Review: ATO iSee 360i Video Recorder/Player
Pros: A rechargeable battery-powered 3.6” screen and video chip accessory capable of adding photo playback, video playback and recording features to certain Click Wheel iPods. Runs for up to four hours on included battery, with clean, well-backlit 640x480 display.
Cons: Incompatible with Mac-formatted iPods, physically incompatible with iPods larger than 30GB in capacity, requires additional $20 adapters for use with any iPod other than 20GB and 30GB fourth-generation models. Videos must be converted to compatible format using included software, but can’t be played with iPod or iTunes once converted; device also creates 5G iPod- and iTunes-unfriendly video recordings, which user must start and stop manually rather than scheduling. Controls, even including volume adjustment, are somewhat clumsy; iPod pass-through use requires you to turn unit around. Random crashes make user experience occasionally annoying.
Prior to the release of the fifth-generation, video-ready iPod last year, two companies were working on accessories that added video screens to existing iPod models. The first was Nyko, which showed us a working prototype of its ambitious $200-$250 Movie Player, a clear and white flip-up accessory with a 3.6” screen, two speakers, a six-hour battery and a universal iPod dock, capable of displaying movies and photos on its screen. Nyko froze development of Movie Player once the 5G iPod was released, and hasn’t announced any intention to resume the project since. But another company called ATO unexpectedly debuted iSee 360i ($250), a somewhat similar black- or silver and white-colored accessory, back in January of this year; we were surprised when it started to appear in stores recently.
There’s one and only one reason we’re reviewing iSee 360i at this point - long past the date at which its fully supported* models stopped being manufactured - and that’s to let our readers with older iPods know that it exists. At $250, it’s a modestly less expensive alternative for such users than upgrading to one of today’s 30GB video-ready iPods, and as ATO points out, it does have a larger screen than any iPod currently on the market. But a number of poor design decisions have doomed iSee 360i to be an albatross accessory - one that’s only interesting because of a couple of features, and in our view, ultimately not worth buying.
The Big(-ish) Picture: What You Need to Know Up Front
In essence, the iSee 360i is the Movie Player, only smaller - measuring 6” by 3.2” by 1.1” and weighing 6 ounces - and stripped down. ATO’s complete package includes a rechargeable battery pack, a simple carrying sleeve, several video cables, docking station, and wall adapter. Once you’ve inserted the rechargeable battery into the unit’s bottom compartment, a port on the unit’s bottom lets you recharge that battery (and the iPod) either via direct connection to the included wall charger, or via connection to the included dock.
On a positive note, the larger-than-iPod footprint enables ATO’s device to house a Movie Player-matching 3.6” LCD screen and a rechargeable battery good for up to four hours of video playback. The screen is a significant jump up from the old 2” and smaller displays that graced iPods before the 5G’s 2.5” video screen came along, and the four-hour playback time is a little bit better than the performance of today’s most powerful, 60GB 5G iPod. More mixed is the fact that the iSee 360i-enclosed iPod becomes pocketable only in a really big pocket - as with Movie Player and other larger devices, you’ll really have to carry it in a bag most of the time. And least positive is the fact that it has no Movie Player-like speakers, and lacks Movie Player’s universal iPod dock.
The latter point requires a bit of further explanation - the reason for our asterisk (*) above. Out of the box, iSee 360i only properly fits one type of iPod, and that’s the fourth-generation 20GB model - the ever-so-slightly thicker fourth-generation color 20GB and 30GB iPods are a tight fit, but can be squeezed in, while anything thicker won’t fit inside at all. In other words, if your iPod has plenty of room to store videos after you’ve loaded on your music collection, it probably can’t connect to iSee 360i. This part of the story becomes worse with additional details. Though ATO notes in small characters on iSee’s box that it supports iPod minis, nanos, and 30GB fifth-generation models, it turns out that the company wants to sell you each model’s individual adapter for $20 a piece - something we haven’t seen in any other recent iPod accessory. Finally, we haven’t been able to find a 5G adapter for sale online, and so had to improvise one with a thin instruction book, which provided enough support for us to connect that iPod to iSee’s internal Dock Connector.
