Pay close attention to the new Apple iPod when you first hold one in your hands. Most of you will notice a design that's thinner, lighter and sexier than its predecessor's, as well as a new screen that dwarfs the Click Wheel. A few of you will notice subtler differences, such as the absence of the smart headphone jack, a smaller Click Wheel and the iPod's superflat face. Experienced iPod users may complain that essentials such as a power adaptor and A/V cables aren't bundled with the device. But despite the fact that it is an audio player first and foremost, all of you will remember the fifth-generation iPod as the video iPod.
Those who follow gadgets know that Apple didn't invent portable digital video; companies such as Archos, Creative and iRiver have produced good if not stellar products that play back video -- and on larger screens with better battery life. But if Apple can do for video what it has done for audio -- that is, deliver a hardware/software ecosystem that offers a decent choice of content and makes it easy to get video on to the iPod -- then this device, like it or not, will be remembered as the one that started the portable digital video revolution.
The fifth-gen iPod, which is available in white or nano black and comes in 30GB and 60GB capacities for £219 and £299 respectively, is the best one we've used to date. Yet because it has added a major extra feature -- video playback -- to its solid, audiocentric foundation, there's room for improvement.
In this era of seemingly unstoppable technological progress, the Apple iPod was due for an update both physically and featurewise. And the fifth-gen iPod is much more than a simple update. As with the nano before it, you have to see and touch the iPod in person to appreciate it. The 30GB body, which measures 62 by 104 by 11mm and weighs only 136g (add 3mm depth and 21g for the 60GB), is baby-soft to the touch, and while design elements such as the Click Wheel and a polished silver backside are familiar, this iPod has an added sexiness, thanks to the larger screen that dominates its upper half.
Apple somehow shrunk the width of the iPod body so drastically that the 30GB version is 31 per cent thinner than the 20GB iPod. The 60GB version measures only 14mm, meaning it too is thinner than the 20GB iPod. Personally, we think the older model, with its softer edges and added thickness, is a tad more hand-friendly. The Click Wheel, which utilises in-house technology (Apple has abandoned Synaptics tech, starting with the nano), is actually smaller -- by about 8mm in diameter -- than the fourth-gen iPod, which means you won't get as much scrolling action with each stroke of the thumb. The select button, which was slightly raised before, is now flat. The headphone jack has moved to the far right, and the smart jack, which was used by a host of accessories, such as the Apple in-line remote, has disappeared. The hold switch has moved from right to left, while the dock connector remains on the bottom, in the middle. Overall, the physical design is simpler and more refined, though slightly less ergonomic. Basically, you'll definitely get tired of holding the iPod in the 28th minute of viewing video.
The fifth-gen iPod is available in black or white, and its polished backside gently slopes in from the front of the player, so it glides into pockets. The most noticeable trait, of course, is the 64mm (2.5-inch), 260K-colour display with a crisp 320x240-pixel resolution. The extra 13mm diagonal not only does wonders for photos (now you get a six-by-five grid of thumbnails), album art and the interface in general, but also makes viewing videos a reasonable if not pleasurable experience.
A word of caution to prospective buyers: scratches and smudges accumulate quickly, and they show up more on the black version. Blemishes are par for the course for all iPods, but they are much more noticeable on this big-screen iPod, especially since the display will be stared at for several minutes at a time. While watching the latest episode of Desperate Housewives, one of the iTunes TV shows only available in the US, we kept noticing a sliver of a scratch in the middle of the screen.
Viewing angles are decent, but the lack of a built-in speaker, as well as the screen, which is small by portable video player standards (most have 3.5- to 7-inch screens), makes the iPod an intensely personal device. We'd also love to see a user-replaceable battery, along with a quick and dedicated way to control volume. The interface itself hasn't changed too much, though you'll find some new choices when it comes to video: a video option in the customisable main menu, as well as extended options such as Video Playlists, TV Shows and Movies. You can also customise settings such as NTSC/PAL and a wide-screen mode, though there is no option to adjust brightness or contrast. However, the big, bright screen -- which looks great outdoors, where a backlight is not necessary -- makes for a clean and joyful user experience.
Along with streamlined packaging, the fifth-gen iPod has a trimmed-down bundled-accessories list. You get earbuds, a USB cable, a semisoft case (which is now included with the nano), and a plastic adaptor for use with certain accessories. Glaringly missing is a power adaptor (available separately for £19) -- out of the box, your only powering option is via your computer's USB. Also, we'd love to see AV cables (£15) and a dock (£25). This is critical for many of us who find the iPod uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of video viewing.
First, the basic stuff: the fifth-gen iPod plays MP3, AAC, protected AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF and Audible audio files. It is, at its core, a music player and includes all the same audio features, plus more, of the previous iPod. The fifth-gen iPod still lacks the coveted FM tuner, and it cannot record audio out of the box. Still, with album art, a plethora of equaliser choices, lyrics support, on-the-go playlists and a dedicated place for audio and video podcasts, as well as audiobooks, the iPod manages to be a complete audio player.
The fifth-gen iPod is also a decent photo viewer, and you can listen to music while you browse photos or watch a slide show; the iPod has excellent slide-show options, including a variety of transitions and customisable music. Photos look stupendous on the new screen, and in thumbnail view, you get five extra photos. And thanks to the Click Wheel, you can whiz through thumbs and full-size photos. In addition, you can splash out on the Apple iPod Camera Connector (£19) if you'd like to transfer images over from a digital camera.
