Walt Mossberg

A Screen Test For the Video iPod

As always, Apple Computer’s charismatic CEO Steve Jobs caused quite a stir last week when he introduced his latest product at a big media event — in this case, a sleek new full-sized iPod that, for the first time, can play video as well as music. In addition, he announced Apple would start selling videos online for $1.99 each, including music videos; short films; and fresh episodes of five ABC and Disney TV shows, including the hit series “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Newspapers, magazines and Web sites launched an outpouring of speculation and analysis. Some said the new video iPod would “save” television and movies. Others argued that it would have no impact at all. But there was little discussion of how well the new gadget works, or what it’s like to actually use one.

The new iPod.

To answer those more practical questions, my assistant Katie Boehret and I this week took a couple of the new video iPods — officially called simply “the iPod,” or the “fifth-generation iPod” — for a short test drive.

Because of production schedules, we had only about 24 hours to try out the units Apple lent us — two white 30-gigabyte models that will sell for $299 each. There’s also a larger, 60-gigabyte version that will sell for $399. Both editions come in black as well as white. The iPods are already available in some stores, and will reach more over the next few days.

We tested nearly every aspect of the gadget — which works on both Windows and Macintosh computers, with Apple’s iTunes software and its iTunes Music Store — starting with its familiar music functions. But we focused most of our testing on the new iPod’s sexiest capability — video.

Our verdict is that this new iPod is an excellent music player. It has all of the strengths that have made prior iPods monster hits, and a few subtle refinements. Plus, it’s a surprisingly decent video player, with crisp, smooth vivid playback of TV shows, music videos, short films, video podcasts and home videos.

We wouldn’t want to watch a full-length movie on this iPod — the screen is just too small. But, for short things like music videos, video podcasts or even hourlong TV shows shortened by stripping out the commercials, as Apple is doing, the new iPod provides a pretty good experience.

However, there are some significant downsides to the video function on this iPod. Some of them are due to Apple’s design decisions, while others are due to restrictions imposed by media companies, or to the simple human factors that go into watching video. For instance, the media companies have made very little content available, and have forced Apple to rig the video files so they can’t be burned to CD or DVD disks. And, we found in our tests that it can get annoying to hold the new iPod in a good viewing position for long enough to watch a TV episode, because it doesn’t come with a stand.

'Boundin',' a shortfilm by PixarAnimation Studios  Price:$1.99  on Apple'siTunes Music Store
‘Boundin’,’ a short film by Pixar Animation Studios. Price: $1.99 on Apple’s iTunes Music Store

Just as Apple wasn’t the first company to introduce a high-capacity, portable digital music player, it isn’t the first with a portable digital video player. Firms like Archos, Creative Labs and Samsung got there first, some using software from Apple’s archrival Microsoft. But, just as the original iPod blew away the existing products with a superior combination of design and functionality, the video iPod has a good chance of doing so, provided enough video content becomes available for it, and people prove willing to view video on a 2½-inch screen.

Because these conditions are unknown, even by Mr. Jobs, Apple wisely calls this primarily a music player, with video playback thrown in, at no extra cost, as a bonus. And that description seems both fair and right. In essence, this iPod’s video capability is kind of a business or social experiment.

The new iPod is the slimmest, most pocketable portable video player I’ve seen. The $299 version is about 30% thinner than the previous $299 model, yet it holds 50% more material, and has a larger high-resolution color screen. Apple somehow enlarged the screen without enlarging the width. Still, the 2½-inch screen is smaller than on most other portable video players, and it’s much smaller than the screens on the most frequently used mobile video viewers — laptops and portable DVD players.

Apple claims that the 30-gigabyte hard disk on the model we tested can hold up to 7,500 songs, or 75 hours of video, or 25,000 photos. The 60-gigabyte model doubles that capacity for $100 more.

The base model claims 14 hours of battery life for music; three hours for photo slideshows accompanied by music; and a measly two hours for video playback. In our tests, video playback lasted a bit longer — two hours and 20 minutes. The slightly fatter $399 model, which has room for a bigger battery, can do 20 hours of music, four hours of slide shows, and three hours of video.

