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The latest and greatest iPods were released in September 2006.

Should you now 'take the plunge' and buy one?

Or, if you already have an iPod or other type of MP3 player, should you now upgrade to the latest iPod?

 
 
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Apple iPod 80GB Personal Music Player

Improved Fifth Generation with Video iPod

Apple's iPod is an omnibus term that actually refers to three very different personal music players.

The smallest in this image is the 'Shuffle'; the mid sized unit is the 'nano', and this review covers the full sized 80GB hard disk based iPod.

Part two of a series on the Apple iPod - additional parts to be published in the following weeks.

 

 

 

A miracle of the digital age, Apple's 80 GB iPod is smaller than a pack of cards but can hold the equivalent of 1300+ CDs of music.

Although clearly the market leader, with an estimated 90% share of the hard disk based personal music player market, the iPod is not without weaknesses and limitations, and its expensive list price - $349 - doesn't include many of the things you'd expect and which are included by competing units.  You'll need to buy such things as a power charger separately.

Is the iPod a triumph of style over substance?  Should you get an iPod?  Perhaps, but not to watch video on, and not if you have an extensive collection of classical music.


What You Get With Your iPod

The design of the iPod is as minimalist as possible, with almost no moving parts, switches, buttons, or knobs.

So too is its packaging as minimalist as possible.  For the $350 list price, you will get the iPod itself, a set of cheap earbud headphones, a data cable, a thin protective sleeve for the iPod, a mystery plastic bit that is a docking station adapter so the new smaller sized iPod can fit in docking stations designed for larger older models, and a quick start guide.

That is all.  You don't get a power supply, you don't get a manual, you don't get any software.  A very minimalist package indeed - you don't get much for your $350.

Apple iPod extras you'll probably want to purchase

  • To charge the iPod, you connect it via the supplied data cable to a USB port on your computer, and the iPod then takes power from the USB port.  An Apple technician recommended using a USB port from the back rather than the front of the computer - he says the ports on the back usually have more powerful power supplies.

    Note that although the data cable has a standard USB connector on the computer end, the iPod end is a special shaped/sized connector unique only to iPods.  You can't use a regular USB cable or USB power supply to charge the iPod - you either have to buy a special iPod power supply (special only in the sense of having the unusual connector at the end) or use the supplied data cable with a computer.  Most people will end up choosing to buy a power supply as well so if they're traveling without a computer, they can still charge their iPod.  Apple sell chargers for the princely sum of $29.

  • And if you wish to connect your iPod to external things such as a stereo system, television, or selected other devices, you'll need to buy its docking station - also not included in the basic iPod package.  This lists for $39.  It is described as a universal docking station, but that is a bit of a misnomer because you need adapter sleeves for the new smaller iPods to fit in it - don't lose the one that came with your iPod or you'll be buying more at a cost of $9 per three.

  • Another accessory is an FM tuner.  Some MP3 players come with FM tuners built in, but the iPod requires you to buy this as an extra.  It is priced at $49.

  • If you want to be able to transfer pictures directly from a camera to the iPod, you need another $29 accessory.

  • If you want to play video, you need to get a video cable set for $19, although we believe regular video cables will work, but you just have to mix and match the video and audio outputs until you find how Apple has hidden them in an attempt to force you to buy their over-priced cable.

And if you want a manual, the good news it is free, but you'll need to download that from the Apple website.

As for software, Apple cleverly loaded the software you need onto the iPod itself, so when you first connect it to your computer, you don't need to also load drivers or anything from a CD-rom.  One less thing to lose.

And on an 80GB hard drive, who really cares if a few tens of MBs of space are taken up with software, drivers, etc?  On the other hand, like all hard disks, when you buy an iPod that describes itself as having 80GB of capacity, you don't actually get 80GB as implied.  Instead, you have to make do with a mere 74.4GB of space.  But this isn't exclusively Apple's perfidy - it is the peculiar industry standard method of hard disk measurement.

