic’s Pick as “Best Post-Bust Tech Startup” in Seattle Weekly’s Best of Seattle 2004, describing it as a “trade-paperback sized gadget … with a large hard disk, color LCD screen and built-in stand.” Yet the concept of a handheld digital video-on-demand device was still so foreign at the time that flight attendants took to describing it to passengers as a kind of DVD player.

Back then, the digEplayer 5500 was 2.4 pounds, held ten movies, three TV shows and several hours of music. And it cost $10 for a cross-country flight.

Eight years later, Alaska Airlines’ new digEplayer L7 is so light that parent company digEcor’s website doesn’t even list a weight, and on my flights last week it held 18 movies, 18 television shows, eleven sports programs (video and audio), 25 music videos, ten games, eight kids’ cartoons and a fully functional web browser with WiFi. Its battery life is 20 hours. And in an iPad-saturated world, flight attendants didn’t have to explain what it is.

So is it worth shelling out a similarly advanced price of $14 for a transcontinental flight?

The answer is a qualified yes. Both the current and original digEplayers have seven-inch screens (a model that Alaska used more recently, the XT,  had an eight-inch screen), but this digEplayer has a touch screen and a much smaller, well, handprint — that is, the device is both smaller and thinner than its predecessors. It also has, aside from the greatly expanded content and web browser, a great display and good sound (with two headset jacks for sharing). It also probably gets current movies faster than they’d be available on iTunes, Amazon or Netflix.

But there are a handful (sorry) of drawbacks. All content navigation uses the same, increasingly tired, “cover flow” metaphor — there is no “list” option to avoid having to flip through multiple screens to see all the choices. The touch controls are nice, but imprecise when doing fine tasks like adjusting volume with the on-screen slider. Inexplicably, audio-only music has completely disappeared from the entertainment selections.  Audio channels for classical, alternative or a half-dozen other genres are gone. The only music that remains is in the form of music videos.

For the music, all I can imagine is that someone at Alaska Airlines decided that everyone already owns an iPod or iPhone-like device, so including music was no longer necessary. But, if they do and they travel with their device, renting a digEplayer is likely also unnecessary. Recent models also play video.  Dropping music was a poor decision for those of us who travel with as few devices as possible, or prefer variety on long flights.

The other major digE-pointment is the web browser and service. While the browser itself works well,  there is an additional charge for Internet service from Gogo. On cross-country flights, that rivals the digEplayer rental fee. It seems Alaska or Gogo could at least promotionally bundle the first hour of web access with the digEplayer rental.  And the digEplayer’s virtual keyboard is oddly crippled. During a Gogo promo in which Twitter was free, I was surprised to neither find an apostrophe or hashtag, making my in-flight tweets both illiterate and isolated in the Twitterverse. (@digEplayer did respond to my childlike tweets that both keys are being added in a future software upgrade.)

The new digEplayer is worth the rental if you want a wide variety of video/web options and don’t already  travel with an iPad, laptop or other device that has both long battery life and lots of pre-loaded digital entertainment. Ultimately, the new digEplayer is a tablet computer, sporting many of its advances. But it’s also increasingly at risk of being made obsolete by the very technology it embraces.

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  • Guest

    Frank, we’re not really part of the target audience for these digEplayers. I’ve found that on flights that neither originate nor terminate in Seattle, most persons are what we call Passive Media Consumers, or PMCs. Unlike you or I, a PMC wants to watch some video, drink some of what airlines consider “alcohol,” and tend to his kids’ desires to do the same.

    You and I are Active Media Consumers, or AMCs. We not only tweet, we hashtag so as to integrate our thoughts with the statusphere even high up in the atmosphere. (That rhymes!) AMCs understand that PMCs depend on us to provide information that they can consume in a very passive manner.

    In conclusion, Frank, let the PMCs enjoy their digEplayers. AMCs know what we want and we know how to get it. No airline needs to stand between us and our content.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      Even I like to go into PMC mode from time to time, and it’s wearing that hat that I note the lack of audio-only music on the latest digEplayer model. Which, by the way, is odd, since digEcor’s own site trumpets its audio music capacity and capabilities.

      But you’re right: tweeting with all the clicks and chirps (a.k.a. bells and whistles) isn’t being a PMC, necessarily. Still, I’m pleased digEcor plans to add the extra virtual keyboard functionality soon.

  • Isaac Alexander

    Thank you Frank for choosing to share your stories on Geekwire.
    Question Frank, do you see airlines choosing to go with Kindles in airplanes?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      Isaac, what I see is airlines trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible with their added-fee services. And unfortunately, casual reading on a single-purpose device doesn’t quite fit that bill (even though I do travel with a Kindle, and I do read for pleasure).

      Might they offer a digEplayer with a Kindle reader app so Kindle store customers can access their books? Possible, if such an app existed, and personally I’d like that. But I don’t see Kindles making the cut as a standalone device.

  • Isaac Alexander

    Thank you Frank for choosing to share your stories on Geekwire.
    Question Frank, do you see airlines choosing to go with Kindles in airplanes?

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

    Alaska Airlines’ Chase Craig, digEplayer marketing manager, kindly dropped me a note to offer a few explanations.

    On software upgrades: Both software and content will be updated monthly. A new web browser should be out in May, and will include better navigation buttons and a virtual keyboard with additional characters (the Shift key toggles from numbers to characters).

    On Gogo Internet pricing: “Until today, the wrong price from gogo was presented on the L7. Gogo service provider, Aircell, has corrected this. On Alaska Airlines, gogo on the L7 is priced just as a customer’s mobile device on flights longer than 3 hours would be — $7.95 per flight.”

    On music: “This is a tough one for the reasons you point out, but we have seven years of music viewing data on the previous digEplayers showing music’s popularity decreased over time, and it certainly is not as popular as more/better first-run movies. Again we will monitor customer feedback and alter our approach if necessary.”

    Craig wraps up by pointing out, appropriately, that, “At the end of the day, Alaska’s digEplayers are designed more for the leisure traveler who simply wants some entertainment for themselves, their kids, etc. than for ‘geeks.’ It is very difficult for an airline-provided device to meet the high expectations of someone’s own personal device, certainly not at an affordable price. Hardcore Gogo users will use their own device because they can get their own email, VPN, etc. on it which you cannot do on the L7. So in that sense, Gogo is a nice add-on for those that really want it for leisure purposes such as Facebook which worked well for me today. The L7 is a nice upgrade for customers and flight attendants and puts more choice in the customer’s hands.”

    I can’t disagree with Craig’s conclusion. And if I had to add an obvious coda to my own, it would be that that the digEplayer is, “increasingly at risk of being made obsolete by the very technology it embraces — and may already be so, for die-hard nerds.” For everyone else, and for nerds who don’t travel with the right device, it’s a worthwhile upgrade, with a few caveats.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      For those reading this later: Audio music channels are back on the digEplayer, effective apparently October 2011.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      For those reading this later: Audio music channels are back on the digEplayer, effective apparently October 2011.

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