On October 12, 2005, Apple Computer introduced the next-generation version of its successful full-sized iPod, and iLounge Editors Jeremy Horwitz and Dennis Lloyd were on hand to try it. We had our first session only minutes after the new iPod was formally introduced, left for a bit to chat with third party developers and see an as-yet-unannounced accessory, then returned for a second session to do further tests and comparisons. This special First Look is based on our early experiences, and of course will be followed by a formal review of shipping hardware in the days to come.
We’ll also note that we’ve spent considerable time preparing for our look at the new iPod by testing its two most frequently-noted potential competitors, Sony’s $249 PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Creative’s new $399 Zen Vision, two portable multimedia devices that are very different from each other, though each overlaps the new iPod in certain ways. We’ll have many more comments on this topic in the days to come, and include some initial thoughts below.
The New iPod
Variously called “iPod with video” (Apple technical support), the “fifth-generation iPod” (Apple public relations) or “the white iPod” (Apple CEO Steve Jobs), the new iPod is at first glance very similar in size and shape to its predecessors. Retaining the well-established “full-sized iPod” footprint of 4.1 x 2.4 inches, it doesn’t make a “wow, that’s small” initial impression until you see it from the side. Instead, you’re drawn to its flat face, different-than-before proportions of screen and controls, and its two body colors. In fact, the new iPod will be available next week in four total flavors.
Your first choice will be the body color. Paralleling the iPod nano, a glossy white and matte gray version will be accompanied by a glossy black and matte black version. No shock: the white version is classic and elegant, while the black version is bad boy cool. And also like nano, two capacities will be available. Each 30GB model will sell for $299, while each 60GB model will sell for $399. The numbers and colors only tell part of the story, however: both models are thinner than last generation’s 20GB iPod. And there’s another surprise, too.
Viewed from the side, the 30GB iPod is 31% thinner than the 20, at only 11 millimeters, while the 60GB iPod is 12% thinner, at only 14 millimeters. But what Apple representatives didn’t point out unless asked was that the slimming has come at the expense of battery life. The 30GB iPod is now promised to run for 14 hours of music, down from its predecessor’s 15, with only 3 hours of photo slideshow playback versus 5. Unusually, the 60GB iPod is said to run somewhat longer – 20 hours of music, but still down 1 hour to 4 hours of photo playback. It’s the first time one full-sized iPod has differed from another on battery life.
Is thinness really to blame? Partially: the smaller casings leave no room for bigger batteries. But the more direct culprit is 5G’s newer, better screen. While keeping the color palette the same – 260,000 colors – Apple has boosted the size from 2.0 inches to 2.5 inches, and the pixel count from 220×176 to 320×240. The result is a screen that looks visibly larger, but also considerably more detailed. It also requires nice, even backlighting, which eats up the new iPod’s battery juice.
Why would an iPod need a bigger screen? Video playback.
Contradicting an interview he gave The New York Times in early 2004, in which he suggested that consumers weren’t interested in watching videos on a screen smaller than 3 inches in size, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs was nearly effusive about the new iPod’s 2.5” display. And although the display was not what iLounge’s editors were hoping for – and continue to hope for – we had to concede that videos played back on the screen looked good. We sampled 50 Cent’s Candy Shop and Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, and found them hard to distinguish from the quality of a full-sized television – at least, on the iPod’s screen.
As shown in the photo, you select videos from a text-based interface identical to the one used for music – not the picture-heavy interface used for digital photos. All videos use the same general display, though there are systems of organization for different types of video. User-defined video playlists – including Smart Playlists – can be created, as well.
A TV-style icon on the right of the screen identified video clips, which took longer to access on the hard disk than music. Apple equipped each iPod with libraries of Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows, and Video Podcasts. The sample movies were taken from Steve Jobs’ other company, the movie studio Pixar, which provided a series of eight previously released “shorts.” No full-length feature films were available, and Apple provided no explanation as to how people would convert their existing DVD movies for playback on the new iPod. The 30GB model is capable of holding 75 hours of video, compressed with typical settings, while the 60GB model holds 150, assuming no music or photos are on the device at the same time.
