Review: Apple Computer iPod 5G with Video (30GB/60GB)
Pros: An attractive, thinner-than-ever iPod enclosure with a bright, detailed 2.5” display. Three major audio bugs fixed (and only one minor new one introduced), resulting in best-sounding full-sized iPod yet, plus optional on-screen lyric display. Over fifteen-hour music play time for 30GB model beats Apple’s estimate, 60GB model runs nearly 20 hours. New clock, lock, and timer extras. Dramatically enhanced recording capabilities. Includes good starter case to protect against scratches.
Cons: Implementation of video functionality is incomplete, lacking hardware support for popular standards, and free software to convert existing videos. Though detailed, screen is smaller than both competitors and consumers’ expectations. Discontinuation of top-mounting accessory port precludes use of most prior iPod microphone, remote, Bluetooth, and FM transmitter accessories, and dropped FireWire data support obsoletes existing computer data cables and certain third-party accessories. No longer includes wall charger. Interface is largely unchanged from older iPod interface, and games are getting old.
We could write four different reviews of Apple Computer’s fifth-generation iPod (30GB/$299, 60GB/$399) - one from an audiophile’s perspective, one from a photographer’s perspective, one from a movie lover’s perspective, or one from a mainstream consumer’s perspective - but no single one of those reviews would do full justice to the company’s latest handheld creation. Like every iPod that has come before, this “iPod with video” is a surprisingly enthralling digital music player, somehow physically smaller than you’d imagined, better feeling in your hand, and just plain cooler than the sum of its features.
But because of its increasingly ambitious design, it will be reviewed differently by audiophiles, photographers, movie lovers and mainstream consumers - or at least their media proxies - with each finding things to like and dislike. For instance, as a digital music player, it is unquestionably superior to each of its full-sized predecessors, but it also drops support for certain top-mounted accessories that have become extremely popular. Similarly, it is even better at displaying photographs than last year’s iPod photo, but remains slow at direct-from-camera photo transfers, and drops compatibility with two of the iPod’s three bottom-mounting photo add-ons. And as a movie player, it is several major steps shy of what video fans have been hoping for. Yet for new iPod buyers and mainstream consumers - people who were willing to line up by the millions to buy a $299 20GB iPod last month with lesser specifications, it is a better value in almost every way than before.
Which of these perspectives is right? All of them. Your appreciation of the new iPod will depend precisely on the lens through which you view it. If you are a new iPod buyer looking for a “music player with video as a bonus,” as Apple has pitched it, you will love it. By the same token, if you are expecting a sophisticated portable video player, you will most likely be disappointed. In our comprehensive review, we look at each of the new iPod’s features in turn, so that you can make the best decision about whether it’s right for your needs. Expand as many or as few of the sections below as you like.
What Is the Fifth-Generation iPod? (Click here for details.)
Like its predecessors, the newest iPod is a portable digital media player equipped with a screen, a circular touch-sensitive, five-button controller called the “Click Wheel,” and a rechargeable battery. It is Apple Computer’s “fifth-generation” (5G) full-sized iPod, having been preceded by the original iPod in 2001, the second-generation iPod in 2002, the third-generation iPod in 2003, and both the fourth-generation black-and-white and color iPods in 2004. The 5G retains the same 4.1” by 2.4” footprint as all of these predecessors, and is distinguished from the tiny, screen- and Click Wheel-less iPod shuffle audio player and the mid-sized, color-screened iPod nano audio and photo player. It is the first full-sized iPod to be sold in two colors - white and black - in both of its storage capacities, and without any price premium.
Like every iPod that has come before, its primary purpose is to store and play back digital music that has either been copied from compact discs onto your PC or Macintosh computer, or downloaded from an online store (such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store) on the Internet. However, the full-sized iPod has three other features. First, like both shuffle and nano, it can store and transfer data between different computers. Second, like nano, it can display digital photographs. And third, unlike all prior iPods, its new 2.5” screen can display video clips in two highly compressed formats: MPEG-4 or H.264. For this reason, Apple has alternately dubbed the fifth-generation iPod the “iPod (with video),” as it had dubbed its immediate predecessor the “iPod (with color display).”
Apple’s 30-Gigabyte (30GB) iPod is capable of holding roughly 7,500 songs if nothing else is stored on its internal hard disk, while the 60-Gigabyte (60GB) version stores roughly 15,000 songs. Practically, these numbers will be significantly offset by other types of content such as photos and videos, the latter consuming a comparatively tremendous amount of space, and the former far less. Apple says that both 30GB and 60GB iPods can hold 25,000 compressed photos. The 60GB iPod is advertised as holding 150 hours of compressed video (with audio accompaniment), while the 30GB iPod can hold 75, each using the H.264 standard.
Box Design and Contents (Click here for details.)
Since 2004, iPod boxes have continuously shrunk in physical size, and even dropped the exciting “origami art” unfolding process that once hid each iPod and its accessories in separate compartments for the user to discover. But like the iPod nano, the full-sized iPod has largely recovered in class from the multicolored silhouette boxes released last year.
The fifth-generation iPod’s box is a slightly larger facsimile of the nano’s: a shallow matte black outer enclosure with silver foil iPod and Apple logos, plus a top marking of the iPod’s hard disk capacity, song storage, and PC + Mac compatibility. On one large side, Bono from the rock group U2 sings into a microphone on the iPod’s screen, while the song Feel Good, Inc. from Gorillaz plays with album art on the other. The new iPod’s slim profile is shown on one thin outside, an Apple logo on the other. If you purchase a black-bodied iPod, the unit on the box is black, otherwise, it’s white.