In a slightly embarrassing twist, it seems that in a very small number of cases, when your iPod is automatically transferring the drivers and iTunes software to your computer, it may also be transferring a virus, too.  Apparently some of the newest iPods came with a virus on them.  Apple offers some advice on how to detect and resolve this problem here.

The iPod comes with a one year warranty and an entitlement to a single free support call within the first 90 days from when you purchased the unit.  They offer an extended warranty - two years and unlimited support - for $59.  The support agreement includes any necessary battery replacement, and so this seems like money well spent for most of us, especially if you're planning on being a moderately frequent user of your iPod.

Specifications

Like most modern MP3 players, the iPod unit is wonderfully compact and lightweight.  It measures 4.1" x 2.4" and is just over 0.5" thick.  It weighs 5.5 ounces.

The smaller capacity 30GB unit is slightly thinner, and weighs 4.8 ounces.

The two distinctive features on the front of the unit are the screen and the control wheel.  The screen measures 2.5" on the diagonal (2" wide, 1.5" deep, in a 4:3 ratio the same as a traditional tv screen), and has a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels (referred to as QVGA), and is capable of displaying over 65,000 colors.  The display is bright and clear, and is better than on the original fifth generation iPods.

The control wheel has evolved since the first iPods five years earlier.  Nowadays it is fixed, but it senses the position and movement of your fingers by detecting the change in capacitance caused by the proximity of your finger to the wheel.  The wheel also has four click positions, marked by symbols that explain their meaning (ie Menu, Play/Pause, Fast forward and Fast backward) and there's a central button in the middle of the wheel which acts as an 'Enter' button.

There's only one other control on the iPod - a Hold/lock slider button on the top of the unit.  Yes - there's no On/Off button.

Apple's simple design contrasts with the more complex (but perhaps also more flexible and simpler?) controls on my Toshiba unit - an X control similar to the iPod's wheel, a Hold slider, plus three other buttons and a volume rocker.

What Your iPod Does

The most obvious thing the iPod does is play music.  And the 80GB iPod can sure hold a great deal of music.  If you are using moderately good quality 128kbps encoded AAC music files, you can store 20,000 4 minute songs on the iPod - 1333 hours of music, or about the same number of CDs - almost two months of 24/7 nonstop music without a single repeat.

In addition to playing music, it has various other audio functions such as being able to download and play back podcasts (if you don't know what a podcast is, you're probably not missing out on much) and it also can be used to store and play back audio books.

In addition to strictly audio functions, it can also store/display photos, and store/play videos, ranging from home movies you shoot yourself to television shows and full length movies.  Using the standard settings for video recording, you can store up to 100 hours of video material - enough for about 50 two hour movies, or almost 250 half hour television shows (a half hour television show usually runs less than 25 minutes, sometimes little more than 20 minutes, the rest of the time being normally taken up with commercials, which of course are omitted if you're downloading the video to watch on your iPod).

The iPod can be used as a portable hard disk, enabling you to transfer files between computers and to store data.

It can also be used to directly accept pictures from many digital cameras.  This can be a very handy feature, and can be very helpful - if you travel with both your camera and your iPod, you can use the iPod to store all the pictures you are taking and probably never run out of data storage.  This feature requires the purchase of Apple's $29 camera connector accessory.

Note that the various capacities of the iPod to store audio, images, video and data are not cumulative.  The more audio you have on the iPod, the less room you have for other types of storage, and so on.

The iPod can also be used to display text files and to hold contact and schedule information taken from, for example, your Outlook program on your main computer.  With the growing ability of the iPod to hold sensitive personal data as well as relatively harmless music files, Apple has thoughtfully added a screen-lock program which allows you to optionally program a four digit combination code to lock your unit, protecting you if you should lose it and someone else finds it.

It also has a very nice stop-watch, and some built-in games.

Video on the iPod

This was the main reason for my choosing to buy an iPod.  I have a perfectly functional 40GB Toshiba Gigbeat MP3 player that works well as a music player, picture displayer and data storage device, but it does not show video.