During video playback, simple volume and track scrubbing (skip forward/back) controls were available – just as with standard music playback – but there’s not much more to the control system. (Using the smaller Click Wheel seemed to be just as easy as it was with the 4G iPod – size hasn’t changed much.) Icons appeared as clean overlays on the existing graphics, rather than fuzzing out part of the image with translucent bezels, as was done with iPod photo playback, and video playback on competing devices such as Creative’s Zen Vision. The videos we saw appeared to be smooth and running at 30 frames per second (TV-quality), equivalent to the PSP and better than the occasionally stuttering Zen, but we’ll need to test our own videos first to reach real conclusions.
Additionally unlike the Vision, the new iPod’s screen was viewable on angles other than “straight on,” a sign that although Apple compromised a lot on screen size, it didn’t compromise much on quality. But what if you don’t want to watch your movies on the iPod?
Well, there’s a Video Settings screen for that. Kept simple, like the iPod’s photo slideshow settings, this screen lets you turn TV output on and off, change between NTSC and PAL video signals (for overseas viewing), and flip between widescreen and standard display modes. The latter feature’s value was not obvious during our initial hands-on session with the iPod, which appeared to continue to play back clips in widescreen mode regardless, but we believe that this may have as much to do with software encoding of the videos as anything else. We’ve seen the inverse problem on Creative’s Zen Vision, namely Zen’s tendency to incorrectly display widescreen movies as full-screen ones.
Is there any video bummer? Well, the big one on the hardware front is playback time. The 30GB iPod runs for only 2 hours, says Apple, when playing back video. And the 60GB iPod runs for 3. That’s considerably short of both the PSP and Zen Vision, which run for 4-6 hours – and both include replaceable batteries. Yet again, Apple dropped the ball on including that – apparently the most frequently requested iPod feature – and because of its video functionality, that’s now a considerably more relevant omission. Given that the prior iPod drains additional battery life when outputting to a TV screen, it remains to be seen whether a 30GB iPod can even last long enough without a wall charger to show a complete movie on a TV – and pity, now there’s no charger in the box. We’ll have further comments on this subject in our review of the product.
Getting Video Content
On another note, bringing existing videos on to the iPod isn’t as easy as we’d hoped. Apple could have chosen to support a wide range of video formats, but instead opted to support only two: MPEG-4, and its newest flavor H.264, the video technologies underlying Apple’s QuickTime 7 and iChat AV applications. While we are big fans of MPEG-4 because of its ability to compress huge movies into relatively small files, the encoding process is slow – even slower, and prohibitively so, for H.264 – and few people have movie or TV clips already in this format. You can now use QuickTime 7 to compress old videos into iPod-playable format, but will you want to?
The alternative is to purchase videos from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. In addition to selling Pixar’s shorts, Apple announced a groundbreaking deal with Disney – owner of both its eponymous kids’ channel and the ABC television network – to make 5 key TV shows available for paid download. At $1.99 per episode, the TV shows Lost and Desperate Housewives have the potential to prove as popular online as they already are as free broadcasts, and the additional shows Night Stalkers, That’s So Raven, and The Suite Life of Zach & Cody will prove interesting tests, as well. Other networks are apparently in negotiations to provide TV content, and if the list of iTunes Music Store podcasts is any indication – every network worth its salt is already developing free audio content – paid video can’t be too far off.
Shows can be purchased individually or by season. And contrary to what we were told by Apple representatives in the hands-on area, the company does appear to be offering bundle prices for bulk purchases: a 24-episode season of Lost, for example, sells for $34.99 – less than $1.50 per show. You’ll need plenty of time to download all of the episodes, but that’s cheaper than the $58.99 list price of the Lost Season 1 DVD, and also lower than Amazon’s $38.99 discounted price for the set. Apple’s movie clips and a library of 2,000 music videos also sell for $1.99, while video podcasts and movie trailers will be free – at least, for now. Will people pay for content other than TV shows and full-length movies? You tell us, but our inclination is that not too many people will. For more details on iTunes 6’s new features, read our brand-new Introduction to iTunes 6 feature article.
