Review: Apple Composite AV Cable (iPod/iPhone)
Pros: An attractively designed six-foot audio-video cable designed to connect video-capable iPods and the iPhone to standard-definition television sets, using metallic component RCA plugs on one end, and a Dock Connector on the other. Includes power adapter to keep iPod or iPhone charging while it outputs video. Compatible with Apple’s 2007 Universal Dock.
Cons: Even bulkier than prior iPod AV Cables; audio and video connectors are attached with thin cords, and are hard to disconnect from TV, contributing to a surprising feeling of fragility. Price tag is shockingly high for a composite video cable.
Having designed the iPod and released its reference-standard video docks and cables for years, Apple is in a unique position to positively or negatively influence the future course of such accessories’ development. Last month, the company debuted three new video-ready iPods, and this month, it released three seemingly innocuous new video accessories, the Universal Dock, Composite AV Cable ($49), and Component AV Cable. The first two of these products are updates to 2004-2005 Apple accessories that sold for lower prices.
Like the new iPods, these three add-ons look nice on the outside, but they’re hiding a secret inside: Apple is using lock-out chips to control third-party video accessory development and effectively preventing older, less expensive accessories from competing against Apple products. By including one of these chips in each of these new, expensive accessories, and requiring that the new iPods communicate with the chips in order to play back video, Apple has effectively created a hidden “video-out tax” on both iPod accessory consumers and third-party manufacturers—you literally must buy new chip-inclusive items if you want to see your new iPod’s video on a separate display. For that reason, and though we recognize that iPod and iPhone owners may not be able to find less expensive alternatives to these three accessories, we cannot in good conscience recommend that you purchase them. We explain further in the review below.
Composite and Component AV Cables, Contrasted
Apple’s Composite AV Cable is, like the $19 iPod AV Cable it replaces, designed for use with virtually any television set produced in the last 10 years, and many released before that. It contains a set of three RCA-style connectors—left and right stereo audio, plus a single yellow composite video plug—in addition to a USB plug for charging. The video and USB connectors are separated on the cable from the audio plugs for easier connection to separate devices; Apple runs 40 inches of cable from the Dock Connector plug to a splitter, after which three cables with 33 inches of length split off into audio, video, and USB. There’s also a $29 2006-vintage USB Power Adapter in the Composite AV Cable package, enabling you to charge your iPod or iPhone while it’s playing back audio and video. Together, these parts take up a lot more room than the prior iPod AV Cable, which was already surprisingly space-consuming by cable standards.
Notably, though the Composite AV Cable is longer and has cooler-looking metal AV connectors than the prior iPod AV Cable, the cables running to those connectors are thinner and more fragile-feeling than before, and we found the metal connectors more difficult to disconnect from our TVs. Unplugging the connectors had us on edge every time, wondering if we were going to snap the cables in the process; pricey though they may have been, we’d never had a concern like this with Apple cables in the past. Our feeling was that the more expensive, newer cable just doesn’t feel as durable, at least when frequently attached and detached rather than staying connected to the same set. Thankfully, the iPod Dock Connector and USB connector feel as strong as always, and if you’re planning to connect the cable once and leave it in place, you should have no concerns.
By comparison, Apple’s Component AV Cable is for use with enhanced- and high-definition television sets possessing separate red, green, and blue “component” video input ports. Apple’s box describes its component output as YUV-standard, and as with the Composite AV Cable splits this one into three sections: one contains the three RCA-style video plugs, one contains left and right audio plugs, and one contains the USB connector. The same general lengths of unified and split cable are preserved from the Composite AV Cable, a USB Power Adapter is still included in this package, and the same “too thin” feeling applies to all of its audio and video cables. We found it extremely difficult to unplug the Component AV Cable from the backs of our TVs.