The new fifth and the improved fifth generation iPods can play video on their tiny screens.  You can purchase and download videos from the iTunes store (ie movies, television episodes, sports programming) or you can create your own on your computer.

The 80GB iPod has the capacity to store 100 hours of video when encoded using the standard quality settings.  You could store more with poorer quality video, or less with higher quality settings, but for most purposes, the standard settings are adequate for the purpose.

I copied over a couple of movies from DVDs and also downloaded an episode of The Office to try out the iPod's video capability.

The first and strongest impression was that the screen is very small.  It is very very small - it measures 2" x 1.5" and has a 2.5" diagonal.

To get this miniature screen to seem as large as a regular television or computer monitor screen, you would have to hold it about three to nine inches in front of you, and certainly with my eyes, this is too close to focus conveniently.

On the other hand, holding it at a more comfortable distance, but still fairly close, the screen takes up (ie subtends an angle) only about one sixteenth the area that my computer monitor does.

So the picture you see on the screen is really tiny, and if you're watching something in letterbox format, it gets even smaller still.

There's a slightly more subtle limitation, too.  The picture isn't only small, but it also has very little detail in it.

A DVD stores the video's picture information at a resolution of 720x480 pixels.  Most computer monitors these days have resolutions of at least 1024x768 pixels (mine is 1280x1024, some go to 1600x1200 or even higher).  But the screen on the iPod can only display 320x240 pixels - this is 4.5 times less data than is stored on a DVD, and ten times less than on a 1024x768 monitor.

So if you enlarged the image on the iPod, it would be coarse and fuzzy and lacking in detail.  These limitations aren't so obvious on the very small screen, when held at a distance, but not only can you not see the limitations, you also can't see much positive detail either.

I had a number of people look at the video samples on my iPod, including a fifteen year old.  I reasoned that if anyone would be keen to watch video on an iPod, it would surely be a teenager, and if anyone's eyes would be able to make the best of the small image, it again would be a teenager.  But even the teenager was unimpressed (she said it made her eyes hurt) and none of the adults liked it either.

As a gimmick, the iPod's video scores well.  But as an actual practical application, it flunks totally.  If you're considering buying an iPod to watch video on it, don't.  Choose instead a larger screened unit such as the 4.3" diagonal screened Archos 504/604 - these screens have almost three times the viewing area of the tiny iPod (and more pixels of resolution too).

Using the iPod

The iPod is either very simple to use or rather complex, depending on your perspective.  If you can program the time on your VCR, you'll probably love it.  If you can't, there might be occasional moments of frustration.

The first frisson of self-doubt occurs when attempting to turn the unit on.  There's no power button.  Fortunately, this is easily solved - pushing any of the buttons turns it on.  But - at the end of using the iPod, the issue of how to turn it off may prove more puzzling, and I watched with glee as two computer literate teenage boys spent 15 minutes unsuccessfully trying to turn off an iPod nano they'd been playing with (you hold down the Play/Pause key until the unit shuts itself off).

I chose a black iPod rather than the traditional white color, but the headphones supplied with the unit were the standard white ones rather than matching black - apparently Apple has yet to consider color coordinating its headphones to its various different colored players.

The headphones are tiny 'ear bud' type units, and provide an average and adequate sound.  They are light and convenient, but for serious listening, you'd be well advised to get a better set of headphones.  And, of course, if using the iPod on a plane, you should consider noise cancelling headphones.

A design flaw with the headphones is the very subtle labeling of which is the left earbud and which is the right.  The thin little stenciled letters are hard to see in full daylight and even harder to see in a dim evening light.

The scroll wheel was a bit too sensitive for me - when I was moving my finger on it to move the cursor through menus it was very easy to over-shoot and not to get the cursor highlighting exactly the selection I wanted, but other than that, it was a simple and easy set of menus to work through.  You can even customize the menus somewhat, choosing which options appear on the main 'home page' menu.

