“Secrets” of the 4G iPod | iLounge Article

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“Secrets” of the 4G iPod

The following feature is an expanded version of an iLounge-exclusive story that first appeared last week in Backstage.ilounge.com, our behind-the-scenes page for upcoming site content.

Spy novels and other fiction aside, rarely will a cryptic phrase or sentence accurately foreshadow a big surprise to come. More often than not, someone’s innocuous words are taken out of context by listeners or readers and spun into grand fantasies, which only later are deflated by far less impressive announcements - or none at all.

But in recent months, Apple executives have been teasing the world with little word games, inspiring fans and journalists alike to speculate on the secretive company’s future plans for fourth-generation iPods. In June, CEO Steve Jobs publicly hinted that Apple was working to drop iPod prices, but wouldn’t say more. Then in mid-July, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer so quickly and obliquely mentioned plans for a “higher mix of iPods? during a conference call that analysts missed the news entirely. Lo and behold, by late July, the company released new iPods at more competitive prices. And iPod fans began to believe there might just be merit in reading Apple’s tea leaves after all.

The problem with divining is that it doesn’t end: once people are encouraged to speculate on the future, in the words of Fleetwood Mac, they “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” And thus only days after Apple put new iPods on store shelves, iPod fans - and even journalists - are still trying to figure out the next surprise that Apple has in store. Unusually, many people believe that it’s not a different type of iPod, or a revision of the iPod mini, but rather something secret inside the shell of the new fourth-generation iPod.



While iPod fan speculation has focused on a “secret” color screen in the new iPod, and a diagnostic test can in fact make the screen’s pixels turn blue, the effect is actually nothing unique to the iPod family.

The Newest Mystery: Time Hints at Fourth-Generation iPod Secrets

Even though it appears that Apple wants people to keep talking and guessing about its plans, we initially passed on reporting the latest iPod-related teaser - apparently straight from Apple - that first appeared in a Time Magazine article. The topic? Secret features hidden in the fourth-generation iPod. “(I)nternally the new iPod is a ground-up reconstruction,” Time’s Wilson Rothman wrote, “and its really compelling applications — the ones that very well might get the goat of anyone unable or unwilling to upgrade — are still secret. All that Apple is saying is that there’s more to this than what’s being publicized.”

The reasons not to report a quasi-story of this sort are obvious. Number one: while the 4G iPod does differ from its 3G predecessor in certain parts, the iPod mini was technically a major reconstruction of the iPod platform, too. In February, the mini debuted the Click Wheel, an all new casing, a new battery, and a new hard disk, amongst other changes. And of course, as was publicized at the time, it shifted from PortalPlayer’s older PP5002 CPU to a newer part, the PP5020 chip, which is also called the Personal Media Player: Photo Edition. The new CPU is technically capable of decoding and displaying digital photos in JPEG format (and even motion JPEG movies) on a TV, sending them through a cable for direct-to-printer printing, and more. This PP5020 chip is the heart of the 4G iPod, as well.

picNumber two is an extremely important point: despite the presence of this chip and its supposed superpowers in the iPod mini, nothing special has been done with it. Today, even with a newer CPU inside, the iPod mini remains nothing more than a small and modestly stripped down version of the third-generation iPod. And it may remain that way. As we have mentioned in a previous Backstage, “secret stuff? – whether hidden in production Apple hardware or in the company’s research and development labs – means nothing until Apple does something public with it. Most of the time, people get their hopes up over nothing.

Number three: even assuming Apple hinted to Time that secret iPod features would eventually be unveiled, the debut date for new features could be a long way off. Apple previously hid another component change – the replacement of Wolfson Microelectronics’ WM8721 audio chip with a more powerful chip called the WM8731 – in the 3G iPod. The 8731 added low-grade mono and high-grade stereo line recording capabilities to the 8721 chip. Six months after the introduction of the 3G iPod, Apple and Belkin surprised the world by releasing new firmware and a peripheral that supported low-grade voice recording. Yet nine months after that, even though the 3G iPod’s chip supports the feature, Apple hasn’t added firmware support to enable stereo line recording. And it probably won’t.  Remember number two above? Keep it in mind.

