The surprise of the new Apple iPod is not the novelty of portable video. It's that, right out of the gate, such an ambitious feature works so seamlessly. This kind of performance usually comes after years of trial and error, consumer give-and-take, fevered debugging, and quality control.
It's just too bad you can enjoy it only for two hours before having to recharge.
The next-generation iPods have arrived with much-heralded video features. The devices are slimmer, smarter, and, in the case of the eye-catching black model, shadier. The new players come in 30-GB and 60-GB versions, and, like their most recent, now-obsolete forebears, feature color screens, photo storage, and airtight integration with Apple's iTunes software and online music store.
The 30-GB model can hold approximately 7,500 songs, or 75 hours of video, or 25,000 photos, or some combination of all three; those numbers double on the 60-GB version. Apple has sheared a bit of the bulk from the already-sleek device. It's not quite as sexy as the iPod Nano that debuted last month, but at 4.1 x 2.4 in., and at about a half-inch think, the new iPod takes up as much space as a rodeo belt buckle.
It's also a steal at $299 for the 30-GB model (an extra hundred will get you the 60 GB) and would impress even without video playback. All the features of previous versions have survived, and the player shares a few new tricks with the Nano, such as the world clock and the screen lock.
A Somewhat Extreme Makeover
The LCD color screen has grown to a GameBoy-esque 2.5 in. The handheld plays H.264 and MPEG-4 video formats at 30 frames per second, and resolution is sharp at 320 x 240 pixels.
For the rollout, Apple has stocked iTunes with about 2,000 music videos, six short films from Pixar, and episodes of five Disney-owned programs including "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," for $1.99 each. Presumably, the video content on iTunes will grow as more studios follow Disney's example, so it seems silly to gripe about the lack of choices so early.
As far as quality of picture and ease of use, Apple has nailed it on the first take. An episode of "Lost" ran smoothly. The lush greenery and cerulean skies of Hawaii were rendered nicely, and even darker scenes could be followed easily. You can pause, listen to music or turn the player off, return to the video, and it will pick up from where you stopped. If you want to watch home movies, you will need to convert files using software such as QuickTime Player Pro ($30 for Windows and Mac OS). A hookup to your TV will cost another $19, and you will lose a lot of the crispness of the tiny iPod screen.
But for playback, the stingy battery (2 hr. for 30 GB, 3 hr. for 60 GB) won't even last the duration of a cross-country flight, given that the backlight has to run constantly. For the dentist's waiting room or the crosstown express, that seems adequate; the model tested managed to squeeze 2 hr. 23 min. of video out of a single full charge, and audio playback runs up to 14 hours. But if you expect to use this player to watch a lot of movies or even several episodes of your favorite show in succession, you can't. And a full recharge takes four hours.
Tick-Tock ... Tick-Tock
Downloading "Lost," at 43 minutes (no commercials) and 191 MB, took about five minutes over cable broadband and uploading it onto the iPod took about ten minutes, but that was on an older iMac that only supports USB 1.1, not the 2.0 that now is standard.
Although you can still use it for recharging, Firewire for syncing the iPod, sadly, is a thing of the past. That is unfortunate. There are many, many Macs and PCs out there that only support USB 1.1 and Firewire. It took more than an hour to upload about 700 songs; it would have taken at least nine more hours to fill the 30 GB model to capacity.
Apple is doing a real disservice to its loyal Mac customers here, especially considering that most people probably went to Macs in the first place because of their durability. By restricting the new iPod to USB 2.0, the company would seem to be strong-arming loyal customers to buy the latest Macs.
Apple took a similar misstep earlier in the year when it launched Tiger, the latest version of its OS, which was released exclusively on DVD. The problem? Many older Macs don't have DVD drives. Those users had to purchase Tiger, download a form from Apple (which the company buried on its support page), then ship the DVD back to Cupertino with a check to cover shipping costs and wait for Apple to send CDs of Tiger that then could be installed on older machines.
Perhaps the success of the iPod, coupled with and an almost evangelical customer base, has made the company just a little greedy.
A little greed can be forgiven when the product is superb, and that is the case here. To its great credit, Apple has managed to throw even more momentum behind its diminutive juggernaut. As a state-of-the-art digital jukebox, the new iPod remains unsurpassed.
But consumers expecting the new iPod to be the de facto choice for portable video should look elsewhere for now.