Other than the iPod inside, the box’s other contents are packed in hermetically sealed white plastic pouches: you get one set of white iPod earphones, one USB 2.0-to-iPod cable, and a CD with iTunes 6.0 for Mac and Windows. You’ll also find a plastic piece called the iPod Dock Adapter, a small and initially useless plastic plate that now comes with both iPods and nanos. The iPod Dock Adapter will let you fit your iPod safely into an upcoming optional Apple accessory called the Universal Dock ($39), which holds the iPod upright on a recline and connects it to your computer, stereo, television, and/or an Infrared remote control ($29). Rather than having to produce their own plastic docking plates to fit different iPods, accessory manufacturers will be able to use these Dock Adapters instead.
In a move that should delight iPod owners, Apple added one other unexpected new item into the box: a simple gray and white neoprene case. We have previously disliked the cases that were included with iPods, enough that we hardly cared when they disappeared. But as the 5G iPod shares a controversial physical design trait with the scratch-attractive iPod nano - namely, a thick clear front surface that can show more fingerprints and scratches than 3G and 4G iPods - the inclusion of a case is very much appreciated. And by Apple standards, this is a good one: made from the same vulcanized material as the iPod nano Armband, it’s thin but not too thin, embossed at the top with the iPod logo, and stitched on the sides to snugly hold the 5G inside. While it mightn’t be a permanent case solution, we’ve carried ours around in a pocket without any problems, and genuinely like it.
The most notable piece of hardware missing from the new iPod’s box is a wall charger (sold separately for $29, iLounge rating: B+), a part that has been included with every full-sized iPod since 2001, but gradually disappeared from other models over the past year. We’re disappointed but not surprised to see it go. Consequently, you’ll have to recharge your iPod using a powered USB-port equipped computer, which Apple assumes everyone has, or buy the adapter. Mac users will also note that there is no FireWire-to-iPod cable, which as with iPod nano is no longer supported for anything except power recharging. Plugging an optional FireWire cable into the 5G iPod will yield a screen notifying you that data (such as music) cannot be transferred with the cable, but charging is supported.
If you want to connect your iPod to a television set for photo or video viewing, you’ll also need a video cable. If you purchase a $39 Dock, you can use any generic S-Video cable (Radio Shack, $7), but if not, Apple sells a separate AV Cable (iLounge rating: B, $19) that connects to the iPod’s top headphone port. Third parties, most notably Pacific Rim Technologies (iLounge rating: B+), sell shorter retractable alternatives for similar prices.
What Software Comes With the iPod? And What’s Missing? (Click here for details.)
Each iPod ships with a PC and Mac-compatible disc labeled iPod + iTunes, which contains manuals, an iPod software installer and reformatter, and Apple’s iTunes. Now in version 6, iTunes is an easy-to-use and continuously improved tool that converts CDs into iPod-ready digital song files, organizes those files, and enables users to buy additional digital songs for 99 cents each directly over the Internet. Virtually identical between its Mac and PC versions, iTunes transfers files to iPods in either MP3 or AAC formats, and even converts unprotected Windows Media Audio (WMA) songs into iPod-friendly formats. In the past, we have repeatedly praised iTunes for its completeness and relative simplicity as a music organization solution, and it continues to be nearly ideal for that purpose - most people won’t need anything else.
For the first time since its release in early 2001, iTunes 6 now includes support for iTunes Music Store video downloads, enabling consumers to buy music videos and episodes of select TV shows for $1.99 each. These videos are delivered in a ready-for-iPod video format (protected MPEG-4), and require around 5 Megabytes of storage space per minute of run time. As such, a four-minute music video requires around 20 Megabytes, while a one-hour TV show - compressed to 40 minutes without commercials - requires around 200 Megabytes. iTunes stores your videos in a new Videos section of your Source list, and allows you to set auto-synchronization preferences for your iPod in a new Video tab.
But glaringly absent from the package is any way to convert your own video content for iPod playback. Rather than handling it automatically in iTunes, Apple displays a Microsoft-like error message when you try to drag an incompatible file from your video library to the iPod. Occasionally, non-video files are included automatically in the Videos list, too.
The company suggests that you buy a $29.99 piece of software called QuickTime 7 Pro to create iPod-ready videos, and does not officially support any other piece of software for guaranteed iPod-ready video conversion. Consequently, other programs can create files that may or may not play back properly on the iPod, including giving the appearance of playing properly until certain action-intense moments, in which they exhibit problems. We discuss the issues in more detail below under our Video header.
It’s also worth noting that QuickTime 7 Pro can run incredibly slow when converting even a single 2-hour movie - you shouldn’t attempt it with a Mac mini, and may even find it tough with a dual-processor PowerMac. These conversion-related issues are especially galling given the iPod’s extremely limited support for any video files you already have. At a minimum, a good conversion tool should have been included at no charge in the iPod box, and most likely within iTunes, but the better solution would have been to avoid conversion altogether.
The New iPod: What’s Outside (Click here for details.)
Taking design cues from both the color 4G iPod and the recently-released iPod nano, the 5G iPod is more familiar in appearance than most people had expected. For the past year, rumors had circulated that the new iPod would feature an all-aluminum, iPod mini-like body, with a re-oriented screen and control arrangement. As is often the case with Apple, the rumors proved wrong: instead, it looks from a distance almost exactly like a color 4G iPod with a bigger screen and slightly smaller Click Wheel controller, preserving the classic combination of a glossy plastic front casing and a polished metal rear casing. Up close, one other difference is apparent: the glossy plastic front is flat from corner to corner, revealing a thick clear top layer, slightly thicker than the one on the iPod nano, but thinner than what was on the original 1G and 2G iPods. This clear layer has proved scratch-attractive on the nano, but appears to be a bit less so on the 5G iPod.
As before, mirror-polished metal plates the unit’s entire rear and two thirds of each of its sides, reflecting back whatever it sees with Apple, iPod, and electronic certification logos, as well as a small badge identifying the storage capacity, “30GB” or “60GB.” Each iPod is customized with a serial number etched into the metal at the rear bottom, and up to 54 characters of additional text engraving can be done at the top through Apple’s web site.
