Pros: Better-featured, less expensive updates to last year’s top-of-line iPods, featuring brighter 2.5” screens, superior video playback time, a new search feature, superior earbuds, and the option of up to 80GB of storage capacity. Fourteen- to 20-hour audio run time and three- to six and a half-hour video run times are supplemented by new downloadable movies and games, ever-growing collection of compatible car, home, and portable accessories, including several audio recorders. Fully compatible with existing 5G iPod cases. Top-priced model’s overall battery and storage capacity is wonderful.
Cons: Though improved in brightness and color accuracy over prior version, 2.5” screen is still too small for long-term video viewing, and users still must convert videos to one of only two compatible video formats. Unlike photos and videos, games can only be played on the iPod’s small screen, and sometimes with poorly implemented controls. Users must download iTunes themselves prior to using iPod. Interface is in need of further visual updating.
Updated! It’s almost under the radar in terms of “generations” of iPod – Apple’s new second-generation version of the “fifth-generation iPod” is really an iPod 5.5, with three major hardware updates under the hood of a device that is cosmetically identical to the iPods released in October of last year. (Note: Today, we’ve also heard the new iPod called the ‘enhanced Fifth-Generation’ model; pick the name that you like the most.) Now available in two capacities – a standard 30GB model for $249 and a super 80GB version for $349 – the physical sizes of these iPods are the same as the prior 30GB and 60GB models respectively, but boast superior battery life (3.5 hours of video on 30GB, 6.5 hours on 80GB) and brighter screens with brightness controls. According to an Apple representative, the new screens have actually been appearing surreptitiously in 5G iPods shipped prior to the show, but went unnoticed prior to now.
After years of suggesting that its iPod platform was “all about the music,” Apple Computer eleven months ago released its first iPod with video playback capabilities, the fifth-generation “iPod (with video)” (iLounge rating: A-/B+). A still image from U2’s Original of the Species live music video graced the original 5G iPod’s box, and Apple began to sell music videos and TV shows through its iTunes Store.
This week, the iPod’s transformation from music player to multimedia device throttled forward. After touting the tremendous growth of its TV show library – but hardly mentioning music videos – Apple added both movie and game downloads to the iTunes Store, and offered newly “enhanced” fifth-generation iPods to take advantage of the new types of content. Packaged in boxes featuring Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean on one side and the song Dani California from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium on the other, the Enhanced 5G models promised superior screen quality, video playback time, a new search feature, and superior price-to-capacity ratios than their predecessors.
In short, the new 30GB iPod ($249) and 80GB iPod ($349) deliver entirely on these promises, and though they still fall short of the larger screen viewing experience that movies and other forms of video content unquestionably deserve, they are better values than the original 30GB and 60GB iPods that came before. This article updates our earlier 5G iPod review with tests of the new models’ batteries, screens, and other features; if you’re familiar with our previous coverage, our drop-down text lets you read the entire update review, or easily skip to the Interface and Menus: New Features and Conclusions section below.
What is the Enhanced 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 called Apple Computer’s enhanced “fifth-generation” (5G) full-sized iPod because of earlier models: the original 2001 iPod, the second-generation iPod in 2002, the third-generation iPod in 2003, the fourth-generation black-and-white and color iPods in 2004, and the fifth-generation iPod (with video) in 2005. The Enhanced 5G retains the same 4.1″ by 2.4″ footprint as all of these predecessors, which distinguishes it from the tiny, screen- and Click Wheel-less iPod shuffle audio player and the mid-sized, color-screened iPod nano audio and photo player. Today, you can currently purchase it in two color schemes – white and gray or all-black plastic – each with a bright, glossy metal back.
The Enhanced 5G iPod’s 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 Store) on the Internet. However, the full-sized iPod has four 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. Third, its 2.5″ screen can display video content, including movies, TV shows, and music videos, in two formats: MPEG-4 or H.264. And fourth, unlike nanos and shufles, it can play 2-D and 3-D games downloaded for $5 a piece from the iTunes Store.
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 80-Gigabyte (80GB) version stores roughly 20,000 songs. Practically, these numbers will be significantly offset by other types of content such as photos, games, and videos, the latter consuming a comparatively tremendous amount of space, and the former two far less. Apple says that both 30GB and 80GB iPods can hold 25,000 compressed photos. The 80GB iPod is advertised as holding 100 hours of near-DVD quality video (with audio accompaniment), while the 30GB iPod can hold 40, each assuming 640×480 resolution and the H.264 compression standard; each model can hold many more hours of lower-quality video.