There’s one final, major caveat, which makes it surprising that iSee 360i received a Made For iPod certification: it doesn’t work with Mac-formatted iPods at all. You need to format your iPod with a PC for iSee 360i use, and then run an included CD-ROM to create iSee-ready folders on the iPod - a process that isn’t painful unless you’re a Mac owner. In sum, iSee 360i is a “Made For PC-Formatted Click Wheel iPods with 30GB or Less Storage Capacity, Additional Adapter Potentially Required” accessory. These folders are then managed using pieces of software included with the accessory, rather than with iTunes.
Setup and Interface
During the setup process, ATO’s CD sets up the iPod with a new iSee folder, containing its own Music, Photo, and Video libraries, amongst other files. iSee can only read files found in these directories, and not ones found elsewhere on the iPod.
Once your iPod has been properly set up and loaded with sample (or your) media, you dock it in iSee to reveal a menu with five total icons, three of them on the screen at once. The menu starts with the three central icons - Music, Video, and Photo - and has you move left or right to reveal the other two, iPod and Record, respectively.
The iPod menu leads to two disappointing screens. iSee treats the iPod as little more than a hard disk with an AV-out port, so you have to flip the unit over and control its iTunes-synchronized music, photo, or video libraries from the iPod’s screen and Click Wheel. Your headphones will work as plugged into iSee’s top, letting you hear whatever music your iPod passes through, or whatever audio the iSee 360i is outputting at a given time. You have to turn iSee around to access the iPod’s content.
Music mode lets you play back MP3 format tracks stored in the iSee library. They have their own album art, which is managed through an included program called VidScape, and shown here on screen.
Videos can be selected from a screen with six thumbnail images, with a playback screen similar to that of iPod 5G videos; ATO includes a sample baby video, tutorial/demo for the unit, and obscure music video content; you really need to provide your own files, as explained further below.
Photos are initially shown on a 3x3 thumbnail screen, which you can modify to a 2x2 or 5x5 “mosaic,” complete with black-bar captions if you want them turned on. Once selected, a photo looks good on screen, and can be zoomed in on and panned around - nice ideas, but clumsily implemented because of the unit’s simple controls. Videos and photos can also play back through a TV set via the included docking station.
Then there’s the Record menu. Select this and you’ll see a live image of whatever’s being piped into the unit’s video port at that moment. Pressing play starts the recording going, and holding the button down stops the recording. Whatever you’ve recorded can be instantly viewed on the device without further conversion, but again, keep reading for additional details.
Finally, several settings menus are hidden on the iSee 360i - holding down the M (menu) button in various modes brings them up. The basic settings menu is where you can adjust the unit’s volume - a really bad place to hide this feature - turn TV out off or on, reset the unit’s settings, or view the current firmware revision and a user guide as pictures. Other menus are photo or video specific.
During the course of testing, we experienced a number of random system hang-ups - the iPod remained in “Do Not Disconnect” mode while iSee’s controls became unusable, and the screen basically locked up or turned off in the middle of something. This was the case when testing with the latest version of the company’s firmware, and though it didn’t substantially affect our enjoyment of the device, it was annoying and generally required that we pull the rear battery out to reset the unit.
One Novel Feature: Video Recording
Like Nyko’s Movie Player, the iSee 360i is distinguished from more recent, larger iPod portable video displays such as iLuv’s i1055, Memorex’s iFlip, and Sonic Impact’s Video-55 by two key features: like Movie Player, iSee 360i lets video-less iPods play videos, as shown below, and it can also record live video from a connected device. Sort of.
Ideally, a portable video recorder would connect to any video playback device out there, but iSee 360i relies on proprietary cables, which means that you currently can’t transfer videos from anything other than a device with RCA-style video outputs. To that end, ATO includes four cables and matching minijack ports - one video-in, one audio-in, one video-out, and one audio-out - for an included iSee docking station, and if you want to record video, you dock iSee 360i, then connect your playback device to the dock using the cables. If your playback device uses a minijack port for output, like current iPods, you can’t record from it, but if it has composite RCA ports like most VCRs, DVD players, and DVRs, you can.
The good news about iSee 360i’s video recording feature is that it works - generally. Videos are saved in a recordings folder as VID_00xx.AVI, using the MPEG-4-based DivX 6.0, with a 640x480 resolution, 30 frame per second display rate, and stereo, 44.1kHz audio. You can preview video content on the device’s screen before you press the “record” button (actually, the Play/Pause button), a helpful feature given that the device doesn’t have a timer or other smart mechanism to schedule recordings - you just have to leave it connected to a playback device and stop recording (again, with the Play/Pause button) when you’re done. These videos are ready to play immediately on the iSee screen, and on most computers with special software, but they won’t play through iTunes or on today’s video-ready iPods unless you convert them. Similarly, you can’t play 5G iPod-ready video files on iSee 360i, except under a single, highly unusual circumstance - the only reason we had to test the device with a 5G iPod.
Video Playback: Transcoding Almost Always Required
ATO’s box suggests that you can “view iTunes content on your iSee,” but as it turns out, there’s only one way to do this today: buy a fifth-generation iPod for $300, make your own adapter, use iTunes to put videos onto your iPod, and then play the videos through the iPod’s TV-out feature. In other words, iSee 360i is as iTunes Video-compatible as any old TV with a video-in port, and adds a 1.1”-larger screen to your 5G iPod - not the world’s smartest use of $250. The only people who will really consider buying this will be owners of older, video-less iPods, and what they’ll be viewing are videos created by the device or transcoded ATO’s included software, nothing else.
To be fair, iSee 360i’s screen isn’t bad. The 3.6” display looks good and doesn’t induce squinting to nearly the same extent as the 5G iPod’s; it’s also evenly backlit, and at 640x480, has a higher and crisper resolution, looking a bit nicer than the 5G iPod’s screen when viewed from straight on. But it suffers from a very shallow horizontal viewing angle - when both devices are held off horizontal center, the iPod’s smaller display looks substantially better, and as this is a fairly common reality when you’re hand-holding one of these portable devices, iSee 360i is quite a bit less than ideal as a video player.
The same statement is true because of its limited video standard support. In addition to an iPod formatting utility, ATO’s software CD includes a media management program called VidScape, a conversion utility called MediaConverter, and DirectX 9 just in case your Windows Update utility hasn’t been working for a long while. Vidscape can find playable media on your machine and add them automatically to the iSee music, video, and photo libraries, but since iSee 360i’s only supported playback format is that AVI-wrapped MPEG-4 - incompatible with the MPEG-4 files you may already have found online for iPod 5G playback - you’ll find that basically every video you have requires re-conversion. That’s where MediaConverter comes in.
MediaConverter supports the conversion of certain MPEG-1, -2, and -4, VOB, MOV, WMV, and AVI video files, but not all of them - for instance, we couldn’t get it to recognize or convert certain MPEG-4 files we had on our machine. It also converts select photo formats into iSee-ready files, in case you’re using a black-and-white iPod that can’t display these files natively.
We could go into great detail on the overall iSee 360i software and feature concept, but it suffices to say that the company took a decent stab at creating a solution for iPod video playback, transcoding and recording, falling short in equal parts because of timing, format support, and design decisions. It might have been a different story if the company had released a video and photo add-on for iPods back in mid-2005, as Nyko planned to do, but once Apple released its own photo and video solutions, ATO had the choice of releasing a product that was incompatible with most of Apple’s formats and products, or not releasing it - as Nyko did - and focusing on other products instead.
Obviously, ATO chose the former option, and the world isn’t much better for it. iSee 360i’s out-of-box physical compatibility limitations with most iPod models, including both high-capacity devices and more popular low-capacity ones, makes it less than an ideal choice for the majority of iPod owners for that reason alone; the fact that it only directly plays and creates video files that can’t be immediately viewed on newer iPods or in iTunes renders its technology largely dead-end, as well. That it can record videos at all - albeit in a limited, pre-VCR-like way - is its only saving grace, but we honestly wouldn’t buy it for that feature, either. Our advice would be to save your money: if you don’t like today’s video-ready iPods enough to buy one, you won’t have a better overall experience here.