Realities of the Fourth-Generation iPod’s “Secrets?

As it turns out, PortalPlayer’s newer CPU isn’t the only hardware change in the 4G iPod: the device also uses one of Wolfson’s newest audio chips, a part that the company doesn’t even show on its official web site. We contacted Wolfson to gain official comment and insight into its new chip, the WM8975, but somewhat predictably, the company wouldn’t offer a single word on the subject. So we had to do some digging.

Based on publicly known information, including spec sheets for the past three chips in the company’s 8970 series (8971, 8972, and 8973 (download and rename to .pdf)), we think that it’s fair to assume that at least three of the following four features are technically inside the new iPod. Just bear in mind that even if they are, as noted above, these hardware features mean nothing unless Apple adds support for them to the iPod’s firmware.

pic3-D Sound Enhancement. This feature is a key distinction between Wolfson’s WM8973 chip and its predecessor, the WM8971. According to Wolfson’s technical specifications, this feature allows a user to “artificially increase the separation between the left and right channels.” But don’t get too excited by the name; 3-D enhancement is very limited in functionality, and basically serves as a modestly adjustable echo chamber for your ears. This isn’t true multi-channel surround sound; it’s a cute fake.

Digital Graphic Equalizer. If you’re a purist, you won’t want to tweak the sound of your audio, but most people aren’t purists: they like to pump up their bass, treble, and everything in between. Current iPods are profoundly limited in this regard, using predefined presets like “Bass Booster” instead of the fully adjustable controls found in most digital audio players. Good news: each of the chips in Wolfson’s WM8970 series includes an on board Digital Graphic Equalizer. But again, don’t get too excited: the old PortalPlayer CPU in the 3G iPod included support for a Digital Graphic Equalizer, and Apple didn’t use it. Remember “number two” above?

On-Chip Bridge Tied Load Speaker Driver. Wolfson’s 8970 series also includes a small but powerful on board speaker driver, capable of powering a fairly significant connected speaker. Apple’s design of the new iPod’s casing, which lacks tiny holes to let audio come out of the iPod’s plastic and metal shell, strongly suggests that this feature won’t be utilized for more than just the standard iPod chip and click sounds. But again, the hardware’s capable of more than that. Technically.

Enhanced Recording Capabilities. Before Apple released new firmware and Belkin released the Voice Recorder, much was made of the 3G iPod’s technical capabilities for audio recording. On paper, the 3G iPod could actually sample audio at CD-quality rates (thanks to Wolfson’s older 8731 chip) and record it in MP3 format (thanks to PortalPlayer’s earlier 5002 chip). But when Apple released new firmware, the iPod was limited to sampling audio at unimpressive, voice only-quality rates, and recording in uncompressed WAV format. Even today, that hasn’t changed. Why? Some people blame Apple’s music industry ties, suggesting that the companies conspired to prevent people from making high-quality recordings. We’re more inclined to believe that battery drain was a very significant factor, and that Apple didn’t want to deal with complaints or competitors crowing about their longer recording times.

The new iPod’s hardware seems better equipped to handle recording than the 3G iPod, practically at least. PortalPlayer’s 5020 CPU apparently offers faster encoding of MP3 music and Audible-format voice recordings than before, and Wolfson’s 8970 series chips now include automatic volume level and gain controls to keep volume stable, a feature noticeably absent from the 3G iPod and Belkin’s Voice Recorder, but added by Griffin to its subsequently released iTalk peripheral. Now that feature’s built into Wolfson’s chips.

We can hope that the iPod’s improved battery life will enable Apple to take advantage of the full recording potential of the iPod’s chips. Still, we remain highly aware that these hardware improvements aren’t dramatically different from what was in the 3G iPod; some are less “secrets? than modest enhancements or reshufflings of old parts. More importantly, without new and improved software from Apple, the units will remain limited in much the same ways.

