iPod Video

August 24, 2007

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Features:

  1. Up to 20 hours of battery life refers to 80GB model and music playback.
  2. 1GB = 1 billion bytes; actual formatted capacity less.
  3. Video capacity refers to 80GB model and is based on H.264 1.5-Mbps video at 640-by-480 resolution combined with 128-Kbps audio; actual capacity varies by content.
  4. Photo capacity is based on iPod-viewable photos transferred from iTunes.
  5. 20,000 songs refers to 80GB model at 4 minutes per song using 128-Kbps AAC encoding; actual capacity varies by content.

Introduction

iPod Video, or “the wide iPod” as Apple CEO Steve Jobs calls it, is the fifth generation of full-size iPods, introduced four years after the original 5GB iPod that started it all. iPod evolved from a simple, yet elegant, music player to a combination music player, voice recorder, and photo viewer, and now to a music, photo and video playback device. With 25 iPod variants to date, Apple’s iPod team has had a lot of opportunity to refine the iPod experience. While the latest iPod has a few weird quirks, its new video features are remarkably well thought out, and it continues to refine existing features.

Along with the latest iPod, Apple began selling downloadable videos through the iTunes Music Store, reprising its revolutionary digital music initiative in a new medium.

Delivering more features at the same price point, iPod will continue to sell well on its traditional merits while positioning itself well against feature-rich competitors.

The Package

Apple’s trend to more compact packaging continues. The original iPod shipped in a 6″ cube box; you removed the box from its sleeve, then unfolded it like a flower. Our 60 GB iPod Video arrived in an attractive flat, square box, matte black with embossed silver Apple logo and text – which we found remarkably difficult to get into. This presaged a tricky box-opening experience in which style utterly defeated substance.

We eventually figured out that the visible box was a sleeve with one end open (like a DVD box set), and with much shaking and pulling, managed to extract the inner box. The stylish matte black and precise fit make it hard to extract. The inner box opens in half – one side containing the iPod, and the other a solid black monolith – but where were the cables?

The top edge of the box is marked with small, unobtrusive symbols for CD, USB and headphones, tipping us off that it was a box flap. We opened it and extracted a white plastic envelope containing a CD, a tiny “Quick Start Guide” and copious copyright statements, a pale grey protective sleeve for iPod, and what for all the world looked like an Apple-white package of instant oatmeal.

The oatmeal package, divided into two halves, contained a USB adapter cable and iPod’s iconic earbuds. Too tough to rip open, we fetched a sharp knife and carefully made a slit. Care is strongly advised, even with scissors – the earbuds are a tight fit, and it would be all too easy to damage their thin cables while trying to get in. The USB cable is only slightly more robust.

Having owned a series of white iPods, we ordered a black one for a change of pace. (We understand that black iPod Nanos outsell their white brethren, so perhaps we aren’t unusual. The new white iPod is as elegant as ever.) Like the black iPod Nano it is absolutely stunning.

Aesthetics

Companies who have achieved product greatness change it at their own risk, yet if they don’t, somebody else will eclipse them. iPod has become an iconic brand, and like the KitchenAid mixer, Log Cabin syrup, and the Audi TT sports coupe, it is changed at the maker’s peril.

iPod has almost always felt perfectly proportioned. In size, it is compact enough to rest in the hand, yet large and heavy enough to provide a stable platform for the controls. (iPod nano actually suffers for its lightness; we find that we must use a finger to hold it steady.) But there are other, more subtle factors at play. The original iPod’s display was the exact same width as the scroll wheel (and later, touch wheel). The surrounding “compass rose” buttons extended closer to the sides, but were the same distance from the edge as the display was from the top. Later iPods lost the surrounding buttons (briefly in favor of the terrible four touch-buttons between touch-wheel and display – cool to look at, not to use). The touch-wheel remained sized with the display, and rounded edges kept it visually well spaced, while functionally unchanged.

