First Look: Apple's Video-Ready iPod

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Apple iPod with video capability
Given the brouhaha surrounding Apple's latest player, one might assume its name is the Video iPod. Think again: It's simply an iPod, the fifth generation of the device since its introduction four years ago.

And that's probably the best way to think of it. Although the big story is its ability to play videos, it's really just an audio player (and a good one) that can do video, not a dedicated video player.

Crisp, Beautiful Visuals

Don't get me wrong: The 2.5-inch screen on my $299, 30GB, black shipping unit (Apple also offers a white 30GB version, plus black and white $399, 60GB versions) 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 crisp playback with very smooth movement. The unit played back videos at roughly 30 frames per second, the same quality 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 eye--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. After a while, holding the unit up can get a bit uncomfortable.

Downloading TV

I tested the iPod's video prowess using videos I downloaded from the iTunes store, as well as several home videos stored on my PC. Video downloads are a new feature of iTunes 6, which offers episodes of several ABC television shows, as well as of music videos, at a cost of $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; by contrast, Microsoft's Windows Media Player 10 can automatically convert videos into a format suitable for watching on a Portable Media Center device. Third-party apps are emerging that can handle the necessary formats--Videora has just released a free iPod converter program (though I had limited success with it, as iTunes refused to copy some of the converted videos to the device). However, such apps are not prevalent, and currently they represent a cumbersome extra step to getting your video into your player.

Picture-Perfect Design Aesthetic

Video-conversion nitpicks aside, this latest iPod is a masterful piece of design. (It seems odd, though, that Apple doesn't supply a black pair of earbuds if you go with the black version; you still get white ones.) 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 up 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, too: When I played back the aforementioned videos, the unit lasted around 2.5 hours--a little less than some of the dedicated players that I've seen, but long enough for most commutes. Audio playback, during which the player dims the screen, yielded better results; the player was still going strong after 10 hours (Apple claims it will last up to 14 hours). You recharge the battery through the USB cable connected to your PC (the AC adapter is extra). A full recharge took around 4 hours.

The new iPod falls somewhere between being an audio player and a video player. It probably wouldn't be a good choice if you were looking to play back a lot of video; for that, you'd be better off with a Portable Media Center or a similar device, one more comfortable to hold, with a bigger screen.

That said, if you're looking for a player mostly for audio use but also for occasional video viewing, this is a great choice. 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.

Apple iPod (fifth generation)

The new iPod adds video capabilities, but its great-looking screen is a bit too small for extending viewing.
Street: $299 (30GB version), $399 (60GB version)

This story, "First Look: Apple's Video-Ready iPod" was originally published by PCWorld.

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