Speculation on Other Fourth-Generation iPod’s “Secrets?

Could Apple really be encouraging people to speculate over such potentially trivial audio changes? The simple answer is “yes,? given that the company generated plenty of press just by moving the Shuffle Songs button to the iPod’s main menu. But die-hard iPod fans don’t want to believe that Apple’s thinking so small.

Conspiracy theorists continue to speculate that Apple has planned two related and major “secret? changes to the fourth-generation iPod. Unfortunately, there’s reason to believe that one of them has no chance of panning out, and the other depends entirely on Apple’s whims over the next several months.

The most commonly requested possible secret, a hidden color screen masked by black and white-limited firmware, appears to be entirely without foundation. Several users have found that playing with the iPod’s diagnostic menus, particularly the Contrast test, can make the 4G iPod’s screen pixels turn from black to distinctively blue. As the logic goes, if the screen can display blue and black, perhaps it can display red and green, too. Perhaps. Except that there’s no way to get the screen to show both blue and black at the same time. All of the pixels in the 4G iPod’s screen are blue, but when the contrast is adjusted and the backlight is turned down, they look black. For that matter, you can do the exact same black to blue transformation on an iPod mini’s screen. There’s little chance that either unit is capable of operating in color.



As with the 4G iPod’s screen, the iPod mini’s pixels can be turned blue by entering Diagnostic Mode (reset the iPod with Menu + Action buttons, then hold Reverse + Action at the Apple logo) and playing with the Contrast test.

Owing to the new PortalPlayer Photo Edition chip, the second-most discussed possible 4G iPod secret is digital photo playback ability. Most users have assumed that such a feature would require the “hidden color screen? discussed above, but we think that the most likely implementation of iPod digital photo abilities will be far less impressive than that, if done at all. Even lacking the new PortalPlayer chip, the prior-generation iPod was able to use two Belkin peripherals to transfer digital photos onto its hard drive. At the time, Belkin’s Media Reader and Digital Camera Link seemed like interesting little trial balloons to see whether people really wanted to use their iPods for anything other than music. The jury may still be out on that question.

We’re willing to bet that Apple has an iPod Photo Dock under development in its labs somewhere, just waiting to let people connect iPods to digital cameras (for picture downloading) and TVs (for picture viewing) and maybe even printers (for picture printing). But make no mistake: based on the limitations of the PortalPlayer chip, direct iPod to TV video playback (except in limited motion JPEG format) would not be part of the package. And if limited to simple photography features, a new Dock wouldn’t be too hard to manufacture.

Whether it would sell is another question. Apple may well be loathe to officially turn the iPod into an Archos-style Frankenstein with tens of detachable parts, or it may want to hold back on implementing such features until it does have a color screen to play with. We won’t know for sure until an official announcement is made.

Conclusions

When people think “iPod secrets,” they tend to think big: “hidden wireless capabilities,” “hidden color screen,” “hidden OGG Vorbis support,” and all sorts of fantastic concepts. But that’s all they are for now: fantasies. Dissections of new iPods have failed to locate wireless chips or antennas, or indicia of anything other than an inexpensive grayscale screen. And Apple has little incentive to support OGG Vorbis, regardless of its capabilities, given that it is far from a mainstream standard and does not tie into Apple’s push for copyright-protected audio going forward.

Of course, we could be wrong. Apple might have many other tricks up its sleeves; there may be other features inside iPod-customized versions of the PortalPlayer and Wolfson chips that haven’t been disclosed to the public yet. Similarly, even absent new chips inside the iPod, Apple may be developing wireless iPod attachment peripherals right now. But by the same token, Apple may have requested that its partners strip features out of the chips in the name of price and power consumption economies. And it will never release many of the concept peripherals it develops, no matter how cool everyone else might think they are.

So for the time being, there’s no real story here, just a Time Magazine article, a bunch of chip spec sheets, and people with pencils trying to connect the dots. Though it’s tempting to give into the hype and get excited over non-announcement announcements, our advice would be to avoid making any buying decisions based on rumors, “secrets” and speculation. Even in the case of the fourth-generation iPod, a device we like quite a bit, we think that prospective buyers tempted by rumors should wait for the dust to settle before buying the iPod or writing it off. Only hard facts will help people make informed choices about what’s right for their needs.