How do the cables actually work? It should be mentioned at this point that if you try to output video from a third-generation iPod nano or iPod classic using virtually any video cable or accessory except for the three reviewed here, you’ll see a white screen with the words “TV Out Enabled” and “Please Connect Video Accessory” under an image of an Apple cable. This screen is the sign that these iPods are looking for an Apple-developed “authentication chip” inside the video accessory. The iPod touch and iPhone, by contrast, don’t bother with a screen like this: they look for the chip before starting video, and if they don’t find it inside whatever they’re connected to, they’ll just start playing video on their own screens, rather than bringing up a TV-out dialog box as an option.
Both of the cables and the Universal Dock contain the new authentication chip, so you can connect any one of the three, or two at once, and your iPod will start displaying video on a connected device. The cables and Dock also work with now discontinued fifth-generation iPods for video out, though using the earlier, cheaper AV Cable and/or Dock remains a less expensive alternative. Notably, the new iPods are each capable of a higher maximum resolution of video output than last year’s video-ready model. The iPod nano and classic now output up to 480p or 576p video when connected to the Component AV Cable, while the iPod touch and iPhone output at lower 480i or 576i standards. None of these devices matches the maximum video output capabilities of the separate, HDTV-dependent Apple TV.
Specs aside, iPod output looks good with both cables. Unlike past iPods, the new models all have extremely threadbare on-screen displays, bereft of the nice translucent overlays of the 5G model, so all you see on screen is the video, without play/pause icons, a scrubber, or other temporary reference information. And, as expected, you will be able to see differences in sharpness, color fidelity, and other dimensions of the iPods’ video output when using the two different cables. By design, the Component AV Cable can output a sharper, more color-accurate signal than the Composite AV Cable, and for better or worse, this is noticeable in videos: the more compressed and artifacted your videos are, the easier those imperfections will be to see through the Component AV Cable.
Notably, the Component AV Cable’s full potential will only be realized by video content and output superior to most of the highly artifacted, sub-640x480 iPod/iPhone-optimized video that’s out there today; for that reason, though the Composite Cable presents videos and still images with less sharpness, it may actually look better with your videos thanks to its softness. It is also more universally compatible with television sets, making it the preferable option for travelers and those who do direct-from-iPod presentations.
It’s almost impossible to feel good about accessories like these: not only do they represent poor values relative to their predecessors, but their very release constitutes a breach of the trust iPod owners have had in Apple for the past several years. No one wants to buy the same accessories twice, or be forced into buying outrageously expensive cables even once, but new iPod buyers will find that’s exactly what Apple’s expecting with these parts; for the first time, those interested in buying a more affordable, Remote-less Universal Dock will have to consider third-party options, as will those who want less expensive cables without power adapters.
There are two positive ways to look at this situation. The iPod has gained its first component video cable, which means that those interested in higher-quality iPod video output now have an option—the only reason for its slightly higher rating. And those familiar with Apple’s previous $99 iPod AV Connection Kit bundle will note that the realigned $49 Universal Dock plus Apple Remote set gives you the choice to add either component or composite video output for $49 more, bringing your total cost for Apple’s video-ready bundle to $98. Assuming you wanted all four parts, and didn’t buy them previously, you’re no worse off today than you were before.
From our perspective, however, Apple has effectively deprived iPod users of the opportunity to have it any other way. Video-out from iPods used to be a $10-20 addition, and you didn’t need to spend $50 on a dock if you just needed it for computer-side charging and synchronization. Apple hasn’t just locked the iPods; it has locked users into paying more for accessories they don’t need, and which in some cases do less than the ones they replace. Worse yet, from what we understand, thanks to the new lock-out chips, third-party developers will now struggle to compete with Apple’s higher-than-ever pricing.
Overall, no matter how decent the new Universal Dock, Component AV Cable, and Composite AV Cable may be when considered in isolation, all three of these products and the unnecessary video lock-outs that spawned them are bad news for video iPod owners. They represent further steps away from the barely tolerable accessory pricing levels and compatibility guarantees users have been dealing with for the past two years, and constitute a $50-100 “video out” tax that we find unconscionable. If you can hold off on video-out, we recommend that you save your money.