The 2G (2nd generation) 20 GB iPod was the heaviest, thickest iPod ever made, and never felt quite right (though we’ve had three years of reliable service from ours); the 4G 60 GB was almost as thick. The latest 5G 60 GB iPod is thinner than the 4G 20 GB iPod – previously the slimmest of the white iPods – and the new 30 GB is slimmer still.

We were a bit concerned that the larger display of the 5th generation iPod would ruin iPod’s proportions. It does indeed change them; the large display dominates. When the screen is off, on previous iPods our eyes are drawn to the controls, while on the new one, are attention is split between controls and display. Place old and new iPods side by side, though, and the previously perfectly-sized iPod display looks tiny. In use, the huge display at first looks too large for the text, but it quickly becomes normal and the old iPod seems too small.

iPod’s height and width have remained unchanged since the original. The new iPod returns to the original’s sharp-edged front face, abandoning the rounded edges of the 3G and 4G iPods. This appears to be to accommodate the new display, which comes within a quarter inch of the edge. The center button echoes this sharpness, being perfectly flat rather than slightly convex like previous models.

The black iPod is vaguely reminiscent of the Death Star and Darth Vader – even its startup screen is black, with a “chrome” Apple logo – and we expect it will be quite popular, if only for the change of pace. The black shows smudges and fingerprints more than the classic white iPod video.

The white plastic edging around the Dock and headphone ports seems a bit out of place. The earphones are the same white earbuds Apple has used since iPod’s inception, slightly refined and improved over the years. Although we understand Apple’s brand reasons for maintaining the distinctive iPod earbuds, we’d still like to see matching black or chrome.

Apple has continued to adjust the click sound of scrolling. It’s a little thing, but the “clicker” is important, as the audio cue seems to improve menu navigation accuracy. First and second generation iPods had a pleasing click-sound. By the 4th generation, the sound had become higher in pitch and fuller sounding. The latest is much lower in pitch, and somehow richer sounding. All the clicks are pleasant, but each generation has improved, and we have to applaud iPod’s engineers for such attention to detail.

New Features

Video

The most significant and publicized new feature is video. iPod supports MPEG-4 and H.264 video at resolutions up to 320×240 – comparable to a VHS tape. Along with this new hardware come new products for sale at the iTunes Music Store (iTMS): music videos and television shows. (The Music Store is now, like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker “trilogy,” a bit misnamed).

The simultaneously-released iTunes 6.0, which adds video sync to the iPod, and the new iTunes Music Store video sales (music videos, Pixar shorts, and several popular Disney/ABC television series) are of groundbreaking importance. Handheld video isn’t new – Archos has been doing it for years, and Sony’s new Playstation Portable (PSP) does it for a much lower price with a larger screen. It’s the sales aspect that’s so significant. Just as the iTunes Music Store legitimized digital music downloads and single-handedly created a new market, it promises to revolutionize the distribution of television media.

Mark Cuban, co-founder of broadcast.com (which was later sold to Yahoo), blogged “How [Disney CEO] Bob Iger Saved Network TV”, an insightful essay on the potential of legitimate TV sales not just to provide new revenue to replace falling advertising revenue, but to make niche shows viable without advertising at all. $2 per episode, directly to the production studio (not necessarily the network which airs the show), could make a show viable with as little as fifty thousand paying customers per episode – vs the millions of viewers required to sustain an advertising-funded show. (We wonder if discontinued shows such as Firefly, with its intensely loyal fan base, might have survived with direct-to-consumer sales.)

This looks like a masterstroke, but whether such a revolution comes about remains to be seen. For the moment, the limited content makes it clear that this is an experiment, not a new business venture as iTunes Music Store was, with its immediate participation by all major industry distributors. And even if all the networks – who are essentially distributors of content developed by other studios or subsidiaries – decide to participate, they may sufficiently control rights to their shows that the advertising-independent niche market Cuban envisions may never come to be.

