capsule review

Review: Fifth Generation iPod (Late 2006)

At a Glance
  • Apple 30GB iPod (5G, Late 2006)

    Macworld Rating
  • Apple 80GB iPod (5G, Late 2006)

    Macworld Rating

Of all the announcements Steve Jobs made during a special press event on September 12 —including a new iPod nano (

4.5 Play
), the debut of iTunes 7 (
3.5 Play
) and movie downloads, and a new iPod shuffle —an update to the fifth-generation (5G) iPod generated the least buzz. Contrary to many rumors and much speculation leading up to the event, we didn’t see a “real” video iPod—one with a larger screen and a video-watching-focused design. In fact, the new 5G iPod—officially known as Fifth Generation iPod (Late 2006)—is virtually identical to its original-5G predecessor on the outside; most of its changes are under the hood, in the form of software updates and improved hardware. But in many ways, thanks to its improved video support and additional multimedia features, the latest full-size iPod may be the most significant in terms of its role as a harbinger of products to come.

Lower prices, better hardware

Like the original 5G line, the new 5G iPod is available in two sizes. However, instead of 30GB and 60GB models, the new line gets you 30GB for $249 and a whopping 80GB for $349—each model $50 cheaper than before. (Stop and consider for a moment that just four years ago, $399 got you only 5GB—a little more than 12.5MB for every dollar. Today’s 80GB iPod gets you 229MB for every dollar.) The additional storage alone makes the biggest iPod ever quite appealing to those who actually use their iPod for storing video (and, of course, for those with huge music collections or who listen to high-bit-rate, lossless, or uncompressed music).

Image

While getting more MB for the money is always a welcome change, the new 5G iPods offer a number of hardware improvements, as well. One of the most welcome, given Apple’s foray into downloadable movies, is a brighter screen—60 percent brighter than that of the original 5G iPod, according to Apple. As my colleague Christopher Breen noted in his review of the new iPod nano, I don’t have any way to measure the actual brightness of the new 5G model’s screen, but it’s clearly a step up from the original. This change will be most welcome in two scenarios: when using the iPod in bright sunlight and when watching dark video—for example, certain episodes of the TV show Lost —on the iPod’s screen.

That said, you won’t actually see this dramatic difference in brightness when you first take a new iPod out of its box: Its screen will be only slightly brighter than its predecessor’s. That’s because of another new feature: adjustable screen brightness. Via a new Brightness option in the iPod’s Settings menu, you can increase or decrease overall screen brightness; that level is set by default to midway between brightest and dimmest. But crank it up to the maximum and you’ll see the new screen in all its brightly-shining glory. (This brightness level doesn’t affect output to a TV.)

The other major hardware improvement in the new 5G iPods is longer battery life. Although the actual sizes of the two models haven’t changed—4.1 by 2.4 by 0.43 inches for the 30GB model and 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.55 inches for the 80GB model, the same as the previous 30GB and 60GB models, respectively—battery life has improved significantly. Below is a chart of Apple’s battery estimates for the original and new 5G iPods performing a variety of tasks, along with my results after testing the new line.

Fifth Generation iPod (Late 2006) Battery Performance

Music playback Photo slideshow Video playback
Original 30GB 5G specs 14:00 3:00 2:00
New 30GB 5G specs 14:00 4:00 3:30
Actual performance of new 30GB 5G 15:26 4:34 3:51
Original 60GB 5G specs 20:00 4:00 4:00
New 80GB 5G specs 20:00 6:00 6:30
Actual performance of new 80GB 5G 22:23 8:05 6:30

All times in hours:minutes, rounded to the nearest minute.

All tests were performed using a fully-charged iPod with Apple's included headphones and the volume set at approximately 50 percent of maximum. For music, I played a single playlist of 4- to 6-minute songs, each encoded at 160kbps AAC, and with audio effects (EQ, Sound Check) and backlighting off. (If you rip your music at higher or lower bit rates, your battery life will be shorter or longer, respectively.) For the photo slideshow and video tests, I used the iPod's default brightness setting while viewing a repeating slideshow of iTunes-synced photos accompanied by the same music playlist, or while repeatedly playing the movie Good Will Hunting (purchased from the iTunes Store), respectively.

In my testing, the new iPods hold up well to Apple’s claims of longer battery life, surpassing even the new, longer estimates in every test except for video playback on the 80GB model—in that case, battery life was within 22 seconds of Apple’s rated time, at 6 hours, 29 minutes, and 38 seconds.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. As Apple notes, “brightness level will have a direct impact on battery life. By lowering the brightness level, you can increase the iPod’s playback time.” So I also tested the video-watching battery life of both models with the brightness level first turned all the way up and then turned all the way down:

Battery Life vs. Brightness: Video Playback

Highest brightness Default brightness Lowest brightness
30GB 5G iPod 2:51 3:51 4:15
80GB 5G iPod 4:41 6:30 7:45

All times in hours:minutes, rounded to the nearest minute.