In a fashion-conscious world, it’s no surprise that Apple continues to obsess over the thinness and weight of its iPods. Though different from each other, both capacities of the 5G iPod are thinner and lighter than the thinnest and lightest color 4G iPod: the 30GB 5G weighs 4.8 ounces and is .43” thick, while the 60GB model weighs 5.5 ounces and is .55” thick. In other words, even the thicker 60GB iPod is about twice the thickness of an “impossibly small” iPod nano, yet another impressive Apple engineering accomplishment. (The picture below shows a 4G 60 and a 5G 60 next to each other.) Both new models feel light - but appropriately so - in your hand, and fit even more easily than before into a shirt or pants pocket.
Unlike iPod nano, Apple did not have to compromise full-sized iPod functionality to achieve the 5G’s size reduction - but “have” is the operative word here. Most positively, the company has actually increased the iPod’s screen size and detail level from 2 inches and 220x176 pixels to 2.5 inches and 320x240 pixels. This new screen is bright, colorful, and considerably more detailed than before. You’re much less likely to see any of the edges of fonts or icons than you were with the original iPods, and videos appear to be nearly TV-quality.
On a similarly positive note, the iPod still has a sturdy metal Hold switch on its top - now off to the left side, rather than its predecessor’s right - and a headphone port, which is now on the right rather than in the center. And there is still a Dock Connector port on the iPod’s bottom to connect accessories such as docks, batteries, and the iPod Camera Connector. Even the Click Wheel, which has shrunk from the 1.625” diameter one used on 4G iPods, is still entirely usable at an iPod mini-sized 1.5” on the 5G, and not as surprisingly small as the 1.125” controller on iPod nano. However, the Wheel’s sensitivity feels a little too twitchy by comparison with the 4G iPod’s, and could benefit from additional calibration.
The change that has inflamed the passions of iLounge readers and editors alike is bigger. Apple chose to remove and not replace the iPod’s two-year old top-mounting accessory port, which once wisely permitted top attachment of devices such as remote controls, iTrip, iTalk, and most Bluetooth wireless add-ons. This choice has two consequences: if you own any of these add-ons, you’ll need to buy new ones. And the new ones will mount on the iPod’s bottom, which in many cases is not a great place to attach things. We strongly feel that Apple got this idea right before.
It’s worth only a tiny note that the new iPod includes the same white earbuds that shipped with iPod nano: they’re visually identical to their 4G iPod predecessors except for the size of their headphone plug, which has been made a little smaller. This has no impact on their performance.
Overall, the new iPod’s look is up to snuff with past Apple designs, heightened a bit because of the large ratio of the screen to the rest of the body and its thinness, but diminished a little by its lack of rounded 3G- and 4G-like corners. The black and white models perfectly parallel the smaller iPod nano versions, but do not surpass them in cool factor - nano’s a hard act to follow.
The New iPod: What’s Inside (Click here for details.)
For years, the insides of a full-sized iPod have been pretty predictable - a PortalPlayer CPU (here, a PP5021, like the one in iPod nano), a Wolfson Micro audio chip (here, the new WM8758), 32 Megabytes of RAM, and a 1.8” hard disk drive (here, a super-slim Toshiba MK3008GAL or MK6008GAH). To that mix, Apple has added a new component: the Broadcom BCM2722 video processor, which is an iPod-customized version of Alphamosaic’s VC02 (VideoCore II), a chip that decompresses H.264 and standard MPEG-4 video, and can create 3-D visual effects as well. This processor was accurately reported as a new iPod component back in April of this year, and is exciting to see in action.
What do all of the other parts mean? The new iPod largely preserves its predecessors’ architecture, but is more power-efficient, and yet also more powerful. Once one of the largest components in any iPod enclosure, the internal rechargeable battery has been shrunk considerably, though it differs in size and capacity between the 30GB and 60GB iPods. It’s the first time that Apple has gone with different batteries for different full-sized iPods, and for audio purposes, that’s not too objectionable. We’ll discuss the consequences under Battery Performance below.
The new hard drive components also place Apple in an interesting situation. By going with Toshiba’s slimmest and most efficient 1.8” disk drive - one introduced in June of this year - the company can apparently choose today between only 4 capacities - 20GB, 30GB, 40GB and 60GB - without having to further increase the iPod’s enclosure size and power consumption. Until Toshiba releases an 80GB drive in the same series, or Apple decides to thicken the enclosure for the drive and a bigger battery, the 5G iPod should top out at 60GB. That said, a new drive could easily be in the works at this very moment, and launched within months.
Interface and Menus: Audio (Click here for details.)
Unlike iPod nano, which uses a scaled-down version of the color iPod interface released in October, 2004, the 5G iPod uses a partially scaled-up version. As before, a light gray bar at the top of each screen identifies where you are in the iPod’s menus, while a battery indicator on its right provides a mostly accurate count down to complete discharge. Newly blue-colored Play and Pause icons in the upper left corner let you know whether the iPod’s paused or playing.
As before, a variety of black text on white background menus dominate the iPod’s interface. You begin by selecting from Music, Photos, Videos, Extras, or Settings, each leading to a second menu of choices. If you want to bypass the menus and just start listening to music, you click on the sixth option, Shuffle Songs, and your entire stored audio collection will play back in random order.
Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t kept the proportions of its on-screen graphics the same as before: for instance, the new iPod’s screen has a smaller battery icon, and rather than larger text or more graphics, the screens have an overabundance of white space. There are positives and negatives to this. By keeping its fonts and other graphics mostly the same, Apple has increased the number of menu choices on any given screen to a maximum of 9 lines, and 30 or more characters per line. As such, an extended full song title like “Beware of the Boys with Punjabi MC” can display without scrolling in menus, and the longer “Outta Control Remix feat. Mobb Deep” can display during song playback if no album art is included. But on most of the iPod’s screens, you now see a lot of unused white space, which in today’s proportions looks less elegant than underdesigned.
