capsule review

Review: 30GB and 60GB iPods with video

When Apple recently released its latest iPod, it was careful to term it the iPod with video rather than the Video iPod —the distinction being that this iPod remained primarily a music player that just happened to play video rather than the end-all-and-be-all portable video player that some expected from Apple. In case this distinction got lost, in a recent Time magazine article , Apple’s Steve Jobs made a point of maintaining that there is currently no market for portable video—that Apple considers these iPods to be music players with video thrown in as a bonus.

But let’s face it, by now we have a pretty good idea of how the iPod fares as a music player. Video is this iPod’s marquee feature and while Apple may be wise to downplay it—particularly given the dearth of videos that can be easily transferred to the iPod and a small screen unlikely to entice you to toss your television—Jobs and company have reason to be proud of their first foray into portable video. With its bright and crisp display and typically intuitive interface, the iPod with video may act as a perfectly serviceable Video iPod for many.

Getting physical

Apple touts the new iPod as the thinnest full-sized iPod yet—45 percent thinner than the original 5GB iPod. If you don’t happen to have an original iPod for comparison, my 30GB iPod is just a touch thicker than a standard CD jewel box and noticeably thinner than a 20GB fourth-generation iPod. The 60GB model is just a hair thinner than that 20GB fourth-generation iPod

At first glance the new iPod appears to be wider than other full-sized iPods. This is an illusion brought about by the iPod’s display. Previous full-sized iPods bear a 2-inch display (measured diagonally). The new iPod’s display adds half an inch (again, measured diagonally) and extends to within 3/16ths of an inch of the iPod’s right and left edges. (Earlier full-sized iPods had nearly 1/2 inch of space between the display and edges.)

This larger display offers benefits other than making video easier to view. It also improves the iPod’s interface. For example, you can now see nine commands on a single screen rather than the seven commands found on previous full-sized color iPods. (The display isn’t the only factor that creates more space. On-screen items such as command text and the battery icon are smaller.) The larger screen also accommodates more thumbnail images on a photo screen—showing 30 images on a 6-by-5 grid in comparison to the 25 images displayed on a 5-by-5 grid on earlier full-sized color iPods. And Apple has made the text larger in Notes, Contacts, and Calendars and redesigned the included games so the graphics are easier on the eyes. (You can better discern the suits of Solitaire’s cards, for example.)

iPod with video

This iPod marks the end of Apple’s Remote port—a now-missing four-pin oval port introduced with the 3G iPod that allows accessories such as FM transmitters, microphones, and remote controls to work with the iPod. Apple says that the capabilities of the Remote port are built into the iPod’s Dock connector and you can be assured that a slew of compatible accessories are in the works, but that’s little comfort to those with older accessories that won’t function with this new iPod.

The new iPod also spells curtains for an included power supply. If you want to charge your iPod from something other than your computer’s powered USB 2.0 port, the $29 optional iPod USB Power Adapter is anything but optional. (If you have an older dock connector iPod and its accompanying FireWire power adapter and cable you can charge your new iPod with them.)

The iPod’s thin box reflects not only the absence of this adapter but a general scarcity of included accessories. Inside you’ll find the iPod, a USB cable, Apple’s standard white earbuds with two sets of foam covers, an iPod Dock Adapter (for use with Apple’s $39 iPod Universal Dock and upcoming third-party peripherals), a sleeve that guards the iPod against smudges and scratches (but offers no protection from bigger bumps), a thin Quick Start guide, and a CD that contains expanded iPod guides in PDF format and versions of iTunes 6, iPod Updater 2005-10-12, and QuickTime 7.0.3 for Macintosh and Windows.

USB 2.0 or bust

The latest iPod joins its smaller siblings, the iPod shuffle and iPod nano, in supporting synchronization via USB only. As I mentioned, you can charge the iPod with a FireWire cable (as you can with a nano), but it’s not possible to sync the iPod over FireWire.

This is the greatest inconvenience to those with older Macs that don’t have (and can’t accommodate) a USB 2.0 port (some early iBooks and 12-inch PowerBooks, for example). While you can sync the iPod over a USB 1.1 connection, doing so is painfully slow.