Box Design and Contents (Click here for details.)
For the past two years, Apple has aggressively sought to shrink its iPod packages, step-by-step removing everything but the most necessary components, paperwork, and protective material. The enhanced fifth-generation iPod’s box largely resembles its immediate predecessor, but once again, Apple has streamlined its contents to the maximum extent possible.
Both the 30GB and 80GB iPod are found inside 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, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is shown in a Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movie, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Dani California plays with album art on the other. The iPod’s side profile is shown on one thin outside, while an Apple logo is found 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, you get one set of newly redesigned iPod earphones, a slim black fabric sleeve that you can use as a protective starter case, one USB 2.0-to-iPod cable, and an iPod Dock Adapter that lets you fit your iPod safely into any electronic accessory designed around Apple’s Universal Dock standard. The Adapter (“9” for 30GB iPods, “10” for 60 and 80GB iPods) holds the iPod upright on a recline, allowing you to see the screen while the iPod plays and/or charges. Rather than having to supply their own plastic docking plates to fit different iPods, accessory manufacturers are able to use these Dock Adapters instead.
As noted in our review of Apple’s second-generation iPod nano, we like the new, thoughtfully redesigned earbuds: they feel noticeably lighter and more comfortable than before, providing superior external noise isolation and apparent bass. Gray silicone rubber rings cover their slightly smaller diameter bodies, rather than the larger, hard plastic rings used in Apple’s earlier models. Most users will be very happy with the sound quality and feel of the new earbuds, plus the fact that they do away with their predecessors’ easily damaged and lost black foam covers, entirely. The only thing missing now is the iconic earlier earbud design; Apple has clearly traded off fashion for comfort, a choice we think was ultimately in the best interests of iPod users. Apple has also decided for the first time to sell extra earphones identical to the pack-ins for a price of $29, so you can buy “official” replacements if they break.
What’s Missing from the Box (Click here for details.)
Having seen so many iPods lose pack-ins over the years, it’s no longer a shock to open a new iPod box and find something else missing: this time, the biggest omission was a not-so-little program called iTunes. Now in version 7, iTunes is an easy-to-use and continuously improved tool that converts CDs into iPod-ready digital song files and efficiently organizes those files for transfer to the iPod. 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. That said, it’s basically necessary if you want to use your iPod as intended, but rather than include a potentially old revision in the box, Apple now has you download the latest version of the program from the Apple.com web site prior to iPod installation. If you have broadband Internet access, the 25-Megabyte download will take around two minutes; if not, it could take quite a bit longer.
Downloading iTunes also offers other benefits. PC users can convert unprotected Windows Media Audio files into iPod-friendly MP3 or AAC audio formats, and both PC and Mac users can use the program to turn many types of video files into iPod-compatible MPEG-4 or H.264 files. The program also provides access to Apple’s iTunes Store, which enables users to buy additional digital songs for 99 cents, music videos and TV shows for $1.99, games for $4.99, and feature-length movies for between $9.99 and $14.99. Much to our chagrin, Apple still does not provide any tool – iTunes or otherwise – to allow users to convert their own DVDs into an iPod-friendly format. Legal restrictions and Apple’s increased interest in selling content have made the iPods less user-friendly for video than for audio.
From a hardware standpoint, a couple of useful but not strictly mandatory items have gone from pack-ins to optional accessories over the last two years, most notably a wall charger. The original one (iLounge rating: B+) disappeared from the first 5G iPod’s box, and this week was replaced by a newer, smaller $29 iPod USB Power Adapter.
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 Universal Dock from Apple (iLounge rating: B+), 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 Marware (iLounge rating: A-) and Pacific Rim Technologies (iLounge rating: B+), sell better alternatives for similar prices.
The New iPod: What’s Outside (Click here for details.)
As noted in our review last year, the enhanced fifth-generation iPod is hardly a revolutionary design: it looks from a distance almost exactly like a 2004-vintage color iPod, except 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: quite like Apple’s original 2001 and 2002 iPods, the Enhanced 5G’s glossy plastic front has a thick clear top layer that attracts scratches, albeit at a slightly slower rate than the now-discontinued original iPod nano. Apple’s included starter case largely mitigates this concern; consider InvisibleShield’s film another option.