Working through the unit's menus to find the music you want is fairly simple and straightforward (except for classical music - see below), and you can choose music through several different routes - for example, you can start off by selecting a group you like, then choosing an album or song from that group.  Or you can choose a particular style of music, then choose artists/groups who have recorded in that genre, then choose their albums/songs from there.

In addition to these ways of accessing your music, there is also a search function that allows you to key in part of the name of a song or album or artist and it will return all matching songs that have those letters.

One interesting feature was a volume limiter.  After setting a maximum volume level in this menu option, using the volume control on the unit won't allow you to go over the preset maximum.  This is designed to help you protect your hearing, which can be a major concern with these types of units.  Because your ears will automatically desensitize themselves to overly loud volumes (but will still be damaged by them - they just don't sound so loud) it is possible to be all the time turning up the volume control, louder and louder, without realizing the damage you're doing to your hearing.

To minimize damage to your hearing, you should instead adopt an opposite strategy - regularly check and try turning down the volume until it is at the minimum acceptable level, rather than regularly keep turning the volume up and up.

Battery life

Apple claim a battery life of 20 hours for the new 80GB iPod when playing music, and 6.5 hours when playing video.

Testing suggested these claims are about right for a new iPod with brand new battery, assuming you don't use the display too much when playing music, and have the brightness turned down as much as possible when watching video.

It takes about two hours to charge an iPod most of the way (to about 80% of capacity), and four hours to give it a full charge to 100% of capacity.

As discussed in the introduction and overview of the iPod model range, Apple's rechargeable Lithium-ion battery has, of course, a finite life and sooner or later will need replacing.  It is not easy to replace the battery yourself, unlike some players which even offer removable batteries so you can, for example, always travel with two batteries.

This is unfortunate, and most of us will end up sending the unit back to Apple and having them replace the battery (ie exchange the unit) for us.

iPod/iTunes Doesn't Work Well with Classical Music

Although the iPod's structuring of music works well for most popular music, it completely fails to support the type of categorization that is needed for classical music.  When storing classical music, you want to be able to search by composer (this is possible) but then within the composer's works, you want to be able to search for particular pieces of music - for example, a four movement/track symphony, a three album opera, or a single track piece of piano music, or whatever else.  This function is completely unavailable; all you can do is then search by album.

You also want to be able to search, under the artist category, by orchestras, by conductors, and by soloists.  Each piece of music, using the iPod/iTunes structure, only supports a single value for artist, so a piece of music such as a piano concerto or opera that might have multiple values completely can not be categorized.

With other MP3 players I have created my own categorization system outside of the player's built in hierarchy by building my own series of folders and sub-folders.  I have a folder for each composer, then sub folders below that for genres such as symphonies, instrumental, etc, then folders below that for each individual piece, with the relevant tracks all contained in that folder.  This is not a complex structure to create, but it is impossible on the iPod/iTunes combination because Apple do not allow you to override the way that they insist on categorizing and storing the music.

Buying and Loading Music and Video onto an iPod using iTunes

Most people will get music for their iPod either by copying CDs they currently own or as purchases from Apple's iTunes service.

The iPod players come with a bundled software program - iTunes - for managing the music on the player and the 'master' version of the music on a computer, and this software program is integrated into the online storefront of their music selling service, making it very convenient and simple to buy more music and add it to your computer and iPod.

Most music on iTunes is sold either by the track or by the album (ie the CD which you'd otherwise buy in a store).  Generally music is priced at $0.99 per track, and usually the price of an album is capped at $9.99, even if there are more than eleven tracks on the album.  Albums that were originally a double CD format would usually be priced at $19.98, and $29.97 for triple CD collections, etc.

There are exceptions to this pricing, with some albums costing more and others costing less.  For example, the CD 'The Very Best of Supertramp' has 15 songs on it, but is priced at only $6.99, instead of the usual $9.99, or the $14.85 you'd pay if you bought all fifteen songs individually.