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Industry reactions to the 4G iPod »

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Comments

101

What about Apple waiting for us telling about what really we like???

Posted by Buqpa! on August 20, 2004 at 3:39 PM (PDT)

102

Yeah, a good article, and we all love our ipods, but apple itself… whooo (sucks teeth).  I don’t care what anyone else says, I think it sucks completely that apple aren’t updating the firmware for audio recording on 3G.  Just wanted to say that.  I don’t like being ‘encouraged’ to upgrade a perfectly good product and pay through the nose for the privilege of doing so, in vain hope that my wishes will be granted with a newer model.  Still a great piece of gear, though. 

Posted by specs on August 21, 2004 at 3:03 AM (PDT)

103

Any chance that the 4G iPod could be used as a remote to control Airtunes using a wifi or bluetooth add on?

Posted by Jeff Hubert on August 23, 2004 at 6:50 AM (PDT)

104

yea, um, all u crackers should get a life!

Posted by Rocky on August 24, 2004 at 11:13 AM (PDT)

105

As a first time iPoder, I just got my 4G. One thing I noticed, though it’s far less significant than antennas in the headphones or anything, is that the iPod pauses automatically when the headphone jack is pulled out.

Posted by klily on August 24, 2004 at 1:39 PM (PDT)

106

My brother John works for Apple. He shared some confidential information with me, that I can no longer hold from all of the eager ipod users. *** The true “secret” is actually a modification to the Watson2034 chip. It’s secondary feature is an automatic cleaning program. The main feature that is “the big secret” is that the fourth generation iPod doubles as an electric shaver between the hours of 4:30am and 8:30am, Monday through Friday and optional Saturday with summer/winter mode for school teachers. *** I hope you all enjoy using and listening to your brand new 20GB or colored 4GB electric razor.

Posted by ben on August 24, 2004 at 1:55 PM (PDT)

107

I think that it will be a link cable enabling people with iPod’s to transfer music to other iPod’s with a CORD! How about that?

Posted by The Guy on August 27, 2004 at 5:16 PM (PDT)

108

In the new ipod+hp launch, carly alluded to the future potential to enable direct printing to HP printers from the ipod, thus reinforcing the point of direct-to-printer functionality.  time will tell how exactly it’ll be implemented, and how pictures can be loaded onto the ipod.

Posted by e on August 27, 2004 at 8:42 PM (PDT)

109

I was wondering if the iPod can be made into a Hard Drive video capture storage device, similar to the MCEtech Quickstream DV. It is Firewire (aka i-link) which most MiniDV Video Cameras have.

Posted by BobYe on August 29, 2004 at 11:27 PM (PDT)

110

what are the optimal settings for the contrast to get it to a good looking blue?

Posted by blah on August 30, 2004 at 7:09 PM (PDT)

111

Brilliant write-up. Thank you.

Posted by Strykar in India on August 30, 2004 at 9:53 PM (PDT)

112

I used to have my itrip in my ipod, set to 102fm, and every radio in the house set to 102 fm.  I’d walk around the house (or office) and whereever I’d go I’d be surrounded by beautiful music, MY beautiful music that I made with Garageband!!!
MuhahaHAhahAA!

Posted by Sam on August 31, 2004 at 7:23 PM (PDT)

113

I used to have my itrip in my ipod, set to 102fm, and every radio in the house set to 102 fm.  I’d walk around the house (or office) and whereever I’d go I’d be surrounded by beautiful music, MY beautiful music that I made with Garageband!!!
MuhahaHAhahAA!

