Apple iPod (MA002LL/A)
At a Glance
Given the brouhaha surrounding Apple's latest player, one might assume its name is the Video iPod. But it is simply an iPod, the fifth generation. I tested a 30GB model ($299 as of 7/21/06; Apple also offers a 60GB version for $399.). The big story is the iPod's ability to play videos, which it does well. However, the screen (like the screen on most players in this class) is too small to comfortably watch video for long. Nonetheless, the iPod is a really good audio player that can do video.
In new audio quality tests conducted by the PC World Test Center, the iPod earned an overall score of Very Good. Of the hard drive players we tested, the iPod reached the loudest level before introducing 1 percent distortion of its audio signal (an industry-standard measurement). Also, the iPod produced very little cross talk, which means that its left and right channels remained distinct, resulting in a broad stereo field.
The 2.5-inch screen is absolutely beautiful. The 320-by-240-pixel screen is bright and sharp, and videos look great on it. In my hands-on tests it offered a crisp image with very smooth movement. The unit played back videos at 30 frames per second, the same speed as a broadcast TV signal.
My only complaint with the image quality was that details--especially in shadows--were often hard to see, such as in the bunker scenes in the episode of Lost I viewed. Plus, the glossy surface of the unit's faceplate tends to reflect lights and other things (when I was watching a dark scene, I saw a hideous vision of a big face, only to realize it was my own reflection).
Apart from those minor issues, I found the screen very easy on the eyes--for short viewing periods, at least. Although the screen is top-notch, it isn't as big as those of some of the portable media centers I've tested, and that means you have to hold the unit fairly close to your eyes.
I tested the iPod's video prowess using videos I downloaded from the iTunes store. Video downloads are a new feature of iTunes 6, which offers episodes of several ABC television shows, as well as music videos, for $2 each.
Downloading videos from iTunes is simple: A 45-minute, 196MB episode of Lost took about 15 minutes to download into iTunes over my DSL connection, and about 2 minutes to transfer from the PC to the iPod (you can also watch the show on your PC). Additionally, I was able to subscribe to and view some video podcasts with IPod-specific feeds (such as Rocketboom). However, you can't grab just any video podcast and drop it on your iPod, and iTunes 6 won't convert videos to the right format for the new device.
In fact, iTunes' inability to convert existing video into an iPod-friendly format is its biggest failing. To make existing video into something you can play on the iPod, you have to convert it using either Apple's own $30 QuickTime Pro application or another video encoder that can work with the H.264 and MPEG-4 formats the iPod employs.
This makes converting videos for the iPod a real pain. Though third-party apps that can handle the necessary formats are emerging--such as Videora's free iPod converter program, which I had some limited success with--they are not prevalent. By contrast, Microsoft's Windows Media Player 10 can automatically convert videos into WMV format, which any Portable Media Center device can play.
Video-conversion nitpicks aside, this latest iPod is a masterful piece of design (though it's odd that Apple supplies the same white earbuds with the black model as the white model). The 30GB version is small (just under a half inch thick), light (a bit under 5 ounces), and easy to use. Returning is the click wheel, the only control (except for a hold button on the top). It remains exceptionally simple: Click on the marked spots for play, fast forward, rewind, and the menu, and scroll the wheel around to control volume and navigate through menus.
Videos appear as a new item on the top menu, and are divided by category below that (including playlists, music videos, TV shows, video podcasts, and a rather tantalizing movies category).
The battery life of the new iPod is reasonable: When I played back the aforementioned videos, the unit lasted around 2.5 hours--not great, but long enough for most commutes. Apple claims the iPod will last up to 14 hours when playing audio. You recharge the battery through the USB cable connected to your PC (the AC adapter is extra). A full recharge took around 4 hours.
If you are looking to play a lot of video, you'd be better off with a Portable Media Center or a similar device with a bigger screen than the iPod's, such as the Cowon A2-20WH. That said, this is a great choice for occasional video viewing. And the ability to quickly and relatively cheaply download TV shows might be useful if you've forgotten to set your TiVo to record the latest episode of Lost, and you want to watch it on your way to work.