Audio playback is almost identical to the color 4G iPod. You select audio from the Music menu, which lets you choose from Songs, Artists, Albums, Playlists, Podcasts, Genres, Composers, or Audiobooks. Once you’ve selected a song, a screen called Now Playing appears. In most cases, as with iPod nano, pressing the center button on the Click Wheel while listening to a song moves you through five screens: volume adjustment, a “scrubber” that moves to any specific point in the current track, a large picture of the current song’s album art, song lyrics, and a 0- to 5-star rating screen. Touching the Click Wheel and moving back and forth changes volume, your place in the track, your place in the lyrics, or rating; pressing the forward or backward buttons on the album art screen moves you through multiple pieces of art (and their associated “chapters”) in podcasts. As with the screen, album art is now bigger and more detailed than before.
On-screen lyric display is the only major audio interface change from prior full-sized iPods. With the release of iTunes 5, Apple enabled users to cut and paste text - specifically, song lyrics found on the Internet - into each one of their songs. The simultaneously released iPod nano offered the ability to display these lyrics on screen while the song was playing, a near-perfect way to memorize or just sing along to your favorite songs. Now the 5G iPod’s lyric display feature benefits from its larger screen: words are both bigger and bolder, displaying 12 large lines of 45-character text at a time versus nano’s 8 smaller lines and thinner characters. Consequently, a feature we really liked in iPod nano is even better here.
There’s another small but interesting audio addition. If you scroll through the Music menus, you’ll find tracks with little TV icons on their right hand sides: these are the audio tracks from music videos or video podcasts you’ve downloaded. You can listen to them in audio-only format, use the volume and scrubber controls, and view one frame of the video (pre-selected by iTunes) as large on-screen album art.
Video playback is not accessible unless you go back to the iPod’s main menu and interrupt audio playback, and you cannot rate the audio track or display lyrics for it - iTunes won’t allow you to save lyrics to music videos. (You can, however, see the video podcast’s description text with another center button press.) Separately, Apple also has not enabled Playlist Folders - introduced with iTunes 5 - to display as folders on the new iPod. Instead, you just get a list of all the songs from all of the playlists, mashed together. We hope to see this change in the near future.
Interface and Menus: Photos (Click here for details.)
Photo playback has received several minor upgrades from the 4G iPod. There are now 30 thumbnails per page rather than 25, and because of the new 2.5” screen, photos are now both larger and more detailed when displayed individually.
Landscape-orientation, 4:3 (TV-ratio) photos still display in full-screen mode, while portrait-orientation (tall) and widescreen-formatted photos appear with significant black bars on their sides. In any case, a photo will look better than on the prior color iPod.
Improving on both the color 4G iPod and nano, the 5G iPod now has 11 slide-to-slide transition effects, having added cube across, cube down, dissolve, page flip, radial, and swirl to the previous push across, push down, wipe across, wipe down, and wipe from center. The new effects are most likely being handled by the VC02 video processor.
Derived from Apple’s iPhoto software for Mac OS X, these new transitions, especially the 3-D page flip and cube effects, look good and are truly welcome additions. As before, you can turn them off or set them on random, the latter a more meaningful option than before given the added diversity.
There’s one more small addition to the photo slideshow feature: previously, you could adjust volume during a photo-and-music slideshow, but you couldn’t see the current volume level on screen. Now a nice clear volume overlay appears when you touch the Click Wheel’s scrolling surface, and fades out when you’re done adjusting volume.
Photographers will also want to read Familiar Features below for more details on the iPod’s direct-from-camera photo transfer functionality. As before, the iPod requires an attachment to transfer photos, and does so slowly.
New Interface Features: Video (Click here for details.)
The biggest addition to the new iPod is a new top-level menu choice titled Videos. Clicking on Videos brings you to a list of five default choices: Video Playlists, Movies, Music Videos, Video Podcasts, and Video Settings. Another choice, TV Shows, is added underneath Music Videos if you’ve downloaded iTunes Music Store TV shows to the iPod.
Like standard playlists, Video Playlists allows you to display collections of videos you’ve clustered together with iTunes. Similarly, Movies is a raw list of the movie clips you’ve added yourself to the iPod, minus the music videos, TV shows, and video podcasts. But each of those other three categories is sorted: click on Music Videos for an alphabetized list of artists, then song titles for their videos; TV Shows gives you a list of show titles, then either a list of separate seasons (if you have them), or just the episode titles you have, and Video Podcasts are organized by podcast title, and then episodes. That Apple segregated the various types of video and organized them differently is a nice touch that shows the company isn’t satisfied just to let you dump content onto the device and sift through it yourself, as other devices have done.
With only three options, the Video Settings menu is fairly simple: TV Out can be switched to on, off, or Ask, TV Signal to NTSC (US/Japan) or PAL (Europe), and Widescreen to on or off. If you turn TV Out on, videos will not display on the iPod’s screen - you’ll get a simple text display with volume and scrubber controls. Turn it off and the videos will display on the iPod. Unless you’re travelling overseas, you’ll leave the TV Signal setting alone. And widescreen mode is a universal toggle for all of the iPod’s video displays. Set it “on,” and any video clip formatted for 16:9 or another widescreen aspect ratio will display on screen with black bars at their tops and bottoms. Set it “off,” and videos will consume virtually all of the iPod’s screen. The widescreen mode setting affects TV output in the same way.