PBS’s Robert Cringely imagines mall kiosks selling movies and TV episodes, loaded onto your iPod on the spot, and an Apple Airport Video Express to stream iTunes video from your Mac to your TV set. Cringely tends to think bigger than Apple, but he illustrates the potential of the video iPod to change how we consume media.

For the moment, we can purchase a few things online, and the quality of downloads from iTunes is impressive, even though resolution is limited to 320×240 – less than half that of a DVD, but comparable to a VHS video tape.

Music Store Video

We immediately bought Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video, featuring Christopher Walken dancing through a hotel lobby. Quality of the iPod’s display is excellent, featuring a relatively wide viewing angle for an inexpensive handheld display – better (if smaller) than that of Sony’s Playstation Portable. Using Apple’s $19 AV Cable, we connected it to our living room TV, a 24″ Sony. We were surprised by the image quality – edges are slightly soft but the motion and colors are smooth and clear.

Pixelization and compression artifacts were obvious when the same video was played at full screen on a 22″ Apple Cinema Display, and we expect they would be similarly obvious on an HD TV set. Earlier this year, Steve Jobs declared 2005 to be The Year of HD, but iPod doesn’t even achieve SD, though it does a fair imitation.

Audio quality of iTunes Music Store videos is excellent – perhaps not quite as good as a DVD, but of the same quality (128 Kbps AAC) as other iTunes Music Store downloads. We have no complaints.

iTunes Music Store won’t be a threat to DVD sales with its limited quality – not to mention, Apple’s digital rights management prevents you from burning your purchases to a video DVD. Download time would be a factor as well: the 4-minute “Weapon of Choice” video is 19 MB; a typical 45-minute TV episode would be over 200 MB. Even with broadband, this is hefty. At least it gives us something to do with iPod’s prodigious disk.

iPod’s on-screen controls are well designed for video. A white progress or volume bar appears when you use the click-wheel. It is subtly translucent, with a faint shadow to ensure it remains visible against bright video. In Apple’s best style, it’s simple, elegant and effective.

As with previous generations of iPod, iPod Video’s line-out volume is low compared to a typical stereo receiver’s line-level output. It exhibits no clipping or static when turned up to maximum volume, unlike some previous iPods, so you can turn up iPod all the way when connecting to your home or car stereo.

Do It Yourself Video

The iTunes Music Store isn’t the only source of video. Any video you can process with QuickTime is a candidate – just export to MPEG-4 or H.264 at 320×240 resolution with a bitrate under 768Kbps.

But you have to do it yourself. iTunes doesn’t convert video to iPod format for you. This is a curious omission, since iTunes prepares so much content for iPod already – photos, contacts and iCals, and of course music from your CDs.

Shareware and freeware tools to prepare your video for iPod have already begun appearing. Videora has released Converter for Windows (donationware), and Splasm Software just released Podner for Mac ($9.95).

If you have QuickTime 7 Pro ($29 from Apple), the latest 7.0.3 update includes an export preset for iPod, which exports 320×240 video with H.264 compression. (H.264 is the same codec used by HD TV, but used here to get a very small file for iPod.) It’s slow, but the quality is excellent. Owners of Toast 7 Titanium ($79.99, Roxio Toast 7 upgr.) can export without buying QuickTime Pro, though they’ll have to configure export settings manually. They’ll get support for the latest DivX 6 codec too. Even Windows Media can be iPodded, using Flip4Mac WMV Studio ($99, Flip4Mac/Telestream).

Jim Heid’s Mac Life website provides a tutorial for converting video from El Gato’s EyeTV, a Mac-based DVR (digital video recorder), while long-time Mac columnist Andy Ihnatko gleefully describes how to rip a DVD to iPod using freely available tools. Ihnatko reports that a dual G5 Power Mac converts in roughly half realtime (ie, 1 hour to convert and compress 2 hours of DVD video), while a single-processor G4 took two and a half to three times realtime. We found that a dual 1GHz G4 ripped and compressed around 1.5x realtime with light compression, and much more slowly when we lowered the target bitrate to increase compression and reduce file size. Like ripping MP3s in 1997, ripping video takes substantial time investment, very expensive hardware, or both.

