New battery life for old 5G iPods

When Apple rolled out the new generation of video iPods, it also brought out a software update for older fifth-generation iPods that brought some — but not all — of the new iPods’ functionality to the original models. But it turns out that one of the update’s most unheralded features is actually the one that impresses me most: a huge improvement in iPod battery life.

Yeah, I know, the update lacks the brand-new iPods’ snazzy Search feature, which lets you scan through items on your iPod via a Google-style search bar. (I’m not convinced of its utility, but it’s an interesting feature nonetheless.)

And yes, we owners of older 5G iPods do get to take advantage of most the other new software features, including support for higher-resolution video, the ability to play snazzy new iPod games, and a floating-letter overlay that guides you as you scroll through gigantic lists of stuff.

Though the original 5G iPods don’t have the new models’ super-bright screens, the latest iPod Software version does let 5G iPod owners adjust their screens’ brightness. And the under-the-hood optimizations that let the new models achieve significantly longer battery life are, it turns out, mainly in software, not hardware. Combined, these two features make the software update a much cooler deal for owners of the original 5G iPods than many people have realized.

To investigate potential battery-life improvements, I tested a 60GB fifth-generation iPod before and after updating its software by continuously playing a series of TV shows purchased from the iTunes Store until the iPod’s battery gave out.

The pre-update iPod played back those episodes of “Desperate Housewives” and “Who Wants to Be a Superhero” for nearly four hours and fifteen minutes before giving up the ghost. Not bad, and in line with what we found during our original review of these models (and longer than the three hours of playback that Apple initially claimed for the 60GB model).

But get a load of what happened once I updated the iPod software to the latest version: All of a sudden my iPod could play for four hours and 53 minutes, 39 minutes (around 18 percent) longer than before. And that was at maximum brightness; once I cranked down the iPod’s brightness to the halfway mark, the iPod turned into a regular Energizer Bunny. After a few hours, the battery indicator seemed to suggest that the iPod was about to die — but it was crying wolf. I stayed late at the office, and it kept running. I carried it home on the bus, and it kept running. Finally, as I sat at home eating a late dinner, the iPod ran out of juice — after an astonishing nine hours and ten minutes of video playback.

So here’s the moral of this story: If you’re running an original fifth-generation iPod, don’t be sad that your software update didn’t include that nifty Search feature. Instead, be happy that your iPod’s battery life just got a free — and big — boost. And if you’re watching videos in dark environments that don’t require full brightness, turn the backlighting down. Your iPod will reward you with plenty of playback time.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments