He suggested that it would never happen, he hinted that Apple had no interest in portable video, but on October 12 Steve Jobs announced that Apple has in fact been working on a video iPod. The results are actually not a video iPod, it will be known simply as the iPod; video is just another function.
To begin with, given Steve’s contention that a whole lot has changed in one day – specifically that with the introduction of this iPod the nascent portable video market has just taken a giant leap forward – it’s remarkable how natural a progression that iPod seems when you hold one in your hand. Navigating through videos (and configuring the iPod to play those videos) is an experience very similar to working with music and photos on the last generation of full-sized iPods.
The main screen offers a Videos entry that works much like previous iPods’ Music and Photos commands. Select it and click on the centre button and you’re presented with a screen that offers Video Playlists, Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows, Video Podcasts, and Video Settings. Select one of these entries, click on the centre button again, and you can view a list of appropriate videos (the £1.89 music videos you purchase from the iTunes Music Store, for example, appear under Music Videos).
Videos on the iPod are treated as entities separate from music tracks and can’t be incorporated into a music playlist. You can’t, for example, add a downloaded U2 music video to an On-The-Go playlist that contains music. And you can’t rate videos (though you can via iTunes 6).
The Video Settings command is similar to what you find in the Photos area of a colour iPod. Here you’ll locate options for TV Out (as with the colour iPod your choices are On, Ask, and Off), format (PAL or NTSC), and a Widescreen option you can switch on or off (to choose between a letterbox view versus full-screen). As the TV Out command hints, you can use Apple’s standard AV cable (helpful if you already own one from a previous iPod photo purchase) to project videos (at 320 x 240 pixels) to a television or compatible projector.
In terms of music playback, the 60GB model is rated for 20 hours and the 30GB model for 14 hours. But when the iPod plays back music, it only uses its hard drive sporadically, turning it on just long enough to fill its memory buffer full of music. That saves a lot of energy. In contrast, video playback requires that the hard drive work almost constantly – and as a result, battery life drops dramatically. Apple says the 60GB iPod is good for three hours of playback, and the 30GB model only two hours. So if you’re planning on loading an iPod up with videos for a long plane trip, you’ll probably need to buy an external battery.
In addition to the videos from Apple, the iPod can play back videos saved in one of two formats: H.264 (the format used in Apple’s iTunes downloads) and MPEG-4. The same day it announced the new iPod, Apple released QuickTime 7.0.3, which adds a “Movie to iPod (320x240)” option in the Export dialogue box. This means users of QuickTime Pro (£20) can export movies (and all users of iMovie can export projects) to the iPod fairly easily.
Apple says the new iPod’s firmware is upgradeable, meaning it can be modified to add “support for future video formats.” What those might be is unknown, but Apple’s certainly leaving the door open to supporting other formats in the future.
Apple has added support for a whole host of new slideshow transitions on this iPod, so your iPod-based slideshows will look a lot more like iPhoto slideshows or Keynote presentations than they did before. Apple’s declared battery life for slideshows is up to three hours for the 30GB model and four hours for the 60GB iPod.
When you first gaze upon the iPod, it appears to be wider than previous full-sized iPods. This is an illusion brought about by the extra half-inch of display. Unlike with previous full-sized iPods, this one’s display (2.5 inches, measured diagonally) extends out nearly to the right and left edges of the iPod.
One of the big question marks in my mind was how long it would take before the casual user’s head explodes after watching video on such a small screen. The brightness of the display has, on first blush, allayed some of those fears. The screen is quite bright and very crisp – offering a dot-pitch (0.156mm) smaller than the iPod nano (smaller dot-pitch translates into crisper video). You’ll never mistake it for a plasma screen, but then, you can’t put a plasma screen in your pocket.
It remains to be seen if sales of aspirin increase exponentially when users routinely drop two-hour movies onto these babies, but our experience convinces us that watching a full-length movie and living to tell the tale is well within the realm of possibility.
People with poor vision aren’t going to enjoy staring at a tiny video screen, and if you appreciate all the sumptuous visual feasts that modern-day cinematography has to offer, you will likely be disappointed.
That said, we’ve spent many hours watching video at the same resolution (320 x 240 pixels) on a similarly sized display on my Palm Treo 650 smartphone, and found it to be a pretty enjoyable way to while away my commute. Granted, I was watching Survivor rather than the great works of modern cinema, but it worked for me and it might work for you.
Also, the iPod supports video out, so for a truly bigger display you can also connect your iPod to a TV set and play back video that way. The iPod currently only supports H.264 video at 320 x 240 pixels, and MPEG-4 video up to 480 x 480 pixels, so your TV set will still be displaying a lower-resolution picture than you’re accustomed to.
In the past, the iPod’s operating system limited audio recording to 8KHz, 16-bit mono via an external device such as Griffin’s £26 iTalk. According to Apple’s published specifications, the new iPod supports two audio-recording modes: a “low-quality” mono mode at 22.05KHz, and a CD-quality 44.1KHz stereo mode.
What’s as yet unclear is if you can simply attach a microphone to the iPod and begin voice recording or if you’ll need a yet-to-be-released audio-input accessory.
Missing in action
The introduction of this iPod spells the end of Apple’s remote port. Although the capabilities of that port are built into the iPod’s proprietary dock connector, the port is gone with the wind. This isn’t a huge surprise after the connector failed to appear on the iPod nano, but those with older accessories that depend on the remote port – microphones, FM transmitters, and remote controls, for example – may be disappointed that they will have to upgrade to accessories compatible with the new model.
Apple’s iPod Camera Connector will work with the new iPod, I’m told, but the Belkin camera device won’t, as it depends on a FireWire capability missing on the newest full-sized iPod.
With the release of this new iPod, Apple’s iPod line is entirely USB-based. You can use a FireWire cable to charge the iPod, but data transfer can only be done via USB. This is especially bad news for users of Macs without USB 2.0 ports, because USB 1.1 transfer speeds are phenomenally slower than FireWire. iPods must support USB in order to be broadly compatible with PCs. Our guess is that Apple dropped FireWire in order to simplify the product, shrink some components, and reduce its costs. Don’t expect it to come back.
Although we’ve had only a relatively brief time with the newest iPod, we liked what we’ve seen. Although the black model smudges as quickly as the black iPod nano, it’s very sexy, so we expect the dark iPod to sell well. The screen looks great, the controls are responsive, and Apple’s incorporated video in a way that feels as natural as any other function on the iPod. You get a slimmer iPod with bonus video capabilities for the same price as before. Video content is limited, but the iPod’s still the best music player out there.