New iPod Video-Out: Ratio Distortion, Quality Differences (updated)
When Apple released the video-ready iPod nano, classic, and touch last month, it unexpectedly locked their TV output capabilities, requiring buyers to purchase all-new, Apple-authorized cable and docking accessories. As a consequence, proper testing of those models, and the now video-out-capable iPhone, wasn’t possible until the first universally compatible new accessory was released. [Editor’s Note: This article was updated after publication with additional details and photographs. Thanks to iLounge readers for their questions and suggestions.]
This week, Apple released its first new video-out accessory—the Component AV Cable—and now that we’ve put it through its paces, we’ve discovered some surprising differences between the video output on the 2007 iPods and the iPhone. In short, the iPod classic and iPod nano more significantly distort the iTunes-synchronized video they output, while the OS X-based iPhone and iPod touch look better, but perhaps not surprisingly, still not as good as the same video played through iTunes.
Note up front that Apple’s Component AV Cable is supposed to deliver the best-quality video output an iPod or iPhone is capable of displaying. Unlike Apple’s now-incompatible $19 iPod AV Cable or the company’s $29-39 iPod Docks, which allowed composite RCA or superior S-Video output from color fourth- and fifth-generation iPods, the Component AV Cable is capable of even better, DVD-quality output—on paper, at least, superior to the 640 by 480-pixel videos currently sold by the iTunes Store. It also sells for $49, a princely sum by component AV standard cables, and no competing, less expensive options are available.
As it turns out, the iPod family now handles video in two different ways. The widescreen 480x320 iPhone and iPod touch have a video option called “Widescreen On/Off,” whereas the narrower 320x240 iPod nano and iPod classic instead have an option called “Fullscreen On/Off.” Confusingly, Widescreen On is basically equivalent to Fullscreen Off, presenting an iTunes-synchronized video in its original aspect ratio, while Widescreen Off is basically equivalent to Fullscreen On, filling as much of the screen as possible with a zoomed-in, cropped version of your video. You can see Widescreen On/Fullscreen Off above, and Widescreen Off/Fullscreen On below.
Here’s what we mean by “basically equivalent.” If you have a widescreen TV and keep its video processing feature turned off, or only on standard zoom, the new iPods will look very similar to one another on either of their respectively similar settings. But if you keep the TV’s processor on, to make most of your non-widescreen TV shows use up more of the widescreen TV, you’ll find that the iPods behave differently, with the classic and nano looking much worse than the iPhone and iPod touch. Below is a sample of how a video from the iTunes Store looks when displayed on a computer screen. Note the proportions of Helen’s head relative to the rest of the image. After that, you’ll see samples of how the exact same video looks on the iPod classic, which looks roughly the same as the iPod nano, and the iPod touch/iPhone. Put aside the color differences, which are more attributable to the screenshot-making process than the devices themselves.
It’s instantly obvious that the iPhone/iPod touch image is markedly closer to the iTunes original. By comparison, the iPod classic on-TV image is presented in the wrong aspect ratio, and Helen’s face is noticeably squashed as a result. Again, this issue can be avoided by turning off your TV’s processor. However, it turns out that the iPod classic and nano otherwise don’t look identical to the iPhone and iPod touch: the nano and classic tend to display more noticeable artifacting—visible compression-created chunkiness on screen—and their rendition of sweeping motions isn’t as smooth.
We’ve tried to crop these photos to show how the artifacting looks, but the full extent of the blockiness is more apparent in motion. In our tests, the iPod touch and iPhone presented the exact same video in a less obviously artifacted manner than the iPod classic and nano. However, thanks to superior filtering, the original iTunes video looks considerably better than any of the iPods.
In sum, the practical consequences of these differences are these: on-TV video will, under some circumstances, look a bit smoother on the iPhone and iPod touch than on an iPod nano or classic. The latter devices will also, under some circumstances, show more artifacts in the same videos, and under extreme (post-processing) conditions, result in more obvious distortion of the aspect ratio of the source video. Apple may release firmware updates to improve video-out performance and change the output characteristics of any or all of the devices, but realistically, don’t expect iTunes-quality rendition of the videos on these portable media players. Artifacting and smoothness differences are likely to be more noticeable on these devices than on an iTunes-equipped computer, and more noticeable on the iPod nano and classic than on the iPod touch and iPhone.
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