Finally, iPod + iTunes support “video podcasts” . Though we have seen only a few in the field, Apple is ready.

Large color screen

iPod’s largest-yet display also offers bright, sharp text, and lots of it. Long song titles fit easily, and unlike our 4G iPod, when highlighted they scroll horizontally so you can read them in full, pausing again at the beginning before repeating. Photos are large and sharp as well, and iPod provides full-size thumbnails for photos imported from cameras.

This large, bright display comes at a cost; Apple advertises increased battery life, but with the backlight on (as it is by default), iPod runs down its battery quickly. Apple claims 14 hours for the 30 GB model and 20 hours for the 60; we think this is wildly optimistic. Turn off the backlight to maximize your battery life – as with previous iPods, the display is quite readable in sunlight or bright indoor light. Previous iPods (and iBooks and PowerBooks) have had far more realistic battery life claims.

New “Universal Dock” and Apple Remote

Apple has also introduced a new “Universal Dock” ($39) with infrared receiver for a tiny, limited function “Apple Remote” ($29). As of this writing, both are back-ordered, so we can’t evaluate them. Buyers of the new iMac may be able to dual-purpose their iMac remote control to use with the Universal dock. (The new iMac is back-ordered, too.)

Apple has removed iPod’s remote control connector at the headphone jack, instantly obsoleting every third-party remote currently sold. Future remotes will require the Dock connector – which precludes using it for power, or requires a to-be-created multifunction device.

Apple also moved the iPod’s hold switch to the other side of the top, while moving the headphone jack from its centered position to the right side of the top.

High quality audio recording – maybe

We note that iPod’s tech specs page now say that voice recording is available at two quality levels: Low (22.05 kHz, mono) and High (44.1 kHz, stereo). High-quality mode sounds like exactly the CD-quality audio recording customers have been requesting since iPod first got recording capability. But with the demise of the remote control connector, there is no microphone or accessory that fits this iPod. We’re sure that somebody will quickly fill this gap; it’s a natural fit for a company such as Griffin Technology, which already makes the outstanding iTalk microphone for 3G and 4G iPods.

Other Notes

Interface

iPod segregates music and video playlists, sort of. iPod groups playlists containing any videos together under the Videos menu, playlists containing any music under Music, and puts playlists containing both video and audio in both places. Video-only or music-only playlists appear only in Videos or Music, of course. It’s awkward to describe, but in practice it just makes sense. We noticed this only because some of our Smart Playlists happened to select videos. You can’t add videos to On-the-Go playlists, though.

A subtle but wonderful change it took a while to notice : the new iPod remembers where you previously were in the menu hierarchy. Previous iPods did, as well, but only one level back. If you were in a specific playlist, then backed out to the top menu, iPod would remember your location inside the Playlist, but if you went into another menu branch, it would forget your location. The 5G iPod remembers your location in each branch.

iPod Video’s navigation is jerky compared to earlier iPods. While it zooms forward and back through menu branches quickly, scrolling perceptibly stutters while playing music. This is absent when iPod isn’t playing music. We’ve never seen this on previous iPods. An advantage to specified-hardware platforms is that developers can optimized performance very precisely. Game developers exploit this to wring every ounce of performance possible out of a game console such as PS2 or Xbox while not going over the edge, while the same game on PC or Mac may run slowly or lag from time to time. iPod’s large color display may have pushed menu scrolling just beyond its capabilities – teetering on the edge of usability.

As with previous iPods, clicking the center button while playing audio steps you through several modes: track position (fast forward/reverse), large artwork, rating, volume (default). Large artwork is sticky; unlike other modes, it doesn’t revert to default after a few seconds of inactivity. We noticed that in this mode, when iPod moves on to a track without artwork, it simply shows a blank white screen. iPod also now can display song lyrics. (Can a karaoke mode be far off?)

iPod’s games have been updated to take advantage of the new display. The ball, paddle and bricks in Brick have depth and shading, as do Parachute’s paratroopers, helicopters and base. Parachute’s sky even fades toward the horizon. Solitaire is the big winner; for the first time, the cards are large and clear enough that we actually find ourselves playing!

iPod gets a few other tool updates – it gets the screen lock and stop watch (with lap timer) introduced in iPod Nano, as well as the multiple “world clocks”.

Dock Port

The Dock port has moved toward the front on the 5G iPod. Third-party accessories which fit previous iPods perfectly may not fit well now. We’re told that Apple had assured accessory makers that the Dock connector wouldn’t move relative to the front of the iPod, but, for whatever reason, did change it.

Dock cables and accessories, including Apple’s own, don’t go in quite all the way, as they did on previous iPods. (They fit a 4G iPod perfectly.) They also show a slight downward tilt; we don’t know if this is just our iPod or typical of the 5G breed. Perhaps there is a circuit board underneath that forced iPod engineers to move it forward.

Whatever the cause, we’re not impressed with the fit and finish of Apple’s Dock accessories with the newest iPod, and somewhat concerned about stress on the port’s internal connectors since devices can’t brace against iPod’s metal shell.

Scratches – very easily

iPod Nano was quickly snapped up by early adopters, only to be disappointed by how easily scratches mar its surface. (Apple now faces a class action suit from the same law firm which brought the iPod battery class action suit, which seems to have struck gold with frustrated Apple customers.)

Perhaps in response to this, Apple includes an attractive sleeve to protect video iPods. The sleeve is some sort of synthetic material, very pale grey with attractive exposed stitching, and a velour-like inner surface. Unfortunately, it quickly picks up and shows dirt from casual use. We appreciate its inclusion, but a better solution would be a harder plastic face, such as that used by previous iPods.

In the few days we’ve been using it, despite religious use of the sleeve, our iPod has already picked up a few scratches around the click wheel, perhaps from our thumbs dragging dust around it, and one short but severe scratch on the screen that causes a distracting prismatic effect on the pixels behind it. It stands out painfully when looking at pictures or videos.

Photos

iPod can display photos on a TV set using Apple’s AV Cable. They are remarkably clear, but too light, bringing up shadow detail and washing out highlights. iPod appears to output both a brighter image and different gamma curve (contrast) than our Macs, even when we use ColorSync to match PC or TV gamma.

When running a TV slideshow, iPod’s built-in display shows a thumbnail of the current slide, flanked by smaller thumbnails of the previous and next slide. iPod supports a variety of transitions, including Cube (both down and across), Page Flip and Swirl (a sort of low-budget Droplet). We favor a simple crossfade.

MacInTouch readers have asked if the new iPod can be used to run presentations on a TV. We exported an 800×600 Keynote presentation to PNG files, and told iTunes to include these images on the iPod. To our surprise, text and graphics were very readable, even at foolishly small font sizes. We also imported an old PowerPoint presentation with an intricate background (via Keynote image export), with similar good results.

However, iPod’s brightness struck here, too – the standard Apple-style presentation with a dark background gradient, familiar to Macworld Expo Keynote watchers, was far too bright, showing distinct banding instead of the smooth gradient in the original image. We would make a custom template for iPod, with darker colors, before giving a business presentation with it.

Like other applications which use iLife data stores, iTunes can’t see iPhoto’s library unless it’s on the startup volume in your home folder. We’ll just take it as a matter of faith that iTunes 6 can import iPhoto libraries as well as iPhoto 4.9 could import photos for the 4G iPod Photo.

For those who don’t use iPhoto or have different needs, iTunes can be pointed instead at an arbitrary folder of pictures, but it doesn’t maintain deep hierarchies. Only one level of folders is maintained; any pictures below that show up on iPod in the top-level folder.