As in every past full-sized iPod, 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 “80GB.” 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 across two 27-character lines can be done at the top through Apple’s web site.
The latest iPods haven’t become any thinner than their immediate predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: they’re still amongst the industry’s smallest hard disk-based media players. As before, the 30GB Enhanced 5G weighs 4.8 ounces and is .43″ thick, while the new 80GB model is identical to its original 60GB 5G predecessor, weighing 5.5 ounces and measuring .55″ thick. It’s significantly thinner and lighter than Apple’s fourth-generation 60GB model – say nothing of the original 5GB iPod – certainly enough to impress all but the most jaded tester. Though these 5G iPods can’t touch the slimmer-than-pencil iPod nanos on size, both new full-sized models feel good in your hand, and fit easily into a shirt or pants pocket.
As with the original 5G iPod, the Enhanced 5G iPod has a 2.5-inch screen with a resolution of 320×240 pixels. Previously, we described the screen as bright, colorful, and considerably more detailed than the color 4G’s screen, noting that users would be much less likely to see any of the edges of fonts or icons than they were with the original iPods, and that videos appeared to be nearly TV-quality. The enhanced version’s screen is even better, rivaling the best we’ve seen at its size: besides the fact that it can be turned up to a level 60% brighter than before, it renders colors more naturally, creating images that are fully TV-quality in everything but inches. With the brightness turned up, everything displayed on the new screen – video content, games, and menus – looks better than before, but left on a default lower setting, you’ll be hard-pressed to notice a difference from the original 5G model. To conserve power or the light itself, Apple automatically dims the brightness when the iPod is synced with a computer, and provides separate brightness settings for games and during video playback.
Other cosmetic details are unchanged from the prior 5G iPod. There’s still a sturdy metal Hold switch on its top left side and a headphone port on the right, a Dock Connector port on the iPod’s bottom to connect accessories, and a 1.5″ Click Wheel below the screen on the unit’s face. We continue to think that the Wheel’s sensitivity is a little “off” by comparison with the way it felt on 4G iPods – it’s not always easy to scroll when using the Enhanced 5G with only one hand – and could benefit from a user-specific calibration feature.
What’s Inside (Click here for details.)
For years, the insides of a full-sized iPod have been pretty predictable – a PortalPlayer CPU, a Wolfson Micro audio chip, 32 Megabytes of RAM, a 1.8″ hard disk drive, and a battery. Apple added a new component to last year’s 5G iPod: a 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. The Enhanced 5G iPods preserve all of these parts; like last year’s 60GB model, today’s 80GB iPod doubles the RAM to 64 Megabytes, presumably for superior data caching.
Despite the fact that the new iPod largely preserves its predecessors’ architecture, it is more power-efficient, and yet also more powerful. The internal rechargeable batteries have shrunk in size over the years – they now differ in size and capacity between the 30GB and 80GB iPods – but thanks to new power management hardware, the Enhanced 5G iPods now run for even longer than their original 5G predecessors, as further detailed under Battery Performance below.
And even while it embraces flash memory technologies in its mid- and low-end iPod models, Apple continues to use leading-edge hard disk technologies in its full-sized iPods. The top-of-line 80GB model uses a lightweight 1.8″ dual-platter hard disk with perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR) technology, only recently released by Toshiba; the 30GB model uses a less expensive, non-PMR drive, and could conceivably be upgraded to a more capacious 40GB PMR version before Apple discontinues the fifth-generation series altogether.
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. 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.
By keeping its fonts and other graphics mostly the same from the 4G iPod, Apple has increased the number of menu choices on any given screen to a maximum of 9 lines, with 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. The tiny text is difficult to see at any distance greater than a couple of feet away, an issue that has limited the 5G’s appeal when used with large, powerful speaker systems.
To play back audio, you enter 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 was the original 5G iPod’s only major audio interface change from prior color full-sized iPods. Users can cut and paste song lyrics found on the Internet into each one of their songs; the 5G iPod’s lyrics are displayed as 12 large lines of 45-character text at a time, versus the iPod nano’s 8 smaller lines and thinner characters.
The original 5G iPod added one tiny change to the mostly text iPod menus: as 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.