Before we get into the video playback interface, we need to say a few words on video quality. Given the iPod’s small screen size, we did not believe that we would feel this way, but videos that have been properly optimized for the 320x240 display screen look good. Even videos that haven’t been properly optimized - and we’ve tried 480x208 videos (above) and 720x320 videos - look better than you’d expect on the iPod’s screen. The higher-resolution videos might not look perfectly smooth in frame rate, but they’re close, only looking messy or artifacted when you output them to a television set or push the iPod’s stated 480x480 maximum MPEG-4 resolution. The image below shows how occasional pixel shifting looks in a 720x320, 24fps video encoded with the program Handbrake. If you’re unimpressed, realize that over 95% of the movie plays without problems, and given the high resolution, it’s surprising that the iPod plays it at all.
Our praise is tempered by two facts: first, and as suggested earlier, getting properly optimized videos for the iPod can be very time consuming, expensive, and problematic. Apple has figured out how to put videos on the iPod, but other than offering the option of paying $2 per clip for them, has not made the process easy for the average person to do. As such, several of our editors - even ones who have bought or are buying the 5G iPod - are not even bothering to create iPod-ready videos for it, and will not pay for the content currently available. Secondly, QuickTime 7 Pro “Export to iPod” 320-pixel video looks good on an iPod, but not on a TV-screen. Therefore, until the tools, prices, and quality improve, we are not going to recommend that you convert your movies or pay to download 320-pixel versions of music videos or TV shows. Apple knows the importance of equally elegant hardware and software solutions, and until it offers such a package for the iPod’s video functionality, we will not highly recommend it.
Thankfully, the iPod’s hardware and user interface engineers got a lot right with the 5G. Apple’s guiding philosophy with all things iPod has been simplification, and the iPod’s video playback is an extreme example of this in practice. You have only three controls over videos: play/pause status, volume, and your location within the video. All three of these controls are represented on screen with nice new clear overlays like the ones used in iPod photo slideshows, fading away when you’re done using them.
This is a major contrast with the video controls of competing devices, and surprisingly, a mostly good one. Creative’s Zen Vision has no fewer than 11 buttons that can be used during playback, two for volume, two for rewinding, three for forwarding, one for play/pause, one for turning an overlay on and off, and one to bring up a menu for screen size changes and seeking. In addition to its separate volume and brightness buttons, Sony’s PlayStation Portable puts up a bewildering array of 14 icons on screen and leaves you to scroll, sort through and figure them out. Simple as they are, the iPod’s stripped controls just work.
But it wouldn’t have hurt to include an iPod screen brightness toggle. We know from playing with the new iPod’s diagnostics that it can drop the screen down to 50% and 0% brightness levels, which would conserve battery power and possibly prove better for users who either don’t need the super-bright display, or don’t need any video at all.
It would also be great to have more control over the on-screen formatting (stretching) of video clips; Creative offers 3 options to Apple’s 2, and Sony offers 4. Though more precise fast forwarding and rewinding would be nice, scrubbing works, and so more brightness and stretching options are the only video interface features we really missed.
New Interface Features: Extras (Click here for details.)
As with iPod nano, Apple has added three new non-video “Extras” to the 5G iPod. First up is an even further improved version of Clock, now with “world clock” functionality, dual analog and digital displays, and the current date and time on screen at once. The 5G iPod can display four clocks on screen at once to nano’s two.
The first is a clock pre-set to California time - genericized from Cupertino, and starting with the year 2000, just in case Apple invents a time travel machine and you bring your iPod along for the ride. You can bring up a menu that lets you choose an alarm clock playlist or beeping sound, your preferred city, whether daylight saving time is on or off, and whether you’d like your iPod to turn off on a sleep timer. You can also add more than one clock to the display by choosing “New Clock” from the main Clock screen, then selecting a city from many around the world. Once that’s done, you’ll have two (or more) clocks at once running on the iPod, and can scroll through them with ease. Clocks go black during night time in a specific city, gray during daylight hours.
Then there’s Stopwatch. With a brushed metal interface, Stopwatch gives you the ability to keep time for your runs, and easily access a lap timer as well. There’s enough room on the iPod’s screen for a very large timer and 3 prior laps at any given time. The iPod stores your times for future reference, providing a breakdown of date, time, total time, shortest lap, longest lap, and average lap, with each lap time underneath.
Also built around a metallic interface, Screen Lock lets you prevent your iPod’s contents from being accessed by anyone but you - or the person who guesses the 4-digit code. You use the Click Wheel to enter the code, make sure you haven’t forgotten it, and then lock your iPod. Failed attempts are shown with a set of red flashes around the digits; multiple failed attempts don’t do anything. If you do forget your code, just dock the iPod with your computer, and it’s unlocked.
Familiar Features, Revisited and Expanded (Click here for details.)
Like the rest of the 5G’s interface, each one of the color 4G iPod’s old Extras has been given a very modest visual refresh for the new 2.5” screen. Calendar, Contacts, and Notes all use bigger and better text than before, a semibold or bold Myriad that’s easier on the eyes at all times.
On related notes, Apple enabled iTunes 5.0 for PC to synchronize Calendars and Contacts from Microsoft Outlook, and preserved the feature in iTunes 6. Consequently, PC users no longer need to use other software (or manually sync) to take advantage of these iPod features. In addition, the 5G iPod can display thumbnail photos for your contacts, too, a feature which wasn’t included in nano or the color 4G iPod.
And yet again, the iPod has shipped with the same four games on recent iPods, minis, and nanos: Solitaire, Music Quiz, Brick and Parachute. The games are unchanged from their color 4G iPod versions, but use bigger graphics. In truth, we’re getting tired of these games - it’s time for Apple to add more, or allow other companies to create them without having to replace the iPod’s operating system.
