New iPod Video-Out: Ratio Distortion, Quality Differences (updated) | iLounge Article

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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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Comments

1

can you post some shots of the iphone/itouch music playing output screens? I know it’s kind of off topic, but I’d like to see it somewhere. Thanks as usual.

Posted by ~ruindpzzle in san diego, CA on October 4, 2007 at 5:37 PM (PDT)

2

What kind of TV/monitor are you using? Is it 4x3 or 16x9? Can any of these problems be resolved in the TV/monitor’s settings?

One time it took me almost an hour to figure out the best settings on a digital cable box and the HDTV it was connected to. Because it was possible to change the aspect ratio settings on both devices, I could make it produce some badly stretched video, slightly stretched video, correct video, and everything in between.

Posted by Muero on October 4, 2007 at 6:56 PM (PDT)

3

Hahaha, is that Idiocracy? Oh man, what a swell movie.

Posted by beiler on October 4, 2007 at 8:14 PM (PDT)

4

This just cements my conviction that iPods are not serious video devices - what happened to “it just works”?

Archos, here I come smile

Posted by WhoCares? on October 4, 2007 at 8:44 PM (PDT)

5

I find this really disappointing.  I have watched almost 100 hours of video, mostly TV episodes downloaded from iTunes, on a relatively good HDTV, output by my 60GB iPod video.  I have a Universal Dock and s-video cable permanently connected.  I have also used video cable plugged in to the headphone jack connected to regular TV’s.  Screwing this up is a serious flaw.  I loved having all of my video in my pocket, watching what I want, when I want, and how I want.

Apple, please, for the love of all things pure, stop this silliness of restricting the output and embrace unfettered use of our iTunes purchases.  Or else I’ll stop buying them.

Posted by Chrystopher on October 4, 2007 at 9:49 PM (PDT)

6

Ruindpzzle: When music’s playing, there is no output screen for the TV. The TV stays black and music plays through the speakers.

Muero: The TV above is a 16x9 Panasonic high-def LCD monitor (with 720p/1080i/480p/i modes), using the standard component input port and the same cable with all of the iPods and iPhone.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 4, 2007 at 10:17 PM (PDT)

7

In the above examples of output from the iPod touch set to “Widescreen On”, what is the aspect ratio setting of the test television? Is the touch outputting 16x9 anamorphic widescreen, or is it outputting 4x3 matted widescreen, which is then zoomed to fill the 16x9 screen by the TV?

The 5G iPod only output 4x3 matted widescreen, which made it pretty useless on a 16x9 TV. I’d be very interested to know if that is no longer the case with the iPod touch.

Posted by BirdmanTX on October 4, 2007 at 10:47 PM (PDT)

8

I think it’s important to mention in these articles that the iPod classic DOES work with the old, white Apple composite cables when hooked up to the dock. Seemingly, it just doesn’t support video-out through the headphone jack. Readers passing by might get the impression that the old cables don’t work at all.

Otherwise, I’m glad I read this. I was still contemplating the component cables until I realized it distorted the videos. I do wonder if this is a problem with the TV settings though.. sometimes, you have to adjust both the iPod AND television settings to get the proper aspect ration to display.

Posted by Germansuplex on October 4, 2007 at 10:56 PM (PDT)

9

I was under the impression that the S-Video on the Universal Dock didn’t work, also.

Do the new cables work with 5G (or even 4G) iPods?

Posted by EricS2008 on October 5, 2007 at 8:08 AM (PDT)

10

The S-Video out does work on the iPod Classic when using the older Universal Dock.

Is the video playback behavior different than what it was in the 5.5G iPods? I seem to remember that it also fouled up the aspect ratio in Widescreen TVs.

I was also wondering if you saw this behavior when you were testing the new cables: When playing back video to a TV from an iPod Classic, pausing and allowing it to go to sleep will kick you out to the top level menu screen when attempting to resume. This is contrary to both how the 5G iPods did it, and the iPod Classic itself does it when viewing on it’s internal screen, which simply allow you to resume your video from where you left off.

Posted by zerohectic on October 5, 2007 at 5:36 PM (PDT)

11

Jeremy Horwitz - To your post re: the inability to see any video playback, including name of song, album art, etc, were you able to resolve this…?  I’ve been dissappointed with the lack of functionalty with the Universal Dock remote and a number of other issues, but haven’t been able to confirm y/n the ability to show album art when playing song playlists on the iPod Nano 3G.

Posted by Craig Hoffmann on October 20, 2007 at 10:51 AM (PDT)

12

shame its still so confusing to figure out the various video out capabilities of ipods.  I am wondering a few things not covered by the article.

How does the video out to tv of the new ipods compare to previous ipods with video out?

whats the big picture across all ipods, video formats/ tv / cable type combinations?

Of all the ipods with video out capability, including discontinued models, which provides the highest quality output for all types of content on the range of SD and HD tv’s,and with what type of cable?

Posted by gideonj on December 5, 2007 at 1:38 PM (PDT)

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