Similarly, iPod still doesn’t support playlist folders introduced with iTunes 5 and 6. This doesn’t make any sense; iPod supports deep menu hierarchies elsewhere. Playlist folders simply are not shown; playlists are sorted alphabetically.

iPod Video requires iTunes 6. We left iTunes 4.9 installed (contrary to Apple’s instructions) and plugged the new iPod into our Mac. A dialog popped up saying “The iPod ‘iPod’ cannot be used because it requires iTunes version 6.0 or later. Go to http://www.itunes.com to download the latest version of itunes or install iTunes from the CD that came with your iPod.”

Photo Import

iPod Video, like previous iPods, can import digital photos directly from a camera or card reader. Since FireWire has been dropped, the Belkin Media Reader does not work, leaving Apple’s $29 Camera Connector. We assumed this was a glorified Dock-to-USB adapter, but it’s not: as soon as we plug it in, iPod wakes from sleep and goes to the Photo Import screen. The screen displays “Connecting” for a few seconds, then “no card inserted” until we connect a camera or USB card reader.

Early adopters of the Belkin Media Reader and Apple Camera Connector frequently complained that it was extremely slow and used most of their iPod’s battery. Our tests for USB 1.1 devices showed this, but when connected to a USB 2.0 card reader, iPod was very nearly as quick as a Power Mac G4.

Time to transfer 118 6-megapixel images* (405 MB, mixed RAW and JPEG)
Windows XP/Pentium M 730 + USB 2.0 Reader 5 min
iPhoto/Power Mac G4** Dual 1GHz + USB 2.0 reader 7 min
iPod Video + USB 2.0 reader 11 min
iPod Video + USB 1.1 Camera direct connection 49 min
* from 1GB “4X” rated Compact Flash card
** Using an IOGear USB 2.0 PCI Card

The USB 1.1 camera direct transfer drained about half of the iPod’s charge. We wouldn’t want to count on getting a full 1GB card transferred. With a cheap USB 2.0 card reader, iPod Video is a viable photo-offload device. A busy photographer might leave one card transferring onto the iPod while filling another. (Photojournalists and sports photographers probably don’t have the luxury of time for the exchange, and may be better served by a dedicated photo offload/storage device.)

During transfer, iPod showed thumbnails of images as they were imported. After transport, you can browse your imported pictures, but not display them on TV – iPod helpfully tells you to sync to iTunes. We’d like to be able to cull obviously bad images on the iPod, but since iPod’s display is distinctly brighter than a Mac’s display, maybe it’s safer this way.

Farewell FireWire, hello USB 2.0

iPod Video abandons FireWire completely; not only does it ship with a USB cable, there’s no FireWire circuitry present. This means that modern Macs can’t boot from an iPod anymore, and FireWire devices such as the Belkin Media Reader won’t work with it. (We’re not aware of any other FireWire-dependent accessories, though.)

USB 2.0 is fast, but not quite as fast as FireWire. It takes noticeably longer to load an 18GB music library than on our 2G and 4G 20 GB FireWire iPods.

USB 2.0, at 480 Mbps, looks faster than FireWire 400 in theory, but not in practice.

USB protocols have more overhead than FireWire, reducing real-world throughput. [Thanks to MacInTouch reader Eric Hildum for a note about this.] We’ve also been told that Apple uses cheap USB controllers that suffer from insufficient buffers, reducing performance below the level of some Intel USB 2.0 implementations, though we haven’t been able to verify this.

In any case, our test Mac transferred images from a USB 2.0 card reader noticably more slowly than a PC, even though it used an aftermarket USB card, not Apple’s. Wherever the technical issues lie, the end result is that USB 2.0 is slower than FireWire 400, and particularly slow on Macs, resulting in slower downloads updates and data transfers to our iPod.

