Apple's top-of-the-line iPod, which confusingly goes by several names, including iPod, iPod 5G (for fifth generation), and iPod with video, received a minor, evolutionary update earlier this month alongside a new iPod nano and a radically restyled iPod shuffle that won't appear until November. Because this latest iPod is technically not a new generation of hardware and is rather just a slightly updated version of the iPod with video that appeared in October 2005, the naming on this new device gets even more complex. Officially, Apple names the new iPod as Fifth generation iPod with video, (Late 2006). And you thought Microsoft had horrible product names.

Monikers aside, the new iPod with video--which we'll simply call iPod from here on out--carries on the proud tradition of its predecessor, as you might expect. This means it's still the best full-sized portable media player on the market. However, because the new iPod wasn't replaced or augmented by a "true" video iPod--that is, an iPod with a dramatically bigger screen--many have been disappointed with Apple's latest player. That's understandable: As a pure video player, the new iPod is almost as worthless as its predecessor. Its 2.5 inch screen is tiny for video content, especially if it uses a widescreen aspect ratio, and you'll be sure to develop neck cramps watching a full-length feature film on the thing.

So what?

Remember, Apple markets the device as "iPod with video," and not "Video iPod." The distinction is important. The iPod was an audio player first, but it's since developed into an impressive all-around multifunction device, compatible with a wide variety of content types, including music, audio books, TV shows, music videos, short films, and other videos, full-length Hollywood movies (see below), and audio and video podcasts. It can even play games (see below), and store notes and personal information management (PIM) data, such as contacts and scheduling. In fact, if you sit back and really think about it, its rather astonishing how far iPod has come in five years.

Anyway, the new iPod offers a number of small improvements over its stellar predecessor. Let's take a look.

The iPod evolves

Last year, Apple offered the iPod 5G in two versions, one with 30 GB of storage ($299) and the other with 60 GB ($399). Both were available in black or white, each with stunning color displays. The iPod 5G also picked up the sharply edged design of the iPod nano, which had been introduced a month earlier.

This time around, the iPod is available in 30 GB and 80 GB versions

Prices have dropped, to $249 and $349, respectively, which means--in my book, at least--that Apple is at last pricing its iPod devices competitively. (Not that it matters, I suppose: In many respects, the iPod has no competition.) This also means that a late 2006 with 80 GB of storage can be had for $50 less than a 60 GB version cost just a month ago. Yikes.

Both versions are still available in black and white designs, and as with last year, the 30 GB unit is stunningly thin, given the overall size of the device, while the 80 GB version is thicker, almost chubby (if you're used to the smaller capacity device, as I am). That said, even the 80 GB iPod is pocket-sized and quite portable

These aren't humongous devices.

Battery life has been bumped up nicely, at least for video playback. While the stated battery life for audio playback is unchanged from 14 hours for the 30 GB version and 20 hours for the 60/80 GB versions, battery life for video playback is up dramatically. Now, the 30 GB version gets 3.5 hours of battery life for video, up from a reported 2 hours in the previous version. The 80 GB version is bumped to a reported 6.5 hours of video playback.

These battery life figures, are, however, more than a little optimistic based on my own experience. That said, one of the big problems with the previous iPod was that the battery life was so poor you could literally sit there and watch the battery meter drain while playing video. It was like watching the gas gauge on a mid-70's conversion van go down in real time while you struggled to get it up a hill. This issue isn't as pronounced in the new iPods. In fact, it's pretty much a thing of the past. Video playback will always tax the batteries on any portable device, but this year's iPods take a step in the right direction.

The new iPod also features a brighter screen. And sure enough, you can easily see the difference between this year's models and last year's when both are turned up to the highest brightness setting. That said, the brightness and battery life improvements don't make up for the device's small screen. It's still a tough sell for full-length video playback, especially for the widescreen movies Apple offers from its iTunes Store.

Like its predecessor, the new iPod comes with ear bud headphones, but this year's version includes much nicer 'phones than any previous iPod. Specifically, these are the first iPod bundled earphones that are worth a damn, and while I'll never really warm to ear buds, these aren't horrible

The new versions feature a comfortable rubber ring around each bud, making them far more comfortable. (Previous versions featured horrible pull-on foam slipcovers and hurt my ears, physically.)

One area that Apple really cheaps out--and this wasn't always the case--is with the bundled peripherals. You get a USB charging and sync cable, a cheap case you'll want to replace immediately, and an iPod Dock adapter. But what you don't get is a true power adapter, a decent case, or an iPod Dock, all of which you'll need to purchase separately. As a conspiracy-happy friend used to say, that's how they get you.