Unlike the iPod nano, two other “optional” extras - ones that pop up only when compatible add-ons are attached - are still found in the 5G iPod. One is Photo Import, which allows you to connect Apple’s iPod Camera Connector and transfer photos from certain digital cameras and card readers. Over the course of several large file transfers, Photo Import seemed similar to its performance on the color 4G iPod. It took 30 minutes to transfer 405MB worth of photos to the iPod using our Canon PowerShot S400 (4.44 seconds per MB), and 28 minutes for the identical load (4.15 seconds per MB) with our Rebel XT, comparing with about 4.1 seconds per MB in an earlier test of the S400 with the color 4G iPod. Battery drain remained unimpressive. At the end of 3 total file transfers to a fully-charged 5G, an hour and 20 minutes had elapsed, and the iPod’s battery showed 20% remaining capacity.
The other feature is Voice Memos, which unfortunately could not be tested at this time. Why? There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the new iPod supports dramatically superior recording quality: a monaural mode at 22.05kHz, and a stereo mode at 44.1kHz. While the iPod still records in .WAV format - an old standard that creates large, uncompressed files, this is most likely a deterrant to keep the iPod from becoming a portable CD ripping and bootlegging device. Even with this limitation, it’s a major, major jump over the voice-quality 8kHz sampling of previous iPods, and should excite portable podcasters tremendously.
The bad news is that we couldn’t test this feature at all, because there is no microphone attachment that’s compatible with the new iPod: none of Belkin’s three microphone accessories, Griffin’s two iTalks, or DLO’s VoiceNote work with the 5G because of its missing top connector. Belkin is working on new solutions, and hopefully Griffin is planning an updated version of iTalk, as well, but for now, you can’t do anything with this feature. Will people really want a mic mounted on the iPod’s bottom? We’ll have to see.
Battery Performance and Transfer Speeds (Click here for details.)
For the first time in full-sized iPod history, we’ve had to test more than one full-sized iPod to determine whether it meets Apple’s claims for battery performance. Additionally, battery performance is now measured in many ways: music playback, photo playback, and video playback, with the very real prospect that you’ll play back videos either on the iPod’s screen or through a TV. So we tested all of the alternatives to create as complete a picture as we could. The results were generally good.
Apple claims that the new 30GB iPod will play music for 14 hours, photo and music slideshows for 3 hours, and iPod on-screen video for 2 hours. In our tests, it outperformed Apple’s claims in two out of three categories, but missed one as well. It played music for 15 hours and 30 minutes, photo slideshows for 2 hours and 32 minutes, on-iPod video for 2 hours and 10 minutes, and iPod-to-TV video for 3 hours and 10 minutes. Apple similarly claims that the new 60GB iPod will play music for 20 hours, photo and music slideshows for 4 hours, and video for 3 hours. In our tests, it missed the music claim by 10 minutes, playing for 19 hours, 50 minutes, but exceeded Apple’s photo and video claims, playing a music photo slideshow for 4 hours, 47 minutes, iPod-screen video for 3 hours, 23 minutes, and on-TV video for a hefty 5 hours and 24 minutes.
To provide a frame of reference, color 4G iPods were able to achieve music playback times of around 17 hours a piece, beating Apple’s estimates by 2 hours. By comparison, the black-and-white 4G iPod that was introduced last July ran for 12-14 hours, and 3G iPods ran for much less. Therefore, regardless of whether they meet or miss Apple’s estimates, the new iPods are at least acceptable overall. The 30GB 5G iPod is a bit under the color 4G in battery performance, while the 60GB 5G iPod is superior. The only iPod that’s ever done better than the 60GB 5G was the second-generation iPod mini, which actually ran for over 26 hours in our testing.
File transfer speeds for the 5G iPod were OK. Without FireWire as a transfer option, you’ll need to rely on a USB 2.0 port, the speed of which can be significantly dampened by other things going on with your computer. Without trying to optimize our test machine in an unrealistic way, a test transfer of 548MB of music to the 30GB iPod took exactly 90 seconds, a transfer rate of 6.1 Megs per second. This compared with 7.6 megs per second with an iPod nano, 6.7 Megs per second for the color 4G iPod, and 5 Megs per second with the iPod mini. However, in a longer test transfer of 3.0GB of music (560 songs), the iPod took 10 minutes and 52 seconds, for a transfer rate of 4.6 MB per second. We don’t get terribly worked up over transfer times for music, and don’t suspect you do, either. However, as before, if you plan to transfer photographs to the iPod, you’ll also need to wait for iTunes to synchronize all of your pictures, a process which still seems to take longer (hours, even) than it should. Your photo transfer time will depend on the speed of your computer and the size of your photo collection.
[Editor’s Note: This section was updated after publication to include the result of our final 60GB photo slideshow battery test, which clocked in at 4 hours, 47 minutes - 47 minutes above Apple’s estimated run time.]
Audio Quality (Click here for details.)
As the fourth-generation iPod increased in popularity, so did calls from serious music lovers for Apple to improve its audio quality. Despite praise for the iPod’s neutral sound balance, people eventually identified three different areas of audio gripes with the prior iPod: a static and hard drive noise that overlapped songs every time the hard disk was accessed, a general lack of bass power and related distortion when the “bass booster” equalizer was activated, and sizzling distortion that could be heard around the edges of notes on piano solos. So we immediately connected our most sensitive headphones to the 5G iPods, and were pleased to find that all three of these issues had been either reduced or eliminated. Here’s what we found.
The hard drive and static noise issue is gone. This problem was initially obvious in black-and-white 4G iPods, but thanks to some tweaking on Apple’s part, became hard to notice in color 4G iPods unless using high-end headphones. Now, even using $900 Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros, the noise isn’t there. We’re thrilled.
Bass performance has been improved. In testing with a collection of lossless tracks and the UE-10 Pros, small but noticeable enhancements of the bass are definitely apparent, giving tracks an inoffensively warmer sound. With Bass Booster turned on, distortion is not absent in the 5G, but is definitely lower, and has a smoother, less mechanical edge.