Our iPod worked fine with a Quicksilver Power Mac with an IOGear USB 2.0 PCI Card. The included USB-Dock cable is quite short, and doesn’t reach from the back of a Mac on the floor up to the front of a desk. We used a USB 1.1 extension cable to bridge the gap. Apple’s cable appears to be chosen with iMacs and laptops in mind, or maybe Power Macs in a place of honor on the desk work surface.

iPod’s requirements state a Mac with built-in USB is the minimum requirement, but we have reports of earlier Macs with USB expansion cards (PCI or CardBus) working with earlier iPods. We see no reason for Apple to go out of its way to disable earlier Macs; more likely this is intended to limit support calls on ancient, yet massively upgraded, Power Mac 8600’s running hacked versions of OS X.

Though 15″ and 17″ PowerBooks and all Power Macs have an upgrade path to USB 2.0, owners of older iBooks, iMacs and 12″ PowerBooks predating USB 2.0 have been abandoned. Without a CardBus or PCI slot for a new USB 2.0 card, the choice is to spend days waiting for a music library to transfer, buy a newer Mac, or buy an older 4G iPod while they last. We’re not happy to see Apple cavalierly abandon owners of Macs just two years old.

Battery Life

To extend battery life and reduce the risk of damage to its spinning drive, iPods buffer music in memory and spin the drive back down as soon as possible (except for Shuffle and Nano, both of which use flash memory with no moving parts). Early iPods buffered music by the file, and when playing a song larger than available iPod memory, spun their drives continuously, quickly draining the battery. Apple eventually gave iPod smarter caching, so it could intelligently cache parts of very large files (such as uncompressed audio for audiophiles), dramatically improving battery life. This pays off for video files. Playing back a high bitrate MPEG-4 video we ripped from DVD, the drive spun up for a few seconds about every seven minutes to refill its memory buffer.

(The maximum data rate is theoretically limited to 768 Kbps, but we played an 1100 Kbps video with no trouble. We expect this reduces battery life due to spinning up the drive more often, but this may be a relatively low power draw compared to the bright screen.)

Despite the high claims for battery life, we found we needed to charge our iPod each day, perhaps because we were using the bright display and video features so much during testing. Time will be a better test of its battery life, as we settle into routine usage.

Accessories

As with previous iPods, other companies make iPod accessories that are highly competitive with Apple’s offerings. As an alternative to Apple’s elegant but expensive Universal Dock and Apple Remote, Griffin Technology’s new AirClick for Dock Connector ($40, to be released in November) may be a good choice; it uses radio instead of line-of-sight IR, and costs $30 less. Digital Lifestyle Outfitters have recently introduced their “HomeDock” with a remote and RCA outputs for audio and video; at $100, it’s $16 cheaper than buying all of the Apple Universal Dock, Apple Remote, Apple USB power brick and Apple AV Cable.

Competitors

Since its introduction in 2001, iPod grew from a minor entry in a small market to the 800-pound gorilla of a large digital music player market. Apple has, in a very real way, brought portable digital music to the masses. They still have competition, though.

The $500 Creative Zen Portable Media Center (currently $250 after a mail-in rebate) features a 3.8″ display, built-in speaker, and a removable rechargeable battery. In terms of specs, it may be a much better video player than iPod Video. The $329 Archos Gmini 402 offers music, video playback, and slideshows on a 2.2″ color screen. (The original Gmini 400 also played games using Nintendo-style D-pad controller but has been discontinued.)

The music-only Dell DJ continues to offer good bang-for-the-buck, with 30 GB of storage for $239. Sony continues to develop its Network Walkman, offering high tech styling and premium pricing. Rio, an early leader in mp3 player technologies, exited the market this year when acquired by audio/DSP chip maker SigmaTel.

Other companies are breaking new ground in personal video. Archos sells several “personal video recorders” that record television directly from an antenna or cable connection for you to playback on TV or on a large built-in display. iRiver has developed the $499 PMC-120, which can load television shows from a TiVo Series 2 DVR. (They even offer a free TiVo as a sales promotion.)

Sony has thrown in its hat with the PSP Playstation Portable. PSP plays video, but only on proprietary “UMD” discs or rather expensive memory cards. It’s a bit bulky to be a portable music player, but it’s really a gaming device – music is a “might as well” feature.

