Apple's new iPods are better than ever

Apple's newest iPod lineup doesn't offer a huge number of new features, but that doesn't mean that the company has decided to rest on its laurels. The latest iPods, which were released along with a major update of the company's iTunes software, address several concerns that users had about previous models and can easily be described as the best iPods released to date. Ironically, the iTunes 7 online music store actually sports more new features, most notably that the iTunes store now allows users to purchase and download feature-length movies in addition to its stock of TV shows and its large catalog of music.

The size and shape of all three iPod models has been updated. The iPod Nano is almost identical in size to the previous model but with a sturdier metal case design similar to that of the iPod Mini, which the original Nano replaced. The iPod Shuffle's design has been completely revamped to be similar to a binder clip that can be attached to any piece of clothing. The video iPod retains a similar form factor to its predecessor, but it is slightly shorter and thicker.

The video iPod

The addition of feature-length content to the iTunes repertoire is perhaps responsible for two of the biggest improvements to the video-capable models: significantly improved battery life and screen brightness. These were areas where Apple listened to customer feedback and took to heart the need to produce a higher-quality product than the original iPod if the company expected the device to be used for watching full-length movies (although the same could be said for any type of video content).

Very few products live up to the estimated battery life listed by their manufacturers. These estimates usually assume perfect battery-saving conditions, such as low screen brightness and limited interaction with the device's operating system. Apple's previous video iPod models were no exception to this rule. However, the latest iPods come closer than many products to meeting Apple's claims.

In testing the 80GB video iPod on a fully charged battery, I was able to watch nearly five and a half hours of video with the screen at full brightness, pausing or adjusting the volume several times and occasionally skipping forward or backward during playback. It appeared that the source or type of video content didn't affect performance. I tested a copy of the movie Flight Plan and several TV shows downloaded from the iTunes Store as well as video from several DVDs that was encoded for use on an iPod. Although the iPod failed to reach Apple's six-and-a-half-hour estimate, I believe that with lower screen brightness, it might have come very close.

This surprisingly long battery life makes the iPod a true portable video and entertainment system. The limited battery life on previous models was one of the reasons that I often relied on the iPod solely as a music device when traveling rather than taking advantage of its video capabilities. This battery life carries over into all facets of the product.

The screen brightness is also incredible compared to any previous iPod and many other portable devices. Screen brightness is a challenge for many portable color displays, particularly if the device is to be used outdoors. Many laptops, PDAs and cell phones have screens that can be difficult to see in bright sunlight. I was able to watch video outdoors on a sunny day without too much squinting. The real problem turned out to be the glare of sunlight reflecting off the surface of the iPod. Certainly, in almost any indoor environment, the screen of the iPod will be more than adequate and will rival that of some laptops.

Speaking of the screen brightness, the iPod now sports a settings option that allows you to set systemwide screen brightness. This is a useful trick for improving battery life if you tend to use the iPod's nonvideo features more than you watch videos. There is also the ability to adjust brightness while watching a video by clicking twice the "select" button at the center of the scroll wheel. Clicking it once allows you to skip forward and backward within the video as it does with audio files.

One problem with previous generations of iPods that Apple did not address is the fact that the iPod is easily scratched. This issue got a lot of publicity with the original iPod Nano. Almost all iPod cases (with the exception of the iPod mini and the new Nano) have a clear plastic front surface that can be easily scratched. The original video iPod and the new video model are no exception. This makes having a case or sleeve for protection a must.

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