As before, 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 a video podcast’s description text – if any – with another center button press.) Separately, Apple also has not enabled Playlist Folders 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: New Features (Click here for details.)
Very little has changed from the original 5G iPod to the enhanced model in terms of interface: there are only two changes you’ll notice when browsing through menus and songs. One has just been added to the original 5G iPod and iPod nano in firmware: if you move quickly through a large library, the iPod will display a bezeled large-sized letter on screen to let you see quickly where you are in a long list of songs. The start of the alphabet is indicated with “123” (numerals and symbols) before A, then scrolls smoothly to Z.
More interestingly, Apple has added a powerful but easy-to-use search engine that helps you find songs, artists, and albums based on their alphabetical letter content. All you need to do is select the new Search menu option under music and then use the Click Wheel to input your choice of letters to search by. Rather than providing a list of only songs, the feature lets you search multiple iPod databases at once and find results in one big list. Individual songs appear in the list without an icon, while artists show up with a head and shoulders icon, and albums appear with a CD icon. If you’re trying to find something quickly, Search is a great way to do it.
There are only two issues with the Search feature as currently implemented in the Enhanced 5G iPod. Like the same feature in the iPod nano, you need to scroll to and then hit a Done button when you’ve finished entering letters – pressing the Menu button brings you out of the menu rather than back to your search results. Additionally, and unlike the iPod nano, the Search feature in the 5G iPod could conceivably include the audio tracks from music videos, but doesn’t; a search for U2 or Original didn’t locate the audio portions of iTunes-downloaded videos such as Original of the Species or Love U2, despite the fact that they appear in the rest of the music database fields. Tweaks to these two features would be easy to make, and really improve the new search functionality.
Interface and Menus: Photos (Click here for details.)
Photo playback has received several minor upgrades from the 4G iPod, and only two of note from the original 5G iPod. There are now 30 thumbnails per page, which look larger and more detailed than they did two years ago when displayed collectively or individually. Added brightness aside, the Enhanced 5G iPod’s new screen renders photographs with the same level of added color accuracy as it renders videos, which will modestly excite the few people who use their iPods for photo playback.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Interface and Menus: Video (Click here for details.)
The biggest addition to the original 5G iPod was 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 Store TV shows to the iPod. Very little has changed in this portion of the iPod since the original 5G iPod was released.
Like standard playlists, Video Playlists allows you to display collections of videos you’ve clustered together with iTunes. Similarly, Movies is a list of downloaded films, plus the movie clips you’ve added yourself to the iPod, minus the music videos, TV shows, and video podcasts. 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 iPod 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 full-screen videos that have been optimized for the 320×240 display – or something higher-resolution – look quite good. Even videos that haven’t been properly optimized – and we’ve tried 480×208 videos (above) and 720×320 videos – look better than you’d expect on the iPod’s screen. DVD-quality or better 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 maximum resolution.
Our praise is tempered by two facts. First, the iPod’s 2.5″ screen is just too small for comfortable viewing of full-length feature movies like the ones Apple is now selling through the iTunes Store. These movies – almost always presented in a widescreen format, with significant black bars at the top and bottom of the iPod’s screen – are even more squint-inducing than standard fullscreen TV programming, and there’s really no solution to this other than to add a bigger screen to the iPod. Companies such as iLuv, Memorex, and Sonic Impact are achieving this via laptop-sized 7- to 8-inch widescreen video display dock accessories we’ve tested, but the real solution is to integrate a better screen into the iPod itself.
Second is the fact that creating videos for the iPod can be very time consuming, expensive, and problematic. Apple has figured out how to sell videos for the iPod, but it has not made the encoding process easy for the average person to do, and has not supported numerous existing video formats that would allow seamless playback of users’ existing video content on the device. As such, many people – including some iLounge editors – have not even bothered to create iPod-ready videos, and will not pay for the content currently available. Since the release of the original 5G iPod, some companies and free video services have released videos in iPod-ready formats, but these aren’t a substitute for letting users watch their own videos on their favorite portable media player.
Thankfully, the iPod’s hardware and user interface engineers got a lot right with the 5G, so if you have videos to watch, you’ll find the experience almost effortless. 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 four controls over videos: play/pause status, volume, your location within the video, and brightness, the latter three stepped through with the Click Wheel’s central Action button. All four 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. Whenever a video or photo slideshow starts, it briefly flashes a play icon on screen, as well as a black and white battery level indicator, and a volume control bar. We’ve found the battery indicator to be especially inaccurate during video playback mode, frequently providing polarized “full” or “empty” readings when the device has used up some juice but still has an hour or more of remaining video play time; it does a better job in photo mode.