Posted by Sam on August 31, 2004 at 7:24 PM (PDT)

114

My 4G iPod transformed into Optimus Prime!  It was soo cool, but I was only able to do it once. wink

Posted by SmokeyB on September 2, 2004 at 7:33 AM (PDT)

115

Hi guys,

this article is really good but totally useless. Don’t you think that all these speculations about “secret” features only try to cloud the fact that Apple’s iPod has less features and gimmicks than the other HDD players? Talking about the “secrets” is pretending knowledge about something really cool. But hey, Apple is so cool why shouln’t they include some extra features? So, keep on searching! I’ll take my iPod as is is: a real good portable mp3 player…

Posted by maze on September 3, 2004 at 8:08 AM (PDT)

116

Maybe they’ll finally give us gapless playback.

Posted by David on September 4, 2004 at 7:25 AM (PDT)

117

isn’t HP releasing a printer that can print directly from the iPod? in which case, one of the new chips might be used for this purpose.

Posted by Thomas James on September 6, 2004 at 10:14 PM (PDT)

118

Surely the fact that the new PortalPlayer chip supports USB On The Go should be a big part of these supposed secrets?
Given that iRiver and others are now touting this (and to me is a very very handy feature) I can see this being a big part of future development. I imagine it needs firmware enabling but has anyone just tried plugging in a USB device and seeing if the iPod works as a host already?

Posted by garethw on September 7, 2004 at 8:08 PM (PDT)

119

I think the secret of the 4G iPods is that they are actually completely waterproof.  I don’t have an iPod to test it, but—if you do… you should try dunking it in some water to see.

Wouldn’t that be sweet—listening to tunes in the tub, or while scuba diving?  Shazzam.

Posted by Scott on September 13, 2004 at 9:33 PM (PDT)

120

I think this will give a hint as to why Apple choose HP to be involved in the iPod.  Photographers will love this.


http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/feature/-/506462/104-7738862-9998364

Posted by eon on September 14, 2004 at 2:00 AM (PDT)

121

Also from Portaplayer’s website: Note that the chip supports connections to digital video cameras.

An ATA-66 hard-disk controller supports up to four storage devices (CD-ROMs, CR-R/W, hard disks, and/or IBM Microdrives), and a USB 2.0 high-speed serial link provides On-the-Go support. A FireWire (IEEE-1394a) controller (external physical-layer interface required) offers an alternative to USB 2.0 and can link the jukebox to digital video cameras and set-top boxes.


The PP5020’s LCD controller can drive single-scan 1-, 2-, or 4-bit monochrome STN LCD panels. Its digital TV controller will support TFT panels of up to 640-by-480 pixel resolution with 18-bit 5:6:5 RGB data and a 60-Hz refresh rate. The chip connects to a TV set via a CCIR601/656 TV output, which delivers a signal to an external NTSC/PAL encoder. It also packs a direct interface to an I2S stereo audio codec and a direct interface to a Sony/Philips digital interface for digital audio input or output.

Posted by eon on September 14, 2004 at 2:04 AM (PDT)

122

“It also packs a direct interface to an I2S stereo audio codec and a direct interface to a Sony/Philips digital interface for digital audio input or output.”

That’s the big thing that the iPod lacks that has always bugged me. Apple sells this allegedly high-end piece of audio kit then purposely disables the digital input/output. That makes no sense to me, unless Steve Jobs just likes that little fizzy humming sound from the analog connections if you plug your iPod directly into a high-end amplifier.

Posted by spdif on September 14, 2004 at 4:42 AM (PDT)

123

So run a little experiment for me. Fully charge both your 3G and 4G iPod. Once fully charged, unplug them and then plug them in again. What you will notice is that the 3G will go into the recharge cycle again while the 4G knows that it has a fully charged.

This is because there is no real software monitoring of the charge cycle on 3G iPods - it is all time based - while 4G iPods actually moniter their charge cycle. As far as I can tell the only thing the 3G can do is estimate the remaining battery power - and even this is done poorly. But this is all fixed in the 4G

Improved PMU - that is one of the new features.

But don’t take my word for it - try it out yourself.

Posted by mcm on September 15, 2004 at 2:28 PM (PDT)

124

Perhaps apple will introduce a keyboard, mouse, external combodrive, dvi for the 30 inch display, a printer, and a supercharger that gives your bmw 100 more horsepower.

