Most of this review of the 5.5G iPod will cover new features and performance numbers. For a closer look at the basic design and base features of the iPod, read this review.
Same look and feel
The iPod's physical specs are nearly the same as those of the original fifth generation. It's still one of the sleekest high-capacity players around at 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.43 inches and 4.8 ounces for the 30GB and 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.55 inches and 5.5 ounces for the 80GB model, which has exactly the same dimensions and weight as the now-defunct 60GB version. For me personally, the 80GB version (the one we actually reviewed) feels nicer in the hand than the razor-thin 30GB. The 80GB is enticing for video addicts both for the capacity (iTunes movies are about 1.5GB) and the better battery life (rated for up to 6.5 hours); plus, it's a great value at $349. Though the $249 retail price tag for the 30GB version is outstanding, excellent Windows Media players such as Creative's 30GB Zen Vision:M and Toshiba's 30GB Gigabeat S cost nearly the same on the street.
The iPod is still pretty easy to scratch, both on the soft and shiny plastic face and the classic metallic backside. Fingerprints love the iPod more than they do most players. You'll definitely want to carry the iPod in a case, or at least protect the screen with adhesive film, since now you'll be watching $9.99 iTunes movies. I think the black version looks nicer, but scratches show up on it more easily. A new Nano-like scratch- and print-proof aluminum case would have taken the iPod over the top.
The new iPod also has a brighter screen--by up to 60 percent. Not that the iPod had a dim screen in the first place, but brighter is always better, especially when it doesn't come at the cost of battery life. In a side-by-side comparison of the old and new screens (at default brightness), the new iPod is noticeably brighter. Even after updating the old iPod to firmware 1.2, which among other things adds brightness control, the old iPod screen at the brightest setting matches only the new one's default setting. Battery life will take a hit at the higher setting, so turn it up only when your'e watching video or viewing photos. You can even adjust brightness while watching a movie by clicking the Select button twice during playback. Conversely, you should turn the brightness down when listening to audio; as always, the iPod can be viewed with the backlight turned off.
I still have a problem with watching video for more than 30 minutes on that small 2.5-inch screen. Even a kickstand would help for hands-free viewing, though a bigger-screened unit like the Cowon A2 or Archos 604 would have made the portable iTunes movie experience more satisfying. There are some portable accessories such as the Memorex iFlip that dock with the iPod and increase its viewing size to up to 8.4 inches. Though the proprietary dock connector isn't nearly as convenient as a standard USB port, the iPod benefits from its thousands of dock connector-based third-party accessories.
Once again, Apple does a good job of minimizing packaging and bundled accessories, which include a newly designed set of white earbuds, a proprietary USB cable, a soft case, and a dock adapter. Unfortunately, like many MP3 players these days, you'll have to pony up extra to get a power adapter ($29). You also don't get an iTunes software CD, which leaves nonconnected folks in the dust. And while the futuristic headphones sound decent, they didn't stay firmly in my ears (no foam earbud covers in this version).
A wiser iPod
The iPod's enhanced software definitely makes it better. For one, you can search tunes using an alphabet-style instant search. The last option in the Music menu, Search places a two-line virtual keyboard at the bottom of the screen; the first letter you select brings up all artist, album, and song titles that begin with that letter, with albums and artists indicated by icons. Results pop up dynamically as you enter new letters. If you type in ca, you'll get results listed by all the titles that start with ca, then continue with any mention of the letters ca in any title. It's a little more sophisticated than the search features found in the Creative Zen Vision:M (and other players that actually invented search-by-letters), but because you have to select Done to browse your results, it's a tad more tedious to use.
Another "borrowed" feature is that as you scroll through tracks, the first letter of the track section appears as a graphical button overlay. This is truly convenient when scrolling through huge lists where your desired alphabet "sector" used to whiz by, and you'd have to make a U-turn. I've found that I still tend to pass up my desired letter, but not by much. Oh, yeah; does this navigation goodie remind you of the Toshiba Gigabeat S?