Software changes

While the addition of a brighter screen and better battery life are welcome, much of the new iPod's improvements are software-based. This time around, Apple has also added a number of useful new features to the iPod, many of which significantly enhance the player. (Note that all of these features come with iPod Software version 1.2, which is available to last year's iPod with video models as well. You don't need a late 2006 model to acquire any of this functionality.) Here's what you get.

Gapless song playback

Since the first iPod appeared, audiophiles have complained about its inability to link musical tracks that audibly blend into each other. For example, many classical pieces, concert recordings, bloated 70's prog-rock songs, and other audio have been artificially split apart by digital ripping software, which creates individual files for each track. And software such as iTunes, to date, has had no automated way of linking two or more tracks that were originally connected, seamlessly, in the original recording. On a typical concert recording, for example, you'd hear a small pause between tracks, taking you out of the moment.

In the new iPod (and in iTunes 7), this is no longer an issue. Now, tracks that are meant to be connected are linked again through a new feature called gapless playback. By default, iTunes will scan your music library, and any new tracks you add as you go, and link tracks that are meant to be played back together. If you find any tracks that iTunes misses, you can link them manually as well using the Get Info dialog.

Gapless songs are re-synced with the iPod so that they play back correctly there as well. Now you Pink Floyd fans can hear your favorite band's music the way that God (well, Rogers Waters) intended.

Search and Quick Scroll

While the iPod's Click Wheel has gone through a number of iterations and changes over the years, this unique navigational control has proven its worth even with very large music libraries, thanks to its ability to speed up as you go. (That is, the more you scroll through a list of songs, artists, albums, or whatever, the faster it goes. This lets you get from A to, say, T much more quickly than would be possible if scrolling happened at a set rate.)

Despite this, today's iPods, with 30 and 80 GB of storage, can hold ginormous music libraries. And if you've got tens of thousands of songs to get through, even the iPod Click Wheel can get tiring. So Apple has added two excellent new features, aimed largely at those with huge music libraries.

The first, Search, lets you literally search through your iPod's library using the Click Wheel to enter search text so that you can find the exact song, artist, album, audio book, or podcast you want. (And yes, Search is for audio only.)

You access Search through a new Search entry at the bottom of the iPod's Music menu. There's a text box at the bottom, below which appear a list of letters and numbers. You scroll through the letters and numbers with the Click Wheel, selecting what you need until you've got the semblance of a search query going. As you select letters and numbers, using the Select button in the center of the Click Wheel, the iPod will present media that matches what you're searching for. The more letters or numbers you enter, the smaller the list gets, making it relatively easy to find what you're looking for

In practice, Search gives good results. Typing in "def" (no quotes) to find Def Leppard-related content, for example, I got the following three results:

[Artist icon] Def Leppard
Anakin Defeats Se Bulba
[Album icon] Vault: Def Leppard's Greatest Hits

The first and third entries use small blue icons to indicate what was found. The second, a track from the "Star Wars Episode I" soundtrack, is accompanied by no such icon. When you select any of these items, you navigate in or, in the case of a track, play the item. Pressing Menu returns you to the search results.

The second feature, Quick Scroll, kicks in whenever you're scrolling through any list on the iPod, be it a list of artists, albums, songs, or whatever. As noted previously, the iPod speeds up the more that you scroll. But with Quick Scroll, a letter (or, less frequently, a number symbol) will display overlayed above the list through which you are scrolling. The overlay is large and easy to read, so if you're scrolling down to "T," you can just watch the overlay until you see S or T and then slow down. Visually, this overlay is reminiscent of the overlays you see in Mac OS X, such as when you eject a disc. It's a nice effect, and a welcome and useful addition to the iPod.

Games

While the iPod has had a few simple games built-in for a while now, it's now possible to purchase a handful of professional game titles from the iTunes Store. These games are inexpensive--$4.99 each--and look wonderful on the iPod's color screen. However, because of the limited nature of the Click Wheel as a game controller, you're probably not going to see anything complicated on the iPod. Instead, what we've got is a solid collection of classic PC, web, and arcade games like Mahjong, Pac-Man, and Zuma. Some, like Pac-Man, take a bit of getting used to because of the Click Wheel, though Zuma, in particular, works well because of the circular nature of the game title

Humorously, games actually take a few moments to load, marking the first time I was ever overtly aware that the iPod was a computing device. I can't imagine that gaming will ever be a major phenomenon on the iPod, unless some sort of add-on controller is made available for a future video iPod, but it's a fun addition and could be popular with commuters. Certainly, the price per game is right.

