Apple iPod series (fifth-generation update) review: Apple iPod series (fifth-generation update)

Gapless playback is probably one of the most requested minor features in any MP3 player, and Apple has responded. Many music fanatics, especially those who like dance music, can now enjoy their music without annoying gaps. I think this is a valuable feature that should be implemented more throughout the MP3 world (the classic Rio Karma and the current Archos 04 series also do pure gapless playback). The new iPod lineup (the updated iPod, iPod Nano, and iPod Shuffle) as well as the older 5th generation iPod with the software update) can apply the gapless playback settings that need to be manually stitched to each track in iTunes (Editor's correction: we had earlier reported that the original 5th-generation could not playback gapless audio).

Finally, Apple has added a refined games section, which includes titles such as Bejeweled, Tetris, Texas Hold 'Em, and Pac-Man. The games are quality, though familiar games such as Pac-Man take some adjustment as you need to tap the Click Wheel to control the little guy. It also takes a good 12 seconds to load a game. New games are available online at the iTunes Store and will cost $4.99 each.

As we all know, the new iPod is dependent on iTunes 7 (read the review), particularly when it comes to DRMed audio or video. The software, which has added both a cool interface (like Cover Flow) and audio playback features (such as gapless playback) has frustrated many users with its bugginess. Given my bug-free experience on both Mac and Windows versions, my review of iTunes 7 was favorable. But beware that the software has caused headaches for many users-- Apple needs to issue an update soon.

In addition to being home base for setting up gapless playback of tracks on the iPod, iTunes 7 now features a device manager option that allows you to set your iPod up directly within the iTunes interface. The main landing page displays a graphic and vital stats of your iPod and allows you to check off universal settings such as "Manually manage music and videos" and "Only sync checked items." Additionally, you can update or restore your iPod from this summary page. Content is managed by clicking tabs for specific types such as Music, Movies, TV Shows, and Contacts. Finally, at the bottom of this window is a color-coded capacity meter that visually breaks down Audio, Video, Photo, Other, and Free Space. Again, it's not like I haven't seen integrated management in Windows Media Player, but the use of a nested window rather than a new one helps. One more related feature: You're now allowed to move songs off the iPod as long as the recipient computer is authorized to listen to or view the content. So now you can transfer your purchased music (no MP3s) from your work computer to your home computer using the iPod. Simply authorize a new computer using the new Store/Authorize Computer option.

What can your old iPod do? And what we'd like to see improved
Owners of the original nonenhanced iPod benefit from upgrading to firmware 1.2. In addition to brightness control, new features include letter overlay, gapless playback, and the ability to playback the new 640x480 iTunes video content on the 320x240 screen. Older iPodders cannot play the enhanced iPod games nor can they perform an instant search (Editor's note: we had earlier reported that the older iPod did not feature gapless playback; in fact, it does with software update 1.2).

While the iPod's new features give it new life, we're disappointed that Apple couldn't add things that appear on most other MP3 players. You'd think Apple could integrate an FM radio, despite the slender size of the iPod. It seems the iPod equalizer presets have been improved. The unit sounds good and hiss free, though not as punchy and crisp as I prefer. I don't understand why Apple does not implement a custom EQ.

iPod performance: ups and downs
Most of us know that the preenhanced iPod was dogged for its two-plus hours of video battery life--a scrawny amount for watching movies in addition to enjoying music.. Now you'll get 75 percent more battery life with both sizes--that means you'll get up to a rated 3.5 hours of video battery life for the 30GB version and up to 6.5 hours for the 80GB. Audio playback is, strangely, the same--that is, up to 14 hours for the 30GB and 20 hours for the 80G. For CNET Labs tests, we got our hands on an 80GB version, which did nearly meet the audio estimate with 19.8 hours. When set to "factory brightness," the player offered a rather spectacular 8.7 hour battery life for video.

In unofficial testing, the 80GB version was able to play back a wide-screen iTunes movie (with brightness at default) more than three times, and very close to 6.5 hours. Officially, the CNET Lab tests found the iPod could handle 8.6 hours of video playback using the default brightness setting, 5.6 hours at maximum brightness, and 19.8 hours of audio-only playback. That's pretty impressive. Video, too, looks nicer on a brighter screen (and on a new iPod with a virgin screen), though the wide-screen movies are just too small to fully enjoy.

Boosting battery life will always make a product more appealing, and it looks like Apple responded to all the complaints. Basically, this brings the iPod in line with other players, such as the Creative Zen Vision:M and the Toshiba Gigabeat S, in terms of video battery life. And now you can watch a couple of movies on a plane trip, plus have some extra juice for music and photos. Navigating the iPod is as smooth as ever--we experienced little to nil processor delays, though we often feel the hard drive engaging and disengaging.

So that's it--while the 6G "true video" iPod will still be a figment of the tech world's imagination (check back at Macworld '07), the enhanced 5G iPod looks more attractive than ever with its incremental updates. It looks the same as the original (accessory companies breathe a collective sigh), but under the hood, you have an iPod that makes the original 5G iPod look rusty.

Pricing is a huge aspect here; $249 for the 30GB iPod, as far as I know, is the best price for a 30GB player I've ever seen. And for another $100, you get 80GB! Nice job there, Apple. For me personally, the gapless playback and better battery life make the iPod the most attractive one to date, and it's certainly a better value than the similarly priced but much smaller 8GB Nano.

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