This is a major contrast with the video controls of competing devices, and surprisingly, a mostly good one. Creative’s original 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.
Brightness control is a great new addition to the 5G iPod’s features: it gives you the ability to reduce battery drain when you don’t need the added luminance, or pump up the brightness for short periods of time. With the Enhanced 5G’s brightness level on 50%, you’re still at the same level as the original 5G iPod at its maximum (shown above), so videos are very viewable; turning the level up makes them that much more impressive. That said, we still would like 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; when available, this feature permits content to be squeezed in the user’s preferred way for better viewing on such a small screen.
New Interface Features: Games (Click here for details.)
Though it was simultaneously added in a firmware update to the original 5G iPod, Apple touted the ability to play downloadable games as a major new feature of the enhanced iPod, and our feelings on the subject are lengthy and complex. You can read our full article, iPod Gaming: Great Idea, Good AV, Bad Controls, by clicking on this link, a brief summary of the new feature is found below.
Two years ago, rumors circulated that the fifth-generation iPod would be capable of playing back modern-quality portable games, but it took almost a year for the first titles to appear. As of today, nine titles are available, including classics such as Pac-Man and Tetris, recent cell phone games such as Bejeweled, and new titles such as Apple’s Vortex and Texas Hold ‘Em. Once downloaded for $4.99 a piece from the iTunes Music Store – a fair price for good portable games, but too much for mediocre ones – the games appear under the Extras menu, in a sub-menu called Games, along with the free, pre-installed titles Apple has been bundling with iPods for years.
The good news is that the iPod’s three-dimensional graphics and audio processing hardware leave little to be desired from a “potential” standpoint, unless you’re a hard core gamer: the 5G iPod does a more than competent job of displaying 2-D and 3-D visual effects at its native 320×240 resolution, rendering new games like Vortex legitimately impressive, classic games like Pac-Man and Tetris easily recognizable, and more recent cell phone games like Bejeweled at a level of detail and rich color not found on low-end portable devices. As experienced gamers, we think the iPod has the audiovisual potential to be a good game platform, especially for casual players – though it has unbelievable potential thanks to the iPod’s built-in hard disk, it can not rival the PlayStation Portable in polygonal power or other serious pixel-pushing effects.
Unfortunately, the iPod’s Click Wheel is a less than ideal controller for most games. On a game made specifically for the iPod, like Vortex, the rotary-style controller works fine, but on anything requiring a joystick or joypad, it’s a toss-up as to whether the game will play uncomfortably. Some of the initial developers decided to map classic game controls to the Wheel’s touch surface and buttons in a less than optimal way: Tetris, for instance, lets you rotate blocks with the iPod’s left and right buttons and move left or right with the rotary touch controller, rather than the other, more logical way around. Mandating multiple control scheme options, or possibly even offering separate game controllers, would help the iPod more fully use its gaming potential.
There are a couple of other issues that could really stand to be addressed. Presently, there’s no way to output the iPod’s game video to a separate screen, unlike photos and videos. The result is that you can’t see iPod games on recently-released video display dock accessories or a TV, either of which in our view would further improve the game-playing experience. There’s also very little access to your iPod’s music library from within each game; you can hear what you were playing before you started the game, or listen to in-game music, which varies from non-existent (Pac Man) to good. A simple sub-menu with playlist/artist/album/song access within each game would be great.
Interface Features: Extras and Settings (Click here for details.)
Three new non-video “Extras” were added to the original 5G iPod, and they’ve been carried over to the Enhanced version, as well. 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.
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.
Two Settings additions have been carried over from the original 5G iPod’s firmware. As noted before, the new Brightness setting provides an on-screen meter that allows you to adjust the screen’s luminance across all menus, and Volume Limit lets you set a maximum volume for your (or your child’s) iPod. As noted before, on the Enhanced 5G iPod, the maximum brightness setting is around 60% brighter than on original 5G iPods – the only consequence is that you’ll drain the battery faster when the brightness is turned up higher.
Familiar Features (Click here for details.)
