Apple's newest iPod range doesn't offer a huge number of new features, but that doesn't mean that the company has decided to rest on its laurels.

The latest iPods, which were released along with a major update of the company's iTunes software, address several concerns that users had about previous models and can easily be described as the best iPods released to date. Ironically, the iTunes 7 online music store actually sports more new features, most notably that the iTunes store now allows US users to purchase and download feature-length movies in addition to its stock of TV shows and its large catalogue of music.

The size and shape of all three iPod models has been updated. The iPod nano is almost identical in size to the previous model but with a sturdier metal case design similar to that of the iPod mini, which the original Nano replaced. The iPod shuffle's design has been completely revamped to be similar to a binder clip that can be attached to any piece of clothing. The video iPod retains a similar form factor to its predecessor, but it is slightly shorter and thicker.

The video iPod

The addition of feature-length content to the iTunes repertoire is perhaps responsible for two of the biggest improvements to the video-capable models: significantly improved battery life and screen brightness. These were areas where Apple listened to customer feedback and took to heart the need to produce a higher-quality product than the original iPod if the company expected the device to be used for watching full-length movies (although the same could be said for any type of video content).

Very few products live up to the estimated battery life listed by their manufacturers. These estimates usually assume perfect battery-saving conditions, such as low screen brightness and limited interaction with the device's operating system. Apple's previous video iPod models were no exception to this rule. However, the latest iPods come closer than many products to meeting Apple's claims.

In testing the 80GB video iPod on a fully charged battery, I was able to watch nearly five and a half hours of video with the screen at full brightness, pausing or adjusting the volume several times and occasionally skipping forward or backward during playback. It appeared that the source or type of video content didn't affect performance. I tested a copy of the movie Flight Plan and several TV shows downloaded from the iTunes Store as well as video from several DVDs that was encoded for use on an iPod. Although the iPod failed to reach Apple's six-and-a-half-hour estimate, I believe that with lower screen brightness, it might have come very close.

This surprisingly long battery life makes the iPod a true portable video and entertainment system. The limited battery life on previous models was one of the reasons that I often relied on the iPod solely as a music device when traveling rather than taking advantage of its video capabilities. This battery life carries over into all facets of the product.

The screen brightness is also incredible compared to any previous iPod and many other portable devices. Screen brightness is a challenge for many portable colour displays, particularly if the device is to be used outdoors. Many laptops, PDAs and mobile phones have screens that can be difficult to see in bright sunlight. I was able to watch video outdoors on a sunny day without too much squinting. The real problem turned out to be the glare of sunlight reflecting off the surface of the iPod. Certainly, in almost any indoor environment, the screen of the iPod will be more than adequate and will rival that of some laptops.

Speaking of the screen brightness, the iPod now sports a settings option that allows you to set systemwide screen brightness. This is a useful trick for improving battery life if you tend to use the iPod's non-video features more than you watch videos. There is also the ability to adjust brightness while watching a video by clicking twice the "select" button at the centre of the scroll wheel. Clicking it once allows you to skip forward and backward within the video as it does with audio files.

One problem with previous generations of iPods that Apple did not address is the fact that the iPod is easily scratched. This issue got a lot of publicity with the original iPod nano. Almost all iPod cases (with the exception of the iPod mini and the new nano) have a clear plastic front surface that can be easily scratched. The original video iPod and the new video model are no exception. This makes having a case or sleeve for protection a must.

Search feature

In updating the iPod's interface, Apple introduced a search feature on both the video and nano iPods. The search feature is a welcome addition, particularly if you have a large iTunes library synced to the iPod, or if you have a large collection of songs or albums from a single artist. Until now there has been no way to locate a song, artist, or album other than by selecting from a playlist that you know contains what you're looking for, or by scrolling through all the music on an iPod. This presented a challenge if you couldn't remember what artist recorded a particular song or which album it was on.

The search feature is the first attempt to enable users to enter text onto the iPod directly. And that is somewhat evident in the way Apple chose to implement the feature. It works by requiring you to scroll horizontally through the entire alphabet and then use the Select button to "type" a letter in the search field. As you enter letters, all songs, artists or albums that contain the entered text are displayed and can be selected. Deleting a letter requires you to scroll to the Delete icon before the beginning of the alphabet.

The process can be cumbersome, but given the iPod's click-wheel interface and limited buttons, it is impressive that Apple was able to pull off a search function at all. That said, some form of adaptive text interface like those used in the text-messaging features of many mobile phones could make the search easier, as would assigning one of the buttons as a Delete key. Overall, this will either be a feature that you love, particularly if you don't create specific playlists or organise your music very much, or one that you'll avoid using.