But beware of such bargains.  This CD is a compilation of tracks from other Supertramp CDs, and if you already own the other Supertramp CDs, there's no sense at all in then buying this compilation CD as well.  You could simply build a 'Playlist' that picks the tracks from the original albums and puts them in the same order as on this compilation CD, and save yourself the cost of it completely.

On the other hand, if you wish to treat yourself to a little bit of Wagner and wish to get Decca's lovely Solti/VPO excerpts from their epochal complete Ring recording, you'll be paying $9.99 for a collection of only six tracks.  In theory, you could download these tracks one by one and pay only $5.94 for the 45 minutes of music being sold here, but iTunes has a trick to prevent you doing that.  Only some of the six tracks can be purchased individually - to get the complete six tracks, you need to pay $9.99 for the album.

It is hard to see the fairness of charging $10 for 45 minutes worth of music, particularly when it doesn't meet the 99/track paradigm and is recycled music originally recorded as much as 45 years ago.

Other albums cost more than $9.99 - for example the two disk set The Wall by Pink Floyd, with 26 tracks on it, which in theory you'd expect to be priced at $19.98, actually sells for $25.75.

Don't buy music through iTunes

In reality, the cost of buying iTune music, whether track by track or album by album quickly becomes expensive, and it is not uncommon to find it costs more money to buy music electronically via iTunes than the 'old fashioned way' by buying a CD in a music store.

Furthermore, the quality of iTunes music is not as good as the quality of the music on a CD, so you're actually getting less for your money.  Plus the copy protection (what is now referred to as 'Digital Rights Management' (DRM) - a new-age marketing term that actually means digital lack of rights control) and not having a physical recording means you can't easily swap or re-sell the music with/to someone else, and you have restrictions on how you can listen to the music.

Not only does the DRM policy restrict your ability to play the songs you buy on other devices (you can play the songs on five computers and one iPod) it also restricts your ability to play it on other non-iPod devices.  If you subsequently decide to replace your iPod with a Microsoft Zune, for example, all your investment in iTunes music will be completely wasted and useless, because the Zune uses a different, incompatible type of DRM.

Although the music can be more expensive to you, and less useful, it would also seem to be more profitable to Apple and the recording companies, because they don't incur any costs of making or shipping CDs, they don't have to carry inventory costs, they don't have returns, and every which way their life is much simpler and less costly.  How unfortunate that their savings have not been reflected in fairer pricing to us, their customers.

In general, you are strongly advised to buy regular CDs wherever possible and to copy the music you wish from your CDs.  The iTunes program makes this easy to do.

Video from iTunes

Similar comments about costs and copy protection apply to video purchases too.  A single episode of a television show is $2 to purchase.  A movie ranges in price, typically in the $10 - $15 price range.  This is less than you'd pay for a new release on a DVD, but more than you'd pay for some of the older movies now for sale at discounted prices.

If you're buying video, you need to have a fast internet connection to get the video transferred to your computer.  Each minute of video is about 12MB in size, so a half hour television episode can take nearly 300MB to download, and a two hour movie is a massive 1.45GB in size.

Recording Your Own Music and Video for Your iPod

This will be discussed in a future article in this series.  For now, suffice it to say you should record in the AAC format, using a bit rate of at least 128 kbps or preferably more for best quality.  This can be done through the iTunes program from your own CDs, or using various other programs.

Copying video from DVDs, tapes, etc

If you want to copy or make your own videos, you'll need some sort of video editing/conversion program.  We've used the Movavi Video Suite and found it easy to use.  You might like to try their free demonstration version and possibly choose to buy their software too.

Should You Upgrade from an Older iPod

Perhaps you already have an earlier model iPod.  Should you now consider upgrading to a new 5th generation 80GB iPod?

There are two major reasons why you might wish to do this, and four minor reasons.

The two major reasons are :

  • If you need more storage :  If your current iPod is almost full, and if you still have additional music you'd like to load onto it, then maybe it makes sense to upgrade to the massive 80GB of capacity on this new iPod.