As you can see, with screen brightness at the lowest level, the new 30GB iPod was able to play 24 additional minutes of video, just over 10 percent longer; with brightness increased to the maximum, video playback time was reduced by a full hour—a 26 percent decrease. I also tested the 80GB model at the lowest brightness level, and gained 75 minutes of playback—nearly 20 percent longer battery life. At full brightness, the 80GB model’s battery life was reduced by 1 hour 48 minutes, or nearly 28 percent.

(Note that you can change the screen’s brightness while watching a video or slideshow. Simply press the iPod’s Center button repeatedly until the brightness display appears, then use the Click Wheel to choose the desired brightness level.)

I didn’t test how each model fared when “projecting” video to a television, but in his testing of the original 5G models, Christopher Breen found that battery life was actually significantly longer when watching video on a TV than when watching it on the iPod’s own screen, further demonstrating how much battery life the iPod’s screen can slurp up.

One final note on the topic of hardware: Unlike with the new iPod nanos, the new 5G models are identical in size and external design to the originals, despite their longer battery lives, so all accessories that fit the originals will fit the new versions, as well.

Software improvements

Although for the most part the new 5G iPods work similarly to the originals, Apple has added a number of useful software features to the latest models—some of them surprises, some of them long-requested features. The most expected, given the addition of 640- by 480-pixel video to the iTunes Store, is support for that resolution on the iPod. The iPod’s screen is still 320 by 240 pixels, but the iPod itself supports—and can output to a TV—640 by 480. (In fact, QuickTime 7.1.3, required for video support in iTunes 7, has changed the default “Movie to iPod” export resolution to 640 by 480.) Other than this resolution change, the latest 5G iPods’ video format support is similar to that of their predecessors. (We’re currently doing additional tests to see if, like the original 5G iPod, the newest model actually supports higher resolutions than Apple’s specifications.)

Because the iPod’s screen resolution hasn’t changed, there’s not much difference between older, 320 by 240 video and newer, 640 by 480 content when watching on the iPod itself. I re-purchased an episode of ABC’s Lost that I had purchased last fall—older shows on the iTunes Store have been re-encoded at the higher resolution, although you have to purchase them again to get the better-quality version—and compared the two on the new iPod’s screen. The biggest difference is that, as mentioned above, the new screen is significantly brighter when you turn the brightness up. I also found the new 5G’s screen to offer slightly richer colors; even at the default brightness level, colors seemed to be a bit less washed out than with the previous version. But it’s when you connect your iPod to a TV that the difference between the older resolution and 640 by 480 is more noticeable—and a welcome improvement.

One of the most oft-requested features for both iTunes and iPods has been gapless playback, and it’s been added to both with iTunes 7 and the new 5G players. Once iTunes has automatically determined which tracks in your Library are part of a “gapless” album—for example, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and many classical pieces—syncing one of the latest iPods adds that information to the iPod. Tracks on those albums, when listened to as an album, will play back without a silent gap between them; they’ll flow together just as nature (or at least the producer) intended. This feature works with files in MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, or uncompressed audio formats.

The other major new feature added to the full-size iPod is support for higher-quality games. I’m not talking about enhanced versions of Parachute and Solitaire. No, I mean real iPod games —or at least as real as you can get considering the iPod’s hardware limitations and Click Wheel controller. Nine titles are currently available, each available for $4.99 from the iTunes Store. The graphics and playability of course vary from title to title, but these games are at least as good as—and sometimes much better than—the games available for many mobile phones and are dramatically better than the iPod’s own built-in games. I purchased Zuma, Mini Golf, Vortex, and Texas Hold’em, and found them all to be fun time-wasters when standing in line or sitting on the train. And unlike the original iPod games, every for-purchase game lets you save your progress for later. The downside to these new games is that they drain the iPod’s battery very quickly; much more quickly than watching a movie, in fact. (You can adjust the screen’s brightness level while playing a game; dimming the screen lets you eke out a bit more juice while gaming.)

Easier access to content

In addition to the major new software features described above, Apple has also added a couple features to make it easier to find your music and media on the iPod. The first is a new feature called Quick Scroll. If a particular list—the Songs list, for example—has more than 100 items, as you begin to scroll through the list, a small, translucent overlay appears on the screen containing the first letter or character of the current section of items. For example, if you’re currently scrolling through songs or artists that begin with the letter G, a large “G” appears on the screen; as you proceed through the alphabet, the overlay changes to reflect your current position. When you get to the desired letter, lifting your finger from the Click Wheel, or pausing the scrolling movement, switches the iPod back to normal scrolling mode to allow you to choose a specific item. This is a welcome feature that helps prevent a good amount of “overshooting” while trying to browse longer lists.

The second such feature is a new Search mode. As Christopher Breen explained in his review of the new iPod nano:

[This] new search feature [is] accessed via a Search command at the bottom of the Music screen (or, if you choose to enable the feature via the Main Menu command in the Settings screen, near the bottom of the main menu). Choose this command and press the Center button...to be transported to the Search screen. Here you use the scroll wheel to select letters on the screen. Choose a letter, press Center, and the track list is whittled down to include just entries that begin with that letter. Continue dialing in letters to narrow your search; a numeric display shows how many tracks match. Scroll back to the Done command, press Center, and the track list changes to a Search Results screen where you choose your item—an artist name, album name, or track title.