The fifth-gen iPod also features all the little extras that were new to the nano, including the world clock (you can view four clocks at a time) and the screen lock, plus the tried-and-tested contacts, calendar, games and other ancillary extras.
That's enough of the trailers, let's get to the main feature: videos of all types, except for full-length movies, are available in the new iTunes 6, which has been retooled to serve as an iTunes video shop. Within this store, which is virtually guaranteed to explode with content, there are a couple of thousand music videos, plenty of movie trailers, a handful of Pixar shorts (including For the Birds and Boundin'), and of course the highly publicised, commercial-free TV-show offerings from ABC (Lost and Desperate Housewives) and Disney (That's So Raven and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) -- but only if you're in the US, for now at least.
The fifth-gen iPod is able to play video encoded in H.264, MPEG-4,
M4V and MOV up to 768Kbps, 320x240 pixels and 30fps. What
differentiates the iPod from video competitors such as Cowon and
Creative is that legal video is easily available within a familiar
interface, plus the fact that it doesn't take a genius to get them to
play on the iPod -- incompatible video files won't even be
transferred to the device.
Of course, buyable video is just half the story. The video universe includes home movies, content picked from P2P networks, ripped DVDs for (ahem) personal use, and video podcasts. All but the last type will probably not play natively on the iPod, which means you'll have to painstakingly convert the video using a utility such as QuickTime 7 Pro (£19.99, Mac and Windows, from the Apple Store). The tediousness of this process has been a stumbling block for video players in general -- iTunes simply can't rip a DVD like it would an audio CD. Now if iTunes had a built-in video converter, it'd be another story. As for legal full-length movies, they'll come, but only after some serious legal dealings. Don't expect them soon, though that might be a good thing, considering the iPod's poor video battery life (see Performance).
Once there's video on the iPod, you have a full set of entertainment options in your pocket. We love the fact that the iPod will automatically bookmark any number of videos so that you can return to a programme on your evening commute. We also like that you can assemble video playlists. While you can fast-forward or rewind using buttons or by scrolling, we'd prefer the ability to skip back or forward in 10- or 30-second increments. We've seen more advanced video options on portable video players such as the Archos AV700, which has the special ability to record video, but for an MP3 player, the iPod does a commendable job with the video experience.
Upon selecting a video to play, you will notice a 3-second delay, and the processor works overtime when you scrub through large chunks of video. But while watching an hour-long show on the iPod's screen can get tiresome for your eyes and hands, we can only praise the screen's performance. It's lively, and it never skips frames. Plus, dark areas of video content (at least in H.264) are a rich black, you get instant playback after a pause, and viewing angles are decent. Basically, watching the iPod is the equivalent of watching TV in a typical bedroom -- that is, from a 12-inch TV about 3m away. If you decide to pipe out the video to a TV (and you should), know that the 320x240 resolution will look compressed and grainy on a bigger screen.
The iPod's processor performance for audio and photos is solid, with only occasional drive delays -- this is typical across the MP3 board, though we've noticed that the fourth-gen is slightly faster than the fifth-gen when skipping tracks. Audio quality is quite good and probably better than the previous iPod's, with reasonable bass, distinguishable mids and shiny highs, and the audio-output power is acceptable. We do wish that the equalisers had more extreme sound-shaping qualities or even offered a preview before selection. Audio is especially noticeable while watching video, as most people aren't used to brilliant bass when watching music videos. They say if you have good audio, it doesn't matter how small the screen is.
Transfer time for audio files is never an issue with the iPod. Our transfers over USB 2.0 on a Windows computer was good enough at 3.52MB per second, but not as fast as those of some iPods of past. Video, because of its sheer size, will take much longer than you're used to. Simply downloading a 43-minute TV show (193MB) from iTunes took more than 2 minutes on a corporate broadband connection. The same video file took 25 seconds to make it over to the iPod. Clearly, this isn't a problem UK users are going to have to worry about for some time to come.
For audio, Apple rates the 30GB and 60GB iPods for 14 and 20 hours per charge, respectively. We were able to muster 14.7 hours of audio-only battery life for the 30GB version. As for video on a 30GB model, we were pretty disappointed with the 2 hours, 31 minutes we got playing back an iTunes TV programme. You should expect a video-only battery life of about 4 hours on the 60GB version; the extra battery life makes the 60GB version a coveted item, particularly because it's still slimmer than the fourth-gen iPod. However, battery life will always be an issue with a video device.
We watched the same TV programme just over two times. It was $1.99 in the US, which we felt was decent value, but we'll probably never watch that episode again. Also, the limited content available in the UK is £1.89 per music video or Pixar short, which is over 50 per cent more expensive. Plus, DRM prevents us from copying the show to a watchable DVD. You'll barely get a movie in, and your audio battery life will sink if you watch just one music video. Do note, however, that because the screen turns on by default when you control the iPod, and because the screen is bigger, your realistic battery life will seem lower than in our tests. Our advice is to disable the backlight completely when using it in daylight since it's not necessary for viewing the iPod interface. Battery life will no doubt be improved in subsequent versions, so if you're eyeing the iPod as a video device, either wait or get an Archos or a Creative player with a bigger screen and better battery life.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Nick Hide