Managed in iTunes

Previously, iPod users had to install two software applications on their PC or Mac, iPod Updater, for keeping the iPod firmware up to date, and iTunes, for managing and syncing their media collections to the device. Starting with iTunes 7, you only need iTunes to do both: iPod Updater has been relegated to the technological dustbin. This is nice for convenience's sake. But Apple has also dramatically improved the iPod management interface in iTunes. And man, is it sweet.

Instead of the old Preferences pane, iPod management is now integrated directly into the iTunes user interface. You'll see the new multi-pane interface in iTunes when you plug-in an iPod, or when you click on the iPod icon in the iTunes Source list. There are eight available tabs, including:

Summary. This is the main management interface, a dashboard of sorts where you can view information about the iPod, update or restore the iPod, and configure various options. At the bottom of the display is a wonderful new colored capacity bar that segments your iPod's storage into audio, video, photos, other content types, and free space, so you can see at a glance what's on there and what's taking up space. It's really nice looking.

Music. From this tab, you can configure how iPod syncs music from your iTunes library. By default, you simply sync all music, but you can optionally auto-sync with certain playlists only if you'd like. You can also choose to sync music videos and album artwork, the latter of which is highly recommended.

Movies. From this tab, you configure how iPods syncs with movies, including those you've purchased from the iTunes Store (see below) and any other movies you may have, including home movies that are in formats compatible with iPod. You can sync with all movies (the default), unwatched movies only, or you can select which movies to sync.

TV Shows. Here, you configure how iPod will sync with TV show episodes you've purchased from the iTunes Store. By default, it's set up to sync all unwatched episodes of all shows. But you can fine tune this in many ways, syncing certain numbers of shows (or just unwatched shows) and picking which TV shows to include.

Podcasts. From this tab, you configure how iPod interacts with the podcasts which you've downloaded or subscribed to. The interface is similar to that for TV shows: You can sync all recent podcasts, all unplayed podcasts, or a variety of other choices. You can also select which podcast to sync.

Photos. From here, you determine how iPod will sync with photos. This differs slightly on Windows and the Mac. On Windows, you can use the My Pictures folder or Adobe Photoshop (Photoshop Elements works fine) as a source, while Mac users will see iPhoto and the Pictures folders as potential sources. You can choose to sync your entire photo library or just selected albums (iPhoto) or folders (Pictures folder on the Mac, or My Pictures on Windows). Unlike other synchronization choices, however, iTunes doesn't just copy over the actual photo files. Instead, iTunes runs through whatever list of pictures you've chosen to sync and creates smaller, iPod-friendly versions that it copies to the device. This process is hugely time consuming, especially if you have a large photo library. (And, stupidly, it can be error prone thanks to bugs in the initial version of iTunes 7, which might cause iTunes to crash, necessitating a restarting of the process.) You will also need plenty of hard drive space to store the iPod-sized photos. On my MacBook, for example, I have over 11,000 photos, which occupy about 30 GB on disk. The iPod versions of these files take up another 9 GB of space (and take up 9 GB on the iPod as well, of course). You can optionally copy over full-resolution photos as well, though of course will take up even more space on the iPod. In my case, there's not enough space, even on the 80 GB iPod, to sync full photos with all the other content I have on there.

Contacts. Despite its name, this tab is actually used to sync both contacts and calendars, though neither is enabled by default. On the Mac, Address Book and iCal are used, respectively. On Windows you can choose between Outlook and Outlook Express syncing. You can sync all contacts and calendars, or particular contact groups and calendars. (Outlook Express doesn't support calendar sync.)

Games. This tab lets you configure iPod games, as you might expect. You can sync all games (the default) or pick the games you want on the iPod. In addition to this tab, you can also manage individual iPod games via the new iPod Games entry in the Library section of the iTunes Source list. Each game gets a descriptive page, plus a Get Info dialog where you can view and edit game meta-data.

I should also mention that the initial version of iTunes 7 has proven quite buggy. Sadly, this is typical of Apple and I expect the company to address these issues--which plague both Mac and Windows versions of the product--over a number of software updates in the coming weeks. It's unclear why Apple always does this: They're major software releases are really just public betas and should be named as such.