The color 4G iPod’s old Extras- Calendar, Contacts, and Notes – all use bigger and better text than on that model, with a semibold or bold Myriad that’s easier on the eyes at all times. They’re preserved on the Enhanced 5G.
Using iTunes, PC users can synchronize Calendars and Contacts from Microsoft Outlook, while Mac users can do the same using Address Book and iCal. In addition, the 5G iPod can display thumbnail photos for your contacts, a feature which wasn’t included in nano or the color 4G iPod.
The iPod continues to include the same four default games: Solitaire, Music Quiz, Brick and Parachute. The games are unchanged from their color 4G iPod versions, but use bigger graphics. It would be nice to see these refreshed in some way – even letting users download one iTunes Store game for free would be preferable to having these four outdated titles on the device.
There are three other “optional” extras – ones that pop up only when compatible add-ons are attached. One is Photo Import, which allows you to connect Apple’s iPod Camera Connector and transfer photos from certain digital cameras and card readers. Expect transfers to be very slow: we’ve seen dumps of photos take 28-30 minutes for 405MB worth of photos (over 4 seconds per MB), and battery drain is unimpressive: several file transfers can drain a fully-charged iPod down to a fourth or fifth of its original capacity.
Another feature is Voice Memos, which after many fits and starts during the original 5G’s reign is now finally supported by third-party recording accessories. The 5G iPod offers dramatically superior recording quality in your choice of two modes: a monaural mode at 22.05kHz, and a stereo mode at 44.1kHz, which requires four times the hard disk space. Apple forces recordings to be made in .WAV format – an old standard that creates large, uncompressed files, but the either of the two file types (22.05 or 44.1kHz) is a major, major jump over the sub-voice-quality 8kHz sampling of previous iPods. We’ve been impressed by the recorders released to date, though they are still too expensive relative to prior 3G/4G iPod recording accessories.
Most recently, Apple added a feature called Radio, which is currently available only when Apple’s iPod Radio Remote (iLounge rating: A-) is attached. Radio provides a large on-screen FM radio station tuner, some RDS (on-screen data) display, and an easy way to mark preset stations. Future accessories may also use this tuning screen, but to date, none have been announced.
Battery Performance and Transfer Speeds (Click here for details.)
As was the case with the original 5G iPod, the Enhanced 5G model’s battery performance varies based on the capacity of the hard disk, as well as how you’re using the iPod: music playback, photo playback, game playback, and video playback all perform differently, with the real prospect that you’ll play back videos or photos either on the iPod’s screen or through a TV. We put both the new 30GB and 80GB iPods through their paces, and the results were very good – with one exception, up in all regards over last year’s models.
Apple claims that the new 30GB iPod will play music for 14 hours, photo and music slideshows for 4 hours, and iPod on-screen video for 3.5 hours. By comparison, the new 80GB iPod promises to play music for 20 hours, photo and music slideshows for 6 hours, and on-screen video for 6.5 hours. Original 5G iPod users will note that the photo and video numbers have gone up while the audio numbers are the same, a change apparently attributable to new power management hardware in the Enhanced 5G models. Apple’s numbers in the past have generally been accurate, and even conservative, but they were off a little in last year’s photo slideshow numbers, and that was again the case in our testing this year.
The good news is that you can realistically expect to hit Apple’s stated numbers on both audio and on-screen video playback, assuming that you keep the iPod’s volume and screen brightness levels at or below their 50% marks. Our standardized audio tests, with equalization off and volume at the 50% level – higher than necessary to use the iPod’s standard earbuds – yielded numbers directly in line with Apple’s: the new 30GB iPod ran for 14 hours and 2 minutes – a modest decrease from what we saw in the original 5G iPod – while the 80GB iPod played audio for 20 hours and 12 minutes. Our video tests with a variety of differently-compressed movies, TV shows and music videos at 50% brightness were also right on target. Since the new 5G iPod’s screen is as good at its 50% mark as the old one was at its peak, this isn’t a bad thing; even with the new iPod screens at maximum brightness, the new iPods each missed the 3.5 and 6.5 hour marks by only 40 minutes, with the 80GB model achieving nearly twice the video run time of the first 5G iPod. With their screens off and video output going to an external TV or video display dock, the iPods matched or modestly exceeded their promised run times.