Piano solos are now clean. Previously, in certain tracks, distortion (a light sizzling) could be heard around the silent edges of piano notes. Comparative testing with one of the sample identified piano tracks(“Bladiator”) provided by iLounge readers shows that this distortion has been completely eliminated.
All of these fixes make us considerably happier about the 5G iPod’s audio performance than we were before, and we’re thrilled to see that Apple has addressed them. That said, the iPod is still not perfect in audio. For instance, iLounge readers correctly point out that there’s a minor bug that occurs when you stop a video to play back an audiobook: the video’s audio track continues to play and overlaps with the audiobook, creating a messy, staticy sound. And we continue to wait for the company to provide custom dynamic equalization through graphic equalizers on the 5G’s screen, a feature found in many of the iPod’s best competitors, and still hope that Apple will add pro-friendly features such as crossfading, tempo and pitch adjustment.
Value (Click here for details.)
In order to provide a balanced perspective on each of the iPod models, we have felt compelled to point out the comparatively poor dollar-to-Gigabyte ratio of Apple’s smaller music players - despite the fact that we know that many people don’t care. With the release of the new iPod, we feel equally compelled to offer praise to Apple for improving the capacity (and generally, other features) of its $299 iPod model, thereby increasing its value to consumers. Therefore, while we’ll update our prior chart below, it suffices to say that the new 5G iPods are the company’s best values to date.
|shuffle||512MB||$99||$198 per gigabyte|
|shuffle||1GB||$129||$129 per gigabyte|
|nano||2GB||$199||$99.50 per gigabyte|
|nano||4GB||$249||$62.25 per gigabyte|
|4G iPod||4G 20GB||$299||$14.95 per gigabyte|
|5G iPod||30GB||$299||$9.97 per gigabyte|
|4G iPod||60GB||$399||$6.65 per gigabyte|
|5G iPod||60GB||$399||$6.65 per gigabyte|
As the table shows, strictly from a value-for-dollar standpoint, the 5G 30GB iPod and 5G 60GB iPod are the best choices you could make today, and even better than their 4G competitors because of their added features. By comparison with past iPods, there are only two major offsets: the 5G’s lack of a top-mounting accessory port, which we hope will be remedied soon by industrious third-party developers, and its lack of a wall charger - a $29 added purchase that has now been passed on to the consumer. But by comparison with present iPods, none of which now includes a charger or a top-mounting accessory port, the value equation is profoundly tilted in favor of the new iPods. Because of either 5G’s battery strength, hard drive capacity, and superior audio/video/photo functionality, the only reason to prefer a $50 less expensive iPod nano is physical size. And the only reason to prefer an iPod shuffle is the super low price.
Compatibility of Existing Accessories (Click here for details.)
When we reviewed the iPod nano a month and a half ago, we cautioned readers to wait on third-party accessory purchases. Now we will repeat the warning again: we know for a fact that some developers are rushing “5G” products to market in order to satisfy holiday demand, and will only later revise and improve their designs to fix some of the rough edges. You can make the choice as to whether something that’s released quickly is adequate for your needs, but don’t be surprised to see something better come out a few months from now when the dust has settled.
If you want to use existing iPod accessories today, you’ll find that there are three categories of products that are known to work entirely, work partially, and not work at all. Here’s the breakdown.
Any top-mounting accessory that used the extra pins found on the iPod 3G/4G/mini’s extended headphone port will not work on the 5G iPod. This excludes all headphones except for Headbanger Audio’s iPod EarSubs and Mophie’s Song Sling for iPod shuffle; the rest will work on the 5G iPod. This also excludes the Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter, BlueTake i-Phono BT420EX Bluetooth Wireless Headphones, Logitech Wireless Headphones, C. Crane FM Transmitter, Macally BlueWave Bluetooth Stereo and Streaming Headset (with physical modification), Macally PodDuo, Macally PodWave/AP-A111, Monster iCarPlay Cassette Adapter, Monster iSplitter, Mythix iChant, Newer Technology RoadTrip! 87.9FM, Sony CPA-9C, Upbeat Audio Boosteroo Revolution, and XtremeMac iPod Headphone Splitter (if physically modified). All of these headphone port accessories will work electronically, though speakers will now hang awkwardly off of the iPod’s top right side.
Most, but not all bottom-mounting accessories will work. Our top recommended in-car FM transmitters, such as Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter and Auto Charger (iLounge rating: A-), and Newer Technology’s RoadTrip! 87.9FM (iLounge rating: B+), work perfectly. All of the top-rated car chargers, docking speaker systems, and battery packs we’ve reviewed over the past two years work as well. The new iPod supports both USB- and FireWire-based charging, so charging should not be an issue with any name brand existing device.
Many older iPod and iPod mini accessories are incompatible with the iPod. Here’s a partial list.
ABT iJet, Belkin Digital Camera Link, Belkin Media Reader, Belkin TuneStage, Belkin TuneTalk, Belkin Universal Microphone Adapter, Belkin Voice Recorder, BTI The iPod TuneStir, dvForge JamPod, DLO iDirect, DLO VoiceNote, Engineered Audio RemoteRemote 2, Griffin AirClick/AirClick mini, Griffin iBeam, Griffin iFM, Griffin iTalk, Griffin iTrip (all versions), Macally BlueWave (unless modified), Nyko iTop Button Relocator, PodGear PocketParty (unless physically modified), Targus RemoteTunes, TEN Technology naviPod/naviPro EX, XtremeMac AirPlay, and XtremeMac iPod Headphone Splitter (unless physically modified).