Speaking of slow, some people have suggested that USB 2.0 syncing penalizes users because it’s slower than synching over FireWire. My tests disprove this claim. On a 2GHz Power Mac G5, I synched 997 AAC files (weighing in at 3.95GB) on a 60GB iPod photo using FireWire and a new 30GB iPod using USB 2.0. The new 30GB iPod (USB 2.0) took 12 minutes and 37 seconds to sync. The iPod photo (FireWire) was just 2 seconds faster at 12 minutes and 35 seconds. On a Dell PC with a 3.2GHz Pentium processor, FireWire synching was slower than USB 2.0—requiring 19 minutes and 12 seconds to sync a 996 track library (4.57GB) versus 12 minutes and 4 seconds for a USB 2.0 transfer. These figures hint that synchronization times have as much to do with each operating system’s (and computer’s) implementation of USB 2.0 and FireWire as they do with the iPod’s synchronization capabilities.

iPod as music maker

As I said, most of us have a fair notion of how the iPod performs as a music player so I needn’t go into great detail here. If you’ve used an iPod recently you’ll find no surprises in the Music menu or in the way you navigate through playlists. I will say that my new iPod sounded every bit as good as my 20GB 4G iPod through a couple of different pairs of quality in-ear headphones ( Etymotic ER-4P and some custom-fit in-ear monitors with Future Sonics’ drivers), Sony MDR-V6 over-the-ear headphones, and a pair of B&W speakers. Someone with golden ears and studio reference monitors might be able to tell the difference between the two iPod models, but I can’t.

Visions of video

Apple has nicely incorporated video into this iPod, making it just another synchronization option in iTunes and command in the iPod’s main screen. To synchronize videos with the iPod you can elect to automatically update the iPod with any new compatible videos you’ve added to your iTunes library via the Videos tab that appears within iTunes’ iPod preferences. And as with music, you can synchronize the iPod with videos contained in select playlists (playlists that contain just videos or a combination of music videos and audio tracks) as well as add videos manually by dragging them from the iTunes library to an iPod that’s been configured to be updated manually.

Once you have video on the iPod, select Videos in the iPod’s main screen and press the center button—you’ll see a Videos screen that lists Video Playlists, Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows, Video Podcasts, and Video Settings. The videos you’ve created and added to iTunes and any videos that have been marked with the “movie” tag in iTunes Get Info window appear in the Movies screen. (This may include videos bundled with albums purchased from the iTunes Music Store—Neil Young’s “This Old Guitar” video included with his Prairie Wind album is just such a video.) Music Videos holds music videos you’ve purchased from the iTunes Music Store or those videos you’ve assigned the “music video” tag in iTunes’ Get Info windows. Unlike other varieties of videos, you can play the audio track of these videos as if they were songs. They’ll appear in the Artists, Albums, and Songs lists (provided they’re tagged with artist and album information) and sport a video icon next to their names in those lists. Like other song entries, you can add these tracks to playlists in iTunes and add them to the iPod’s On-The-Go playlist by selecting the video within the Artists, Albums, or Songs screens and holding down the Center button. (You can’t add these videos to an On-The-Go playlist from within the Music Videos screen.)

TV Shows includes any television shows you’ve purchased from the iTunes Music Store. Video Podcasts, as reported by Macworld ’s Jonathan Seff , doesn’t act as you’d expect—the video podcasts I downloaded from the iTunes Music Store didn’t appear under this entry.

Video Settings is where you direct the iPod to either play videos on the built-in screen or to a television or projector attached to the iPod with the optional $19 Apple iPod AV Cable. On this screen you also choose between the NTSC (North America) or PAL (Europe, Asia) video standards and switch the iPod’s Widescreen option on or off.

The new iPod supports H.264 and MPEG-4 video in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov formats, which means your iPod will play the videos offered by the iTunes Music Store and those hand-wrought videos you’ve properly encoded. Apple’s QuickTime Pro 7.0.3 (or an application such as iMovie or Final Cut Pro that takes advantage of QuickTime’s encoders) provides the best chance for success in this regard. Within QuickTime Pro’s Export dialog box you’ll find a Movie to iPod (320x240) option that exports videos in the H.264 .m4v file format compatible with the new iPods.

Note that converting movies this way is slow—it took the better part of a day to convert the first disc of The Lord of the Rings Special Extended DVD Edition that I’d initially ripped with Mac the Ripper. A faster way to go is HandBrake, a DVD to MPEG-4 ripper/converter. Using its MPEG-4 option I was able to convert House of Flying Daggers to an MPEG-4 file compatible with the iPod in about 35 minutes on my Power Mac G5. (HandBrake’s H.264 option doesn’t create files compatible with the iPod.)

It would be nice if Apple incorporated into iTunes tools for encoding and converting video that work as elegantly as iTunes’ audio encoders, but given Hollywood’s concern over copyright infringement and Apple’s need to acknowledge that concern, I’m not holding my breath.