As in the past, the bad news is that you should expect to miss these battery numbers if you tax the iPod with more aggressive hard disk or screen usage than is normal. Turning up the brightness to maximum on our 30GB model helped it miss its promised 4 hour photo slideshow run time by 40 minutes, but our 80GB model surpassed its promised number by a major margin with brightness and volume at 50%. Besides brightness and volume settings, Apple Lossless and WAV file playback puts extra strain on the iPod’s hard disk; similarly, recording WAV-format audio using a recording accessory can cut the iPod’s run time down to single-digit hours. Using equalizers or playing games during music playback can also have the same effect.
By historic standards, the latest iPods are better than acceptable overall. The 80GB iPod is the company’s best-ever performer in the full-sized iPod family, while the 30GB iPod is pretty good. Only one iPod – the long-discontinued second-generation iPod mini – definitively beat both of the current models on audio playback, running for up to 26 hours on a single charge.
Like the original 5G iPod, file transfer speeds for the Enhanced 5G iPod are OK using your only option, a USB 2.0 port, the speed of which can be significantly dampened by other things going on with your computer. This year, we did a large data test across old and new 5G iPods, and the results were very similar. We took a 2.58GB file – a DVD image of the Windows Vista operating system – and sent it from computer to iPod with an iPod nano as a stopwatch. The new 5G iPods transferred the file in 3 minutes, 33 seconds and 3 minutes, 45 seconds respectively, while the freshly formatted original 5G iPod took 4 minutes and 9 seconds – not a huge difference, but better in the newer models. These speeds were much faster than the new iPod nano, which took 9 minutes and 15 seconds in a similar test. As such, you can expect that every 10GB of files will take around 13 or 14 minutes to transfer to the new 5G iPod, though photos transferred through iTunes will take significantly longer because of an optimization requirement, and the times can double or worse if you’re doing anything with other USB devices while files are transferring to your iPod.
Audio Quality (Click here for details.)
In short, the Enhanced 5G iPod is the audio equivalent of the original 5G model, so you can skip this section of the review if you’re just looking for differences. Otherwise, read on.
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 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. Last year, we connected our most sensitive headphones to the original 5G iPods, and were pleased to find that all three of these issues had been either reduced or eliminated, as noted below. The Enhanced 5G iPod has only changed in one way: like the updated firmware for original 5G iPods, it now supports gapless audio playback, a request from fans of numerous albums that segued between tracks rather than breaking them up into discrete pieces.
First, the hard drive and static noise issue was gone in the original 5G, and remains so here. 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. With 5G iPods, even when using $900 Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros and similar triple-driver Shure E500PTH earphones, the noise isn’t there.
Bass performance was improved in the original 5G, and hasn’t changed here. 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 any of the 5G models, 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 provided by iLounge readers shows that this distortion has been completely eliminated.
Gapless audio playback is an iTunes feature that researches whether your albums’ tracks had gaps, then plays back the albums sequentially with or without those gaps. The research process – conducted over the Internet with your permission – now takes place automatically when iTunes 7 processes your prior iTunes library for the first time, and again whenever tracks are added. As with photo synchronization to the iPod, the first large batch processing will take tens of minutes, but subsequent updates will take seconds and require no user intervention. The end result on your iPod is nearly gapless playback in songs that have been properly identified; using original iTunes and Gracenote song tags increases the chances of having properly identified music.
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, 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 additional features such as crossfading, tempo and pitch adjustment, along with improving the iPod’s handling of distortion from user-boosted bass levels.
Value (Click here for details.)
In order to provide a balanced valuation perspective on each of the iPod models, we routinely publish tables showing the comparative values of iPods available at the time of a new model’s release. Once again, thanks to price cuts and a capacity bump, Apple’s 5G iPods are the company’s best values to date.
|shuffle (original)||512MB||$69||$138 per gigabyte|
|shuffle (new)||1GB||$79||$79 per gigabyte|
|shuffle (original)||1GB||$99||$99 per gigabyte|
|nano||2GB||$149||$74.50 per gigabyte|
|nano||4GB||$199||$49.75 per gigabyte|
|nano||8GB||$249||$31.13 per gigabyte|
|5G iPod (new)||30GB||$249||$8.30 per gigabyte|
|5G iPod (orig.)||30GB||$299||$9.97 per gigabyte|
|5G iPod (new)||80GB||$349||$4.36 per gigabyte|
|5G iPod (orig.)||60GB||$399||$6.65 per gigabyte|
As the table shows, when measured solely by storage space to the dollar, today’s 30GB and 80GB fifth-generation iPods are the best choices you could make today – and better than any full-sized iPod predecessor because of their added features. However, Apple’s newest iPod nanos are considerably smaller, lighter, more resilient, and even stronger on continuous music playback time. By comparison, the only reasons to prefer an iPod shuffle are the super low entry price and even smaller body; the latest shuffle is tinier but feature-bare. The iPod that’s right for you now depends almost wholly on the size of your wallet, pockets, and your specific video, photo, and audio needs.