Of this list, we highlight Belkin’s Media Reader and Digital Camera Link as prime examples of incompatible bottom-mounting accessories that might surprise you. These devices were built to communicate with the iPod through FireWire data connections, and can no longer do so because of Apple’s decision to discontinue support for FireWire data transfers. In the interim period before new accessories become available, our advice would be to check the web sites of accessory manufacturers - you can start with iLounge’s iPod Directory - to confirm whether the companies guarantee 5G accessory support.
Compared With Other Devices (Click here for details.)
For months, we’ve been wondering how a new video-enabled iPod would compare with existing devices from companies such as Sony and Creative. Would Apple take the smart road and open the new iPod to multiple video formats, equip it with the large screen that company CEO Steve Jobs repeatedly suggested people would want, and give it the robust battery power that other devices have lacked?
Regrettably, the answer to each of these questions is no. Apple chose to support only two video formats, specifically ones that will almost certainly require users to convert all of their existing videos. Depending on your computer, and on the way you attempt to re-encode videos, you will find that they take 1-5 times their original run times to transfer into iPod-ready files. You will then watch them on a 2.5” screen, a size that even Apple itself has repeatedly called into question as viable for a video player. And you will get no more than 3.5 hours of on-screen video playback from the more expensive of the two iPods. For these reasons, this iPod - touted by Apple as possessing video “as a bonus,” and as a “first step” in its video business - is far from an ideal video player, or competitor to either Sony’s PlayStation Portable or Creative’s Zen Vision.
But until Sony other companies release their next-generation products, Apple is helped tremendously by two facts: the simplicity of its interface, and the fact that neither of these otherwise interesting products offers the right solution, either. While the $399 30GB Vision offers four times the on-screen video resolution, supports the greatest number of standard video formats, and includes a detachable (!) battery pack, the new 60GB iPod at the same price dusts it on music storage capacity, play time and quality, offers actually comparable video play time, and arguably superior watchability - only the iPod can actually be viewed on an angle. Creative cut corners to get a 640x480 display into the Vision, and as such, watching movies is surprisingly harder on the eyes than doing so on the smaller, lower-resolution iPod screen. The Zen’s screen shimmers and can’t be viewed from the sides; the iPod’s is great from any perspective, and better color-balanced, besides.
The Zen Vision does have one huge strength, however: on-TV video quality. A video encoded for that unit is substantially better than ones created by QuickTime Pro 7 for the iPod, and as such, videophiles won’t need to create separate versions of movies to cater to portable and non-portable viewing. The iPod really needs a solution more like this. Creative also came up with two smaller features that Apple should consider - first, an adjustable optional dock that can be reclined on your choice of viewing angles, and second, an integrated speaker for times when you don’t want to watch video with headphones. We liked both of these ideas, and Creative’s implementation of them.
Sony’s PlayStation Portable is a different story. Its screen is itself almost as large as this iPod, and at its maximum brightness setting, equally bright. If you could toss the same video files at both the iPod and PSP, you’d likely find that the PSP outdistances both iPods in battery time, as well, and can easily swap in another rechargeable battery in when it’s done with the first. Most impressively, and unlike the iPod or the Zen, it plays enviable, fantastic portable games.
But as a practical video player, the PSP’s omissions are different from and arguably more significant than the Zen’s. It has very limited - next to zero - audio or video library management capability, or even capacity. Even if you pay the standard $249 asking price for a PSP, you will still need to buy memory cards to store movies, or repurchase them for $20 a piece in the proprietary UMD disc format to watch them on the PSP. Additionally, Sony has done less than Apple or Creative to ease video library conversion and playback for its device - third parties have partially picked up the slack. And unlike the Zen, which can be stuck in a man’s pants (not shirt) pocket, the PSP cannot. It’s big, and mostly winds up being used in one’s home. By comparison, the iPod’s even smaller size makes it infinitely more portable, and therefore far more likely to actually be with you in a place where you might want to watch video content.
If we were buying a video player to watch content on a TV, we’d pick the Zen. If we were buying a gaming device, we’d pick the PSP. And if we wanted a music device, or a device that we’d actually use to store and watch hours of video content on its own screen, the iPod would be the obvious choice. This could change if Sony releases a smaller, hard drive-equipped PSP with better library management tools, or if Creative improves its screen and pricing. Either of these things could happen - or not - before Apple releases the next iPod.
As suggested at the beginning of this review, rating the fifth-generation iPod is by no means an easy task: it is an outstanding music player and organizer, an increasingly impressive photo player - a beautiful piece of technology. And regardless of its only acceptable video performance, there is no device at its size and price that does all of these things as well as it does, or looks as elegant doing them. For first-time iPod buyers, especially those focused on its audio functionality, this is an exciting new product.
But there is also no getting around its omissions as a video player, or pretending that it is the sort of true Video iPod that would merit our unabated excitement and an unqualified high recommendation. Apple knows as much, having set the bar for itself since 2004 with accurate public statements it has since uneasily sidestepped. Specifically, though its 4:3 screen is better than expected, it is still too small, and the device is further limited by its short on-screen video playback time, inability to play existing videos in already-popular video standards, and its lack of free, fast tools to convert videos into its own formats. In essence, it is for video what the original iPod would have been like without MP3 support, a CD ripper, a good battery, and good headphones.
Though we entirely understand Apple’s “get video into people’s hands” strategy on the new iPod, we (and existing iPod owners) get excited when the company pursues the impossible, not just the practical. As with the iPod shuffle, it would be in our view a Pyrrhic victory if the company’s fortunes were built on “pretty good” implementations rather than “insanely great” ones. So while we acknowledge that this new iPod will sell in the millions, and may achieve Apple’s short-term goals, both it and the current state of video downloads from the iTunes Music Store have left us wanting more. Today, the new iPod is recommendable almost entirely on the strength of its stellar audio functionality. Our sincerest desire is that its successors become equally proficient in video.