I ripped these two particular movies for a reason. Lord of the Rings , with its grand vistas and occasional dimly lit scene, was likely to lose detail on such a small screen. And anything but a crisp screen would make reading House of Flying Daggers ’ tiny subtitles impossible. Of the two, House of Flying Daggers fared a bit better. Though both movies were watchable on the iPod, it was difficult to discern some details in LOTR ’s dark scenes. Although it took some doing in Daggers ’ brightly lit scenes to separate the subtitles from the background color, it was possible to read nearly everything that flashed upon the screen (save the opening and closing credits). The exception was when I switched off the iPod’s Widescreen option. When I did so, each end of long subtitles were cut off.

I watched the resulting movies on both a television screen connected to the iPod with Apple’s AV cable and on the iPod. The television picture wasn’t bad, with quality akin to a VCR. There was some banding evident in gradient areas—a sky moving from dark to light, for example—but nothing worse than what I get from TiVo programs recorded at Medium quality (and far better than what you see on an airplane’s video monitors). These artifacts were less visible on the iPod’s screen, which displayed a picture that was clear and nicely balanced. Although the picture looks best when viewed straight on, you can view videos with the iPod slightly off-axis, making it possible for two particularly chummy people to watch a movie at the same time (given a headphone splitter or a pair of portable speakers). The video played back smoothly on both the television and iPod.

Adding it up

This iPod incorporates the new features introduced with the iPod nano, including the new clock (which allows you to create multiple clocks featuring different time zones on a single scrolling screen), stopwatch, screen lock, and display of lyrics when you’ve added them in iTunes. For additional details on these features, see our first look at the nano. And like the nano, the new iPod supports 21 languages versus the 14 offered on previous iPods.

Like earlier full-sized color iPods, the new iPod supports Apple’s $29 iPod Camera Connector for downloading pictures directly from compatible digital cameras and media readers. (It doesn’t, however, work with Belkin’s Media Reader for iPod w/ Dock Connector, as this device makes use of the FireWire capabilities missing from the new iPod.)

Slideshows gain six new transitions not found on other color iPods: Cube Across, Cube Down, Dissolve, Page Flip, Radial, and Swirl. Mac users will recognize the distinctive Apple Cube effect. Dissolve is welcome but I found the Page Flip and Swirl transitions a little cheesy.

This is also the first iPod to include the ability to record high-quality voice memos. When you plug in a compatible microphone the iPod offers you the choice to record in mono at 22kHz or in stereo at 44.1kHz (the “CD quality” standard). This could be a huge boon for field recording and for interviewers who currently carry minidisc recorders.

Unfortunately, no such microphone currently exists (compatible mics and adapters will plug into the iPod’s dock connector port) so currently there’s no way to test this feature. When a microphone or mic adapter becomes available, Playlist will be all over it.

Good timing

And finally, how does the new iPod measure up in regard to battery life? In most cases my 30 and 60GB iPods performed as well as Apple suggests or better. Apple tells us that the 30GB iPod will play music continuously for up to 14 hours. Playing a library of AAC files (nearly all of which were encoded at 128kbps), my 30GB iPod ran for 14 hours and 4 minutes (backlighting, Sound Check, and EQ were off). The 60GB iPod played music continuously for 21 hours and 53 minutes (Apple claims up to 20 hours of continuous music play on this model.)

The 30GB iPod is also touted to play up to 2 hours of video on the iPod’s screen. Mine exceeded that figure by 22 minutes. The 60GB model played for nearly 4 hours at 3 hours and 58 minutes. Apple doesn’t provide a battery charge estimate for video projected to a television. I was pleased to discover that it fares better when played this way. My 30GB iPod ran for 3 hours and 29 minutes before displaying the low battery warning and the 60GB iPod continued playing for 6 hours and 2 minutes.

The one case where the iPod didn’t do as well as Apple suggests is with on-screen slideshows accompanied by music on the 30GB iPod. Apple says this 30GB iPod can play such slideshows for up to 3 hours. My iPod managed just 2 hours and 38 minutes. The 60GB iPod, however, bested Apple’s estimates, playing for 4 hours and 51 minutes (Apple’s specs claim 4 hours of slideshow playback with music).

The lowdown

Unless you own a computer that doesn’t have a USB 2.0 port, it’s hard not to like this iPod. Even if you never use its video capabilities, you should be pleased with its sleek design, crisp display, intuitive interface, reasonable battery life (and impressive battery life with the 60GB model), and the myriad wonders we’ve come to expect from an iPod. And if portable video makes sense for you (and you have the wherewithal to pack your iPod with content not provided by the iTunes Music Store), you’ll find this iPod even more appealing.

At a Glance
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