Accessories (Click here for details.)
On a highly positive note, the enhanced fifth-generation iPod is compatible with all the same accessories that its predecessor model could use, which is to say that there are now a total of several hundred speaker systems, remote controls, FM transmitters, docks, and other electronic add-ons that give this model added oomph if you’re willing to spend the cash. Unlike the new iPod nano, literally everything identified as 5G iPod-compatible in our reviews section will work with these models, meaning that if you’re trying to choose between an iPod and a competing device, you can feel comfortable that you have hundreds of accessory options right away, without having to wait for new releases. Best of all, Apple has kept the new 30GB and 80GB models dimensionally identical to their 30GB and 60GB predecessors, so all prior cases and specially made docking inserts for the first 5G iPods fit these as well. That’s good news for everyone: you won’t need to do any special shopping to find pieces that work with the enhanced iPods.
We note, however, that we’re still not thrilled with Apple’s year-old decision to discontinue its top-mounting accessory port, which back then rendered useless a wide variety of FM transmitters, recording accessories, and remote controls. In the year that followed, developers have released replacements for virtually all of the old accessories, though they’ve been plagued by a couple of common issues: higher prices and lower convenience, as they must all now attach to the iPod’s bottom Dock Connector port, and Apple now charges additional fees for certain types of accessories.
Last year, we also identified a few outlier old bottom-connecting accessories that wouldn’t work with the new iPod: Belkin’s Media Reader and Digital Camera Link are 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. If you have any question as to whether a pre-2006 accessory works with your iPod, our advice is 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.
When we rated the original fifth-generation iPod as an A-/B+ product last year, our feeling was that Apple had created its best audio and photo device ever, with cleaner audio, more features, better photo quality and special transition effects than in any prior iPod. But by taking a baby step rather than a full leap into the video market, it had only barely tapped the surface of what it could and should be doing with visual playback functionality. Though it was attractively priced and tied to iTunes’ great media management software, the original 5G iPod suffered from too-short video playback times, hard drive capacities that wouldn’t totally satisfy power users, and limited support for popular video formats.
Nearly one year later, the Enhanced 5G iPod is an unquestionably better offering, inexpensively offering considerably better storage and video/photo battery life if you need it in the 80GB model, and noticeably better screen and search functionality even in the 30GB model. Both models benefit from other tweaks added via firmware to original 5G iPods, such as gapless audio playback, support for better-quality, downloadable games, and user-configurable brightness controls, each of which further enhances the iPod experience – and without any mandatory extra cost for the user. As such, today’s 5G iPods are better than their predecessors, and especially because of Apple’s lower prices, we have no hesitation about highly recommending them to all of our readers as truly great devices. They’re also significantly better values in most regards than the $249 8GB iPod nano, and in all ways save size, technologically closer to the “ideal” iPod in features and capacity.
But as a 2.5″-screened video player, the 5G iPod – enhanced or original – can’t help but leave users wanting more. When playing back short-duration TV shows, games, or music videos, or when inside a separate accessory with its own larger, integrated screen, the iPod does a good job, but for feature-length movies and long-term viewing, the screen is obviously sub-optimal and needs to be replaced – or at least, offset by a separate, more video-centric iPod model.
As it stands, the choice between today’s full-sized 30GB iPod and new 8GB iPod nano is, in our view, a draw: if you’re trying to decide between them, it should be fairly easy: if small size and audio run time are your key considerations, go with the nano, otherwise, pick the higher-capacity, video and game-ready 5G. That said, new iPod owners will be thrilled with either 5G model’s performance for the dollar – especially the capacious, long-running 80GB; unless a bigger screen is a requisite, existing iPod owners will find these models exceptionally tempting.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Computer
Compatible: iPod 5G (Second-Generation)