Posted by meekrob on September 17, 2004 at 11:08 AM (PDT)

125

Beauty, so Apple has all of these potentially wicked features in the 4G Ipod but won’t release them.  Before I plunk down my $300 to get in the Ipod game, I’d want to know that Apple isn’t going to make me buy another Ipod just to get the features that could be built in to the current model.  Maybe they should just change the name from"Ipod” to “IVapor” and sell me an empty box. 

Posted by Jim on September 20, 2004 at 3:42 PM (PDT)

126

Cmon apple, tell us what it is!!!!!!!!

Posted by Robin Hood & his merry men on September 22, 2004 at 11:09 AM (PDT)

127

call me old fashioned but…. it’s an mp3 player. And I’m happy with it the way it is. If you want wi-fi, camera’s, bluetooth bulls**t, etc etc etc.. go buy a pda/ppc or a mobile phone, ‘cause that’s what an ipod will end up like. I bought it for ONE reason only: simply to play my music, and that’s all I want out of it.

alright, the other extras (games, calender) are a bit gimicky but their basic in operation and don’t intrude on the real purpose of the ipod.

(but each to his own!!)  power to the people!

Posted by spottydog on September 24, 2004 at 1:17 AM (PDT)

128

THIS IS A REAL LIE WHAT NOT TRUE SECRETS FKLKVG

Posted by DOG on October 7, 2004 at 9:55 AM (PDT)

129

well, now with the huge rumors of a color screen within the next couple of months and an upgrade to a 60 gig hard drive (which also has been rumored for awhile, since there was an order placed by apple for them) i guess we know why the core of the ipod changed.

Posted by Dustin on October 11, 2004 at 3:59 PM (PDT)

130

wow, until this article the posibility of “secrets” within my iPod never crossed my mind. looking back on all the ideas proposed here i have to say… i would settle for a simple customizable welcome screen. much like the one you find on cell phones. im also waiting for them to make an ipod painted to look like HAL 9000, the most famous computer in the history (or future) of mankind.

Posted by FODzilla on October 17, 2004 at 1:03 PM (PDT)

131

I want a “line-in” on the ipod!!!!!!  From my searching, only the iriver offers a “line-in” option - which is huge. HUGE!  Why won’t apple, or other mp3 makers for that matter, offer this?

Posted by Bill Spillz on October 21, 2004 at 10:45 AM (PDT)

132

> only the iriver offers a “line-in” option - which is huge

Archos does as well. I use mine for recording lectures. It’s a bit big for running though, I use a MuVo for that.

Posted by rererecording on October 21, 2004 at 11:53 AM (PDT)

133

My Guss is more to do with iLife, like garage band for instance.  As bill said, would be good to be able to record high quality audio.  what else would you do with 60 gigs (or even 40 gigs for that matter) - my hard drive ain’t that big, so I won’t be loading it up with mp3s or photos to keep in sync with my iPod.
If I had a 60 gig iPod I’d want to keep all my music on the iPod and only drag stuff back to my mac when i needed to.

Posted by Jason on October 22, 2004 at 4:53 AM (PDT)

134

can anyone help me..i dont know howto make my ipod screen blue..thnaks!

Posted by jc on October 23, 2004 at 11:27 AM (PDT)

135

you can play music on ipods, bet you didnt know that

Posted by EatYourDog in NJ on November 22, 2004 at 2:03 PM (PDT)

136

LINUX IPOD!

Posted by allforcarrie on February 9, 2005 at 2:47 AM (PDT)

137

“As with the 4G iPod’s screen, the iPod mini’s pixels can be turned blue by entering Diagnostic Mode (reset the iPod with Menu + Action buttons, then hold Reverse + Action at the Apple logo) and playing with the Contrast test.”

Could someone explain how to do this.  What exact buttons are they talking about? Thanks

Posted by IntenseKipp on June 22, 2005 at 11:46 PM (PDT)

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