New headphones

Another change in all of the new iPod models is in the headphones. The earbud style headphones have remained roughly unchanged since the iPod's introduction five years ago. Some earlier iPods included headphones with a remote control attached to the cable, but the design of the earbuds themselves has been consistent. The new headphones still sport the same white colour, but they are more rounded and slightly slimmer. They also include a rubber edge along their outer surface and at the base where the cable connects. Apple has also stopped including foam pads that can be slipped over the earbud.

Overall, the slimmer design and rubber edge are significant improvements in both comfort and in the ability to fit securely in the ear. Sound quality remains very similar to the original iPod headphone design. However, the rubber casing around the cable on each earbud seems less resistant to daily wear and more prone to damage than the original design.

iPod Nano

Like the video iPod, the nano line had few major changes in this revision. Screen brightness and battery life were both improved, and the search feature and new headphones were included. An 8GB model was also introduced. However, the biggest change is the design of the case.

Responding to complaints that the nano's surface scratched too easily for a device that is carried around in a pocket, Apple reverted to using a metal case with a choice of five colours: silver, green, pink and blue, with the 2GB model made available only in silver, and black reserved for the 8GB models. The new case makes the device significantly more durable, and though it can be scratched, it will take a good deal more punishment than the original nano or the video iPod. The metal case not only fends off your pocket change, it can withstand falls and harsher abuse without major problems. Some scratches are still inevitable, meaning you should still consider using a protective case or sleeve.

As with the original nano, the new models are excellent because they allow you to keep a decent amount of music and photos with you in an easy-to-carry device. The design clearly reflects that Apple views the nano as distinctly different from the full-featured video iPod. It sacrifices screen real estate (and therefore video or more advanced games) to fulfill its purpose as a small and lightweight but fully featured music player. This division of purpose is evident in the pricing.

While I haven't been able to test Apple's claims of 24-hours of battery life (another sacrifice for ease of use and size), based on the experience I've had, I would expect that the battery life could easily reach 18 or more hours.

iTunes 7

The iPod and iTunes are two separate products that behave almost as one. While enough has been written about some of the bugs with iTunes 7, I'll focus only on the features related specifically to the iPod, which are significant improvements. Prior to iTunes 7, all iPod configuration was managed through the iTunes Preferences dialogue box using a tab that was available only when an iPod was connected. iTunes 7 displays an iPod, the media it contains and all its potential settings as though it were an iTunes library of itself.

The new display that appears when selecting the iPod itself places all the settings for an iPod in a convenient and very easy to navigate interface. The new interface makes selecting what music, podcasts, photos, videos and other information are copied onto the iPod very simple. This is especially useful if you are using an iPod Nano or an older model iPod that has limited storage capacity and you need to conserve space by only syncing specific items. The new interface also includes a nice colour-coded graph that shows how much space is used on the iPod and what it is being used for. While iTunes 7 may have some bugs in it, the iPod-specific features are on target for making the iPod experience much easier and more intuitive.

iTunes movie quality

There's been a lot of talk about whether the quality of movies is up to par for users accustomed to DVD quality. When watching a downloaded movie in iTunes, you can definitely see that that quality is somewhat less than what you would get if you were playing a DVD on your computer. However, since this is an iPod review, I wanted to mention that video quality on the iPod matched all other video quality and may be slightly superior to other forms of content. However, one concern to keep in mind is that many movies downloaded from iTunes feature a widescreen (16 x 9) aspect ratio that makes them display in letterbox on the iPod's screen, which has the same 3 x 4 aspect ratio of a TV. This makes an already small picture appear even smaller. It would be nice if Apple could provide both standard and widescreen movies, but that may be too much to ask of the nascent movie download industry.

iPod games

iTunes 7 also introduces iPod games for the original and new video iPod models. Apple is currently offering a handful of games for £3.99 each. While I think the price is a little too high, I have to admit that the quality of the games is incredibly good. The image quality and design of the games are all very solid as is the implementation of the ones that I tested. The Texas Hold 'em game may actually be one of the best computer-poker games I've ever seen. Even those games that are adapted from web-based games, such as Cubis and Bejeweled, have had their designs updated for use on the iPod, and the attention given to them is evident.

Hopefully, Apple will continue to add to the collection of iPod games of the same design caliber but will consider dropping the price of the games. If it does, it will add some serious value to the video iPod as an all-around portable entertainment centre, not just a music and video system. While I don't feel comfortable saying that the iPod will ever rival the PlayStation Portable as a gaming device, the addition of the games could easily make it worth choosing a video iPod over an iPod Nano.

Final thoughts

Apple has released the finest set of iPods to date and it has done so by listening to the needs and concerns of its customers. This new generation of video iPods has raised the bar for many types of portable entertainment devices. Likewise, the new iPod nanos and the iPod shuffle illustrate Apple's ability to listen to its customers and deliver an excellent product. If you've been holding off buying an iPod of any kind, now may be the best time to finally spend the money and treat yourself to one.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specialising in Mac and multi-platform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs. He is a regular contributor to Inform IT and is the mobile technology correspondent for Suite 101.