What Else Can You Do With Videos?
That’s the weakest part of the equation. On a positive note, Apple unveiled Front Row, a media center-like interface for its iMac personal computers, which is capable of playing back photos, music, DVDs and saved videos with an interface that’s simple enough for anyone to understand – and pixel-perfect, even on a large screen.
Unfortunately, while Front Row looked awesome, as did music playback, video clips didn’t. Because Apple has chosen to use a very low resolution – 320×240 – to encode videos, they display significant chunkiness and artifacting on a big screen. In other words, it’s hard to keep your eyes off the blocks that keep on appearing in the video, and Apple did not introduce a way for the iMac to send videos to a television. However, you can use one of Apple’s existing AV Cables ($19, sold separately) to output video directly from your iPod to the TV. Again because of the quality, whether you’d want to or not remains an open question.
The other big issue is Fairplay, Apple’s digital rights management software. Fairplay permits you to transfer the videos to five devices, but not to burn them on CDs or DVDs. In two words, that sucks. Given a choice between a $38.99 box set of DVDs from Amazon or a $34.99 download of low-resolution, unburnable video clips, we’d take the DVDs any day of the week. Getting them on to the iPod might not be easy, but frankly, if we’re going to cough up that sort of cash for TV shows, we want better quality and better usage rights than that.
Though Apple got the downloadable TV shows concept, pricing, and day-after-airing implementation entirely right, it got the consumers’ needs portion of the iPod + iTunes equation hugely wrong. When you can do better with an off-the-shelf DVD recorder, VCR, or TiVo than with a paid downloading service, something’s not right. And it needs to be fixed – with higher-resolution video and superior usage rights – before we are going to make any significant purchases of video content from the store.
What About the New iPod’s Music? Photos?
Though it has added video support to its plate, the new iPod’s still a music-focused device. Nothing much has changed about the device’s interface for accessing that music, or photos, or any of the color 4G iPod’s other features – they’re all still there, but on a screen with a lot more white space.
Apple claims that the sound quality has continued to improve on 5G over its predecessors, at least rivalling the iPod shuffle, which was praised for its bass response. We’ll wait to make final judgments on this issue until after we’ve had a chance to sit down in a quiet area with the final unit, but certainly hope that various noise issues identified by ourselves and our readers have been remedied once and for all. On another note, the company regrettably has refused to budge on its preset equalizer settings, still providing a drab list of text options rather than the graphic equalizers so many people have requested.
But the aesthetics of music playback have improved. Album art is now more detailed and larger than before, and the ever-increasing list of potential types of audio content fits easily on the new iPod’s 9-line text display.
[Editor’s Note, Oct. 14, 2005: Because of its importance to podcasters, we devoted a separate report earlier on the 12th to discussing significant new recording capabilities that Apple added to the new iPod. Click on the link for the details.]
Photos are now larger, more detailed, and benefit from an increased number of thumbnails on screen at once – now 30, up from 25 on the color 4G iPod. In a less obvious addition, slideshows can now take advantage of 3-D transition effects – cube, page flip, and twirls among them – making the iPod experience even closer to a Mac OS X photo slideshow experience, too.
Other Features and Omissions
Most predictably, Apple has dropped the old iPod’s extended headphone connector in favor of a simple, right-mounted headphone port. A Hold switch on the left works as before.
Apple’s also kept the Dock Connector on iPod’s bottom, thankfully centered for easy mounting of the iPod on third-party accessories – including almost all of the old standbys that have worked with 3G, 4G and mini iPods in the past. In the only major under-the-hood omission we’re aware of in the new iPod, Apple has in fact dropped FireWire synchronization support, as it did with iPod nano and iPod shuffle, so certain devices (such as Belkin’s camera connector) won’t work. Apple’s iPod Camera Connector, however, will.