  • If you need more battery life :  The new iPods have the longest battery life yet (20 hours of music playback or 6.5 hours of video playback).  If your current iPod doesn't have enough battery life to conveniently last from one charge to the next convenient charging opportunity, perhaps this too is a good reason to upgrade.

The four minor reasons are :

  • Slightly smaller size than previous models

  • Color screen that can display pictures and which is brighter than earlier models

  • Video playback capability

  • You don't really need more space at present, but you'd like to re-record a lot of your music at a higher quality bit rate and this would then cause you to need more space

Other than these reasons, there are no other compelling reason to upgrade.

Should You Upgrade from a Different Brand of MP3 Player

The six reasons above apply equally if you're considering a move from a different type of MP3 player to an iPod, but there is also one other positive issue and one cautionary issue to carefully consider.

Positive - Get access to iPod accessories

The positive issue is that with an iPod you get immediate access to the wealth of iPod accessories.  These range from boom box type units to car audio kits, to remote controls, to clock/radio combination units, to just about anything else imaginable.

For those of use without an iPod, it is very tantalizing to see all these wonderful goodies that can be added to an iPod but which don't work with our other brands of MP3 personal music players.

Until now, the wide range of accessories have given the iPod a unique and very powerful edge over its competitors, but it is likely that Microsoft's new Zune player will quickly build up a range of accessories too, adding to the competitive pressure that Microsoft's move into this market will bring to Apple.

Negative - Potential problems transferring existing music

The cautionary issue relates to your ability to transfer your current music files over to the iPod.  If the music on your other player is non-copy protected and recorded in MP3 format, then the chances are you should be able to copy the music from your old player to your computer, and then from one directory on your computer into the iTunes directory.

But if it is copy protected, this may not be possible, and you might find yourself losing much or all of your music library.

Some music download services allow you to download your music repeatedly onto different devices, and some allow you unlimited use, but others are very restrictive.

If the music is in a different format than MP3 (for example, in the standard Windows WMA format) you may have issues converting it to MP3 or AAC format.  Although there are programs that will do this for you, we strongly recommend that you never convert from one digital format to another - you can lose a lot of quality going through this process.  It is much better to re-record the music from the original CD or other source in the new format.

iPod Support

You are entitled to a single support call on a single issue within 90 days of buying your iPod.  I quickly came across a need to call for support.

The good news - after working through annoying voice recognition menus (annoying because they rarely recognize what I'm saying) I was quickly connected to a support person.

The bad news - the support person did not speak English as his first/native language, and the quality of the phone line to whatever far-away country he lives in was very poor.

The good news - asking to speak to a supervisor got me switched to a native English speaker (after a long wait on hold), and then subsequently transferred to another English speaker (in Canada) for more pro-active support.

If you need further support after your one free call, you probably should buy their two year service contract for $59.  This includes unlimited phone support plus an extension of the hardware warranty from one to two years as well.

An Alternative to the iPod Interface

There is an interesting program - Rockbox - that allows you to run a different type of interface on your iPod.  You get the same basic iPod functionality, but a lot of extra capabilities too.  Best of all, it is free.

If you're a 'techie type' and, like me, are frustrated by some of the iPod limitations and constraints/controls, you might find this an interesting alternative, and definitely worth a look.

Summary

The new improved fifth generation Apple iPods are well made and attractive, and reasonably easy to use.

For most people (other than classical music lovers), they will be a more than adequate way of storing and playing music.

But the rigid locked structure between the iPod and the iTunes management program and the copy protection limits the flexibility of the unit, and music you purchase through iTunes could become totally useless if you wish to copy it to a different or replacement player in the future.

We recommend you consider other portable music players with less restrictive copy protection, and wherever possible, don't buy online copy-protected music, but instead buy the CDs that you can own outright and then copy them onto your personal music player as you wish, free of restriction.

Already pricy at $349, by the time you add a power supply/charger and a docking station (items usually included with other competing products) the price has inflated to $417; add an FM tuner module and you're now spending $466.

 

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Originally published 27 Oct 2006, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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