Search is smarter than it appears. Although it prioritizes items that begin with the letters you input, as you continue to refine the search, it also adds items that bear the search term anywhere the track’s name, as well as artist and album names. For example, enter DC and ACDC will appear in the list; clas will find “Classics,” “The Clash,” and “Story of the Clash.”

Although Search can be useful, especially for those with large music libraries or whose music libraries are poorly labeled, like Chris, I found the feature to be somewhat kludgy in actual use: You’re “typing” in a manner similar to the high-score text-entry of a 1980s video game—scroll, enter, scroll, enter, scroll, enter. Assuming your music is properly labeled, it will likely take you less time to just browse to the desired track, especially given the new Quick Scroll feature. However, Search is still quite interesting because it’s the first time any iPod has let you input information via the iPod’s own controls. I suspect we’ll see more features—and other iPod-related hardware—take advantage of this mode of input in the future.

Internet access required

Interestingly, unlike all previous iPods, the new 5G, nano, and shuffle iPods no longer include iTunes or the latest iPod software in the box. Instead, Apple has a new iPod/iTunes “start” page on the Web that provides links for downloading the latest version of iTunes—which also now includes all iPod updaters as part of the application itself; no separate downloads are required. (However, unlike the Windows version of iTunes, the iTunes download for Mac OS X does not include QuickTime, which is listed on the iTunes page as an “Additional Video Requirement.”) This CD-less approach may a good move overall, as it means owners of new iPods are ensured of having the most up-to-date version of iTunes. On the other hand, it means that—and the new iPods’ packaging clearly notes this—you must have Internet access to begin using your new iPod unless iTunes 7 is already installed on your computer.

(Speaking of iPod updaters, if you’ve got one of the original 5G iPods, and the new software features described above sound appealing, you’re not completely out of luck. By installing the latest iPod Software—via iTunes 7—your older model will magically acquire some, but not all, of these new capabilities; specifically, 640 by 480 video, support for the new games, Quick Scroll, brightness control, and gapless playback. In fact, if you’ve got an original 5G iPod, you must update its software in order to view any of the higher-resolution 640 by 480 videos for sale on the iTunes Store.)

One other item missing from the boxes of new iPods: a manual. A brief Quick Start guide is included, but if you want full descriptions of the iPod’s features, you need to download (PDF link) the new Features Guide.

Better ’buds?

Like the original 5G iPod, the new version includes a thin sleeve case, a USB dock-connector cable (like all recent iPods, the new 5G syncs only via USB, although it can be charged using a FireWire dock-connector cable), and a set of Apple’s signature white earbuds. However, the latest iPods include a “new and improved” version of these earphones. Are the new ’buds really better than the previous ones? In terms of sound quality, barely. Listening to Apple Lossless versions of high-quality recordings, I could hear slightly better bass performance and a tad bit better treble response, but these are very small improvements that most people are unlikely to hear, especially with compressed music. In other words, the new earbuds won’t prevent those in search of great sound quality from looking elsewhere.

On the other hand, the new earbuds are quite a bit different from the old ones in terms of appearance and fit. They’re still white with gray trim, but instead of the “stem and speaker” design of the previous ’buds, the new ones take on a sleeker and more curvy look. They’re also slightly smaller—which should please the many people who complained that the older versions were too big for their ears—and they lose the foam covers of the old models in favor of a small rubber ring around the front of each earpiece. Reaction to the design of the new new earbuds has been mixed. Personally, I’m not a fan of foam earbud covers, which tend to get gunky and gross over time, and I found that the smaller size of the new iPod ’buds combined with the rubber rings made these new versions more comfortable and secure. However, Christopher Breen noted in his 2G nano review that the new buds are the ones that don’t fit him well and slide around. Fit is in the ear of the listener, it appears.

(Speaking of sound quality, if you’re curious, there are no obvious audible differences between the original and new 5G iPods—that is to say, the new version provides excellent sound quality. This isn’t surprising, considering that various “ take-aparts ” around the Web indicate that the audio hardware is identical to that of the original 5G models.)

The lowdown

Although the new 5G iPod isn’t the “true video iPod” many people were expecting, it’s a solid upgrade from its predecessor, offering useful new software features for watching video, playing games, and browsing music, as well as improved hardware in the form of a brighter screen, better battery life, and better earbuds. And you get all of these improvements—plus, in the case of the larger model, 20GB more storage space—for $50 less than each model’s predecessor. I still lament the fact that Apple no longer includes a power adapter with recent iPods, and if you’ve got a well-organized music Library, the new Search feature is more interesting than useful, but if your heart isn’t set on a “real” video iPod—whenever that might appear—the new 5G iPods are compelling products. And they give us a few hints at the directions the iPod line may be heading.

Update 10/3/06: Added battery-test data for photo-slideshow mode on 80GB model.

Update 10/4/06: Added battery-test data for maximum-brightness video playback on 80GB model.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating
  • Macworld Rating
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