To make better use of the Dock Connector, Apple today unveiled the Universal Dock ($39), which is the same size as prior Apple iPod (photo) Docks, and carries the same rear S-Video, data, and audio output ports, but includes two new features. First is an infrared port on the dock’s front, for use with the optional infrared remote controller, Apple Remote, pictured below. Equipped with six simple buttons, the new Remote was said at the event to cost $19, but actually costs $29. It works with Front Row on the iMac, or can be paired with Universal Dock, one device at a time, to control any dockable iPod (3G through 5G, mini, and nano) placed in the Dock. Five adapter plates for 3G, 4G, and mini iPods are included, while nanos, 5Gs and future iPods come with their own adapters. Spares will be sold in 3-packs by model for $9 through Apple.
Its second new feature is a variable line output. Apple reps erred last time and told us that the nano’s Dock would include that feature, but it turned out to be exclusive to the Universal Dock. As a result, the Universal Dock will default at its highest volume level – equivalent to a line-out – then dampen the volume to lower levels if you use the iPod or the Apple Remote. Incidentally, the remote is nice, simple, and small, like an iPod shuffle but larger, and with a “menu” button in addition to volume and track controls.
In the “somewhat predictable” category, Apple’s brought over three new Extras introduced in the iPod nano: a World Clock application, a Stopwatch with Lap Timer, and Screen Lock, a way to prevent unauthorized people from accessing your iPod’s contents.
Less predictably, Apple has opted to include a simple white sleeve-like case with every 5G iPod. Why would they do that, after neglecting to include cases with both black-and-white and color 4G iPods? The answer is simple.
The iPod’s old clear plastic front is back. As we suspected when we saw iPod nano, Apple has reverted back to using a thick layer of clear plastic on top of its white or black base colored plastics, a design which unfortunately has the tendency to show scratches. Like nano. We’ll see whether 5G is nano-esque when we have it in our own hands, but the potential’s there.
Some Initial Thoughts on Value
Apple’s decision to up the base-level iPod’s capacity from 20GB to 30GB was both surprising and impressive: for the same price as last year’s black-and-white 20GB model, this year’s iPod adds photos, some video, and 50% more capacity. At only $50 more than the 4GB iPod nano, the difference in features is compelling in all ways save size.
Regardless of any review the new iPod receives, we’re convinced that Apple has a no-brainer solution for its customers: in every way except battery life and the absent wall charger, you get more this year than you did last year, and even if you didn’t think you wanted one, you’ll now have a hard disk-equipped video player for the cost of last year’s music player – or the cost of a Sony PSP with only 1GB of flash memory. The 30GB iPod is $100 cheaper than the 30GB Zen Vision, too. Unless a competitor can come up with a radically improved device, there’s no question that Apple will have the most popular – not most powerful – video player around by this time next year.
The 60GB iPod generally offers a better value proposition than before, as well. It now eclipses the smaller model in battery life, and yet doesn’t add enough bulk to be considered “big” by historic iPod standards. Considering all the types of content the new iPods can hold, higher capacities finally seem almost justified, whereas the need for 60GB and 80GB drives previously was limited by the small sizes of music collections. We’ll have to see how the devices perform in our tests, but our feeling is that the 60GB model may well prove the smarter buy of the two.
Concluding Thoughts – For Now
Our final shot shows just how much the iPod family has evolved. On the left is the first-generation iPod, thick and heavy, while its successors shrink in size while adding more horsepower by the month. What a great ride, and great evolution it’s been so far.
As always, we look forward to bringing you the best review of the new iPod possible – and doing so responsibly, without rushing and missing details that will be important to you. Because of the new iPod’s unpredictable arrival date, and our desire to do it justice with thorough testing, we hope that you’ll be patient and wait for our comprehensive final review. As always, thanks for your support, and for reading.