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This iPod Does Video
Phenomenally successful music player effortlessly morphs into a personal media center. Next stop, Hollywood.

By David MacNeill

This is going to be hard. It's going to be hard to maintain the standard editorial distance I am supposed to have when I review a product. The new video-capable iPod is astonishingly good. It just doesn't seem possible for an object so slim and beautiful to do so much, so well. It's just not right that it has so quickly become a part of my life. This is going to be hard.

Apple aims to do the same for digital video content that they have already done with digital music. Make it one-click simple to download what you want, when you want it, at a reasonable cost, then make it easy to carry around in your pocket for enjoyment anytime, anywhere. With the release of the new iPod, they're shown that this is not only possible, but inevitable.

I've been extremely skeptical about personal video players even since the genre emerged a year or two ago. Ambitious devices from Archos, Creative Labs, Epson, and others I've reviewed impressed me with their features and image quality, but accessing content is so tortuous and, in some cases, technically illegal, that it just didn't look like something that could ever gain mass acceptance. They are also big, fat brick-like things. Even the slick new Creative Zen Vision (reviewed elsewhere in this issue of Handheld Computing) cannot really be called pocket-friendly unless you wear a lab coat all day.

In stark contrast, the new iPod is slim, lightweight, incredibly simple to operate. But it would all be just fancy industrial design without access to Apple's iTunes Music Store, now featuring a small catalog of video content. There isn't much video available, but this is just the beginning.

ABC/Disney signed up with five top-rated television shows, with entire seasons of previous episodes available for $1.99 per show and today's episode available tomorrow. All are without commercials, network ID "bugs" in the corner of the screen, or any other annoyances -- just the show you paid for, thank you.

The badly-in-need-of-a-new-name iTMS also features scads of music videos for the same two bucks, which is not a bad deal considering you get the song, too. You have to really love a video to want to own it, but there they are, waiting for you.

Pixar Studios offers a handful of their short animated flicks, which are so well made that they are enjoyable time and time again.

With a little fiddling, you can capture movie trailers to your iPod, but these commercials tend to get old pretty fast. What's missing here is the elephant in the room: full-length theatrical and DVD-only movies. I think the jury is still out on whether enough people will want to hold an iPod twelve inches from their face for two hours.

In my testing, it works for most TV shows and short video clips. But when I tried to sit through a whole episode of Lost, I found I was squinting to see details in this darkly photographed show, and my arm got tired as well.

More? You can easily transfer home movies to your iPod, rending them for the 320x240-pixel display effortlessly. Most video clips from other sources that can be read by QuickTime Player Pro can be converted to the iPod format including, I'm told, pirated movies and TiVo-recorded shows.

What does work remarkably well is video podcasts, which are also available for download from iTMS. These are all free, usually short, and have production values ranging from surprisingly good to embarrassingly awful. Something about seeing them on a 2.5-inch screen felt appropriate. As a way to pass the time waiting for the dentist, they're perfect. Like a trash culture magazine, they can be tossed aside without a care when something more compelling grabs your attention. "Mr. MacNeill, the doctor will see you now!"

Physical details and a few changes
The new iPod comes in 30GB ($299) and 60GB ($399) capacities and two colors, black or white. I tested the 30GB white model, which is a trifle thinner than the 60GB model at 4.2 x 2.4 x about 0.5 inches thick. Remarkably, this is 30% thinner than the previous 30GB iPod, yet the device boasts a laudable 14-hour battery for music, two hours for continuous video playback. (The 60GB model boasts 20-hours of music or three hours of video playback on a charge, due to its slightly thicker battery.) Oh, and they packed that huge screen in there as well. It's substantially brighter than previous color iPod displays, viewable in direct sunlight and from a refreshingly wide viewing angle. Most color screen devices use LCD parts that seem to lose it from the left but not the right, for example. This screen looks equally great from all angles. How typical of Apple to sweat this important aesthetic detail, one which all their competitors are seemingly oblivious to.

A few changes have been quietly made to the iPod we've all come to know and love, and not everyone is pleased about it. First up is the end of FireWire syncing support. You can charge using a FireWire cable, but that's it. You must use USB 2.0 for everything now. The standard dock connector works with all the various Apple and third-party docks and expanders, but any device that relies on the remote connector on top will have to be eBayed with your old iPod, as the new iPod has no remote connector. The usual suspects have released a bevy of dock connector-compatible version of their devices, but some of the oddball ones are destined to die. The upside is that the iPod is now simpler and cleaner looking up top, and there is one less place for environmental incursions. I say good riddance to this rarely used port, even though I'll miss my Griffin iTalk a little.

Another change that I've yet to grow accustomed to is the slightly smaller clickwheel. The middle button is the same, but the rest is noticeably smaller. A few more weeks of use and I'll adapt, but after several days with it I'm still overshooting the buttons occasionally, particularly in the dark.

Apple has a new Universal Dock ($39) into which an array of cup-like adapters can be inserted for any late-model iPod. My box came with such an adapter but, alas, no dock was available at press time for me to test. The new dock also has an infrared receiver window that is compatible with the new Apple Remote -- the same shuffle-sized unit that ships with the new iMac G5s. With it you can control your media from across the room, but I'm guessing you figured that out.

Along with the iPod, in the box you get a USB2 sync/charge cable, standard white Apple earbuds, and a simple slipcase to protect your investment. It's completely inadequate, so make it a point to get a high-quality padded case when you purchase the device. Now more than ever, you will be very unhappy if that lovely screen gets scratched up. I used my trusty Sumo leather flap case (sumocases.com) which works quite nicely; you can even use the flap to coil up your earbud cables for a tidy package.

If you want to send your video streams to a larger screen, you can use the same Apple iPod AV Cable ($19) that shipped with the iPod photo and has been an option for all color iPods that came after. The 320x240 video that looks so great on the iPod is barely acceptable on a TV, though, so think twice about buying this cable -- you may never want to use it for video.

Speaking of the iPod photo, the new iPod can do all the cool things with your photo library that previous color models could, including library synchronization (replication, really, as it's only one way) and on-the-fly slideshows. Again, you'll need that AV cable to get this stuff on the big screen, so you may want one after all, you shutterbug you.

At the end of the day...
I just paused for a minute and gazed at this sweet new iPod, happily streaming Yo-Yo Ma out to my desktop speakers and subwoofer rig. I had watched over an hour of video on it, then switched to music in order to run the battery flat. It's been playing all afternoon and looking unbelievably fine while doing so. Tonight, I'll sit with my daughter and we'll watch a couple of Pixar short films together, using a little headphone splitter. As she prepares to drift off to sleep, I'll slip off her earbuds and, with a flick of my thumb, I'll switch to one of my favorite audio podcasts so I don't fall asleep myself. The full moon coming through the bedroom skylight has been waking me up the last few nights, so if it happens tonight I'll finish that last episode of Lost without having to get out of bed or disturb my sleepy wife.

The new iPod makes me think of that old Carly Simon song: Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest.



© 2006 D.C. Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.