However, despite the active development in niche markets, we suspect that iPod’s main competitors will continue to be Apple’s other iPods. iPod Nano is “impossibly small”, yet with the same photo viewer and an equally brilliant display – perfect for small music collections. There are great deals on just-discontinued 4G iPods, as well (see our Amazon links).

Value

iPod Video’s value proposition is difficult to calculate. For all that it has become an iconic product, it remains a follower in the field; other companies have already delivered handheld video devices at similar price points. Throughout iPod’s short history, Apple consistently has waited for other companies to break new ground, and then delivered a highly usable Apple-branded product. Apple’s greatest hardware innovation was to grab 1.8″ hard drives before anyone else, enabling it to ship the smallest high capacity MP3 player in the industry. Of course, we shouldn’t downplay iPod’s fantastically simple user interface, which forced the rest of the portable music player industry to develop usable interfaces.

It’s easier, perhaps, to assess the latest iPod vs its predecessors. Compared to last month’s iPod, it’s slimmer, with a larger display and new video capabilities, at the same price. Compared to the previous generation 40 GB iPod, it’s a bargain – though less well equipped. The $499 40 GB iPod Photo included dock ($39), AV cable ($19), wired remote (no longer available) and power brick ($29), all now sold separately; it also came with a holder with belt clip, while the latest iPod includes only a thin sleeve to protect it from minor scratches, but not bumps.

Doing the math, a 60 GB iPod with a full set of accessories will cost you more – but, of course, you get half again as much storage, and video. If you don’t need the accessories, or FireWire, you can smile all the way to the bank.

But if you have iPod accessories that depend on the remote port, such as the Griffin or Belkin voice recorders, most FM transmitters, or any remote currently on the market, factor the replacement cost into your decision. Our Griffin iTalk and AirClick are both useless now; replacing them will add $80 of upgrade cost.

Conclusions

We expect much of iPod’s video use will be “legitimate,” i.e., purchased from the iTunes Music Store. However, it’s also a handy platform for watching the content you already own rights to view. We envision taking the time to rip a DVD boxed set of our favorite TV series to watch during extended travel, or a favorite few movies, without having to carry a laptop. Compressed down to a small screen, yet high enough quality to play back on a hotel TV, and with iPod’s large hard drive, you don’t have to sacrifice your music to do so – or buy and carry another device.

We mourn the passing of FireWire on iPod, since we can’t use it as an emergency boot volume, and it’s just plain faster than USB 2.0 on our Macs. We routinely use iPods to move data among machines, and this is noticeable.

In less than 72 hours, our iPod picked up a mysterious and highly distracting scratch on its screen. Some sort of transparent screen protector is practically required for iPod Video. (Perhaps there is something to this class action lawsuit business after all.) Apple really needs to get a grip on this – there are other brilliantly clear plastics that are much more robust.

Despite the scratch-prone screen, iPod’s new video capability provides a big jump in value for the iPod line, and starts an intriguing and promising experiment in online media distribution. If you were going to buy your first iPod last month, you’d still buy this one. Potential upgraders may not be thrilled with the hidden cost of buying new accessories, but new buyers will find the latest iPod even more attractive than ever.

Besides, after four years of white, now you can get black. Style has its points.

By Robert Mohns

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3 Responses to “iPod Video”

  1. Antonio Says:

    Wow! Incredible detailed review of the iPod. Since I just got an 80 model, it kept my attention. I’ll be trying to encode some video soon with Flip4Mac.
    I am disappointed that an old firewire car power adaptor, that I had, will not work. Add that to the small incompatible accessory list of previous firewire products.


  2. I’ll gear this review to 2 types of people: current Zune owners who are considering an upgrade, and people trying to decide between a Zune and an iPod. (There are other players worth considering out there, like the Sony Walkman X, but I hope this gives you enough info to make an informed decision of the Zune vs players other than the iPod line as well.)Have you tried the ipad? you can get one free at FreshGiftCard.com


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