Apple skimped on included accessories for this iPod. As in some other recent models, the new iPod has no wall charger in the box. It’s a $29 extra. Unless you buy one, you’ll have to charge it from your computer. The new iPod can display its video on a TV, with the right cable. But the cable costs $19 extra. And there’s a nifty dock, which might even double as a viewing stand — but it’s $39 extra.

'Lost,' a TV show byABC Television Network. Price: $1.99 on Apple's iTunes Music Store
‘Lost,’ a TV show by ABC Television Network. Price: $1.99 on Apple’s iTunes Music Store

As a music player, the video iPod is terrific. In our tests, it rapidly transferred numerous songs from both a Windows and Macintosh computer, and played them back with great fidelity. And there are a few refinements in its music capabilities.

Like the tiny iPod nano introduced last month, the new full-sized iPod can display song lyrics, if you have added them to the song file using iTunes. Unlike the nano, however, the video iPod allows you to keep the lyrics, or a picture of the song’s album cover, on the screen for the duration of a song, or even a series of songs.

We didn’t test the new iPod’s music battery life, but, based on past tests of other iPods, Apple’s claims of music playback time between battery charges have been accurate, and even conservative.

To test the video, we downloaded two episodes of “Desperate Housewives” from the iTunes Store, including the one that ran this past Sunday night. These videos are about 43 minutes long, because they omit the commercials that swell the shows to an hour on TV. Each download took a bit over 20 minutes using an average DSL connection. That’s a little bit longer than the 10 to 20 minutes Apple predicts. Your experience may vary, depending on the speed of your connection.

We also downloaded a short film, Pixar’s “Boundin’,” and were surprised that it took more than five minutes to retrieve — longer than the film itself. We downloaded a music video, “Weapon of Choice,” by Fatboy Slim, which features the deadpan actor Christopher Walken doing a fantastic dance. It also can take about as long, or longer, to fetch as its playing time. And we also downloaded from iTunes a free video podcast called “Rocketboom,” featuring a woman reading a homemade newscast.

In addition, we obtained from a friend an illegally downloaded episode of the TV show “Battlestar Galactica,” which she had converted to one of the video formats the iPod supports.

All of these videos played very well on the iPod, though each looked better on our Windows and Mac computers, where they play back in a window that is much smaller than the computer’s screen, but much larger than the iPod’s. In fact, I suspect some video fans will simply buy videos from Apple for playback on a computer, rather than on the iPod.

Still, the iPod did a good job with this material. It can easily scroll back and forth in a video. But there’s no way to control screen brightness and contrast.

Unfortunately, the new iPod won’t play most of the many millions of downloaded video clips and home videos people have acquired over the years, which are in older formats produced by Apple’s own QuickTime video program, and by other common video programs on Windows. To play these files, you must use extra software to convert them to one of the three video formats the new iPod can handle — MP4, H264, or M4V.

The rub is that iTunes itself doesn’t perform these conversions. Instead you have to buy software to do so, or dig up free conversion software from various corners of the Internet. The $29 “Pro” version of Apple’s QuickTime program can do the job most of the time, but not always.

Using QuickTime Pro 7.03, I was able to convert clips of some TV ads and some home videos so they would play on the new iPod — even a video taken on my Treo cellphone. But some of my old video clips wouldn’t convert at all, and a couple of old music videos I downloaded years ago converted improperly, omitting the sound.

This video format and conversion problem is a mess that will hold back the video iPod unless Apple fixes it by incorporating free, reliable, and easy video conversion in iTunes. The original iPod had no such problem playing most existing music files people had collected.

Apple should also include a stand with the video iPod, to get around the problem of holding the thing in viewing position for long periods. But, some other issues aren’t as easily solved, such as laughing out loud in public, like a deranged person, at a funny scene only you can hear or see.

The new iPod is a handsome product that works well and is a good value. If you don’t expect too much from its video function, you will find it a nice bonus. But, for now, we urge you to think of it primarily as a music player, just as Steve Jobs does.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

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