With regards to the iPod, I've seen any number of issues. Typically, iTunes will attempt to sync with the iPod, announce that it's not connected (despite the fact that you can see it listed in the iTunes Devices list) and suggest disconnecting and reconnecting it. When you do so, it usually works fine, at least for a while. I see this issue a lot when I make configuration changes as well.

New video features

Apple's iPod has been video-capable since late 2005, and this year's models continue that trend. Not much has changed year-to-year, though Apple does now offer a limited selection of Hollywood movies from its iTunes Store. Note that these movies work on all iPod with video devices, however, and not just the latest (late 2006) versions.

The new downloadable Hollywood movies are available in resolutions up to 640 x 480, supposedly, though almost all of them are offered in widescreen aspect ratios and thus feature much smaller resolutions. I've seen resolutions of 640 x 272 and 640 x 344 so far, and while I applaud Apple for offering these films in their original aspect ratios, and in near-DVD quality (DVD quality being 720 x 480), the small iPod screen makes watching such movies an exercise in stupidity. I did watch all of "Under the Tuscan Sun" in 30 minute blocks on an elliptical trainer recently, and it was doable, but "Pirates of the Caribbean," encoded at 640 x 272 and often quite dark, was not. These movies actually look fine full-screen on a PC or Mac. Not so much on the iPod.

Another issue is that the iPod is limited to outputting its video display at 320 x 240. So even if you don't mind spending over $100 on an iPod Dock, iPod Remote, and iPod AV cables so you can attach the device to your TV, the resulting video quality is sub-par. Perhaps a future video iPod will natively support higher resolutions, both internally and externally.

And while I'm on the subject, none of the movies (or TV shows) Apple offers from its iTunes Store offer captioning of any kind. This makes these videos absolutely worthless to people with hearing disabilities like my son. Even though captioning would be pointless on an iPod (again, because of the small screen), such a feature would be quite welcome for PC- or Mac-based playback and, eventually, TV-based playback via Apple's upcoming iTV device. I'm surprised a company with Apple's reputation hasn't been more sensitive to this issue.

A few observations about iPod lock-in

I've been an iPod user since Apple gave me a first generation device back in November 2001. My allegiance to the iPod since then has nothing to do with brand loyalty. Though I've tested and experimented with numerous competing portable media player solutions over the intervening years, I've just never found any device that matches the iPod's elegance, functionality, and sheer beauty. It's that simple.

That said, I'm not a big fan of lock-in. The iPod and iTunes are incompatible with the Media Center PCs I've had in my living room since early 2002, and with the numerous Windows Media Audio (WMA)-based online stores, all of which offer much-higher-quality songs than does Apple's iTunes. (Thankfully, video is another story: The TV shows and movies now offered from the iTunes Store are finally in "good enough" territory.)

What this means is I've had to do a lot of work to stay with the iPod. I burn digitally purchased songs back to CD-RW and re-rip them in unprotected MP3 format so that they'll work with the iPod (a time-consuming process). Likewise, I re-encode my edited home movies in H.264 so they'll work with Apple's devices. I feel it's all been worth the time and effort. Some might disagree.

Over the years, I've watched the iPod grow from overpriced and isolated to overpriced but dominant. But in its current incarnation, the iPod is finally priced correctly, surrounded by a wonderful and unmatched ecosystem of add-on peripherals and legally purchasable content, and offers best-of-breed functionality. Put simply, there is iPod and then there is everything else. And right now, nothing else matters. I don't see that situation changing.

Here's my point. While buying songs from the iTunes Store is, perhaps, one of the silliest things anyone could do because of quality issues, every other piece of the iPod puzzle is clear-cut. I can't imagine why Microsoft is even attempting to enter this market. They're going to get killed. And should Apple ever start offering higher-quality music via iTunes--say 160 or 192 Kbps AAC songs instead of the current 128 Kbps offerings--they will erase one of my only remaining complaints. You never know.

Conclusions

The new iPod with video isn't a huge improvement over last year's model, but then it's not like the iPod's predecessor was lacking in any huge ways. If you're already using an iPod 5G, the new version isn't a required upgrade. But if you're new to the iPod or haven't upgraded in two or more years, you'll be startled by the sheer excellence of this device. No, it's not the video iPod that some of us have been hoping for. But the latest iPod continues Apple's tradition of excellence and remains, as before, the standard by which all other portable media players are measured. This is the best iPod yet. And you know you want one.

--Paul Thurrott
September 27, 2006