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Very few people want to drop hundreds of dollars on a new gadget only to find that it's outmoded a mere six months later, but unfortunately such is the scourge of living in a techie chic world. And not many of us can go out buying new toys every few months, so it can be painful to see our once oh-so-hot gadget swiftly lose its luster in the face of newer, shinier gear. Luckily for iPod owners, a company called ATO is aiming to make your past investment seem all the wiser with a product called iSee 360. At $200, the iSee 360 is a luxury accessory, but it could be worth it for those people who want to extend their iPod's battery life--and even turn it into a portable video recorder.
The iSee 360 does take away from the iPod's ultraportability, with the full unit measuring 5.5x3x0.7-inches, but the addition of a 3.5-inch screen and about four more hours of battery life makes the extra bulk worthwhile. To the right of the screen is the control pad with up/down, left/right, play/pause, and menu keys. The whole pad feels a little janky, as it wiggles around a bit and doesn't always offer a speedy (or the most accurate) response. The tactile click of the buttons is satisfying, though. A power button and a headphone jack reside along the top edge, and the bottom houses a proprietary port, which can be connected directly to the included power cord or used for docking into the cradle (also included).
The iSee 360 functions by using the iPod as a storage drive only, which is why it can turn non-video-capable iPods into video players: it has its own software for video playback and recording. Similarly, you must install some software onto the iPod to get it to work with the iSee, a quick and simple process accomplished by inserting the included CD into your computer, connecting your player, and following the steps in the quick guide. The disc also includes VidiScape, a simplistic (and rather ugly) media management app, and the considerably more useful ArcSoft Media Converter, which will let you convert existing video files for playback on the iSee. The unit natively supports MPEG-4 (at 640x480), and ArcSoft will take care of converting AVI, MOV, and WMV files.
As Apple does not allow other products to utilize the iPod menu interface, it follows then that the iSee 360 uses one of its own. And it's a good thing, too, because the iSee interface is color (no matter what the iPod) and icon-driven. There are six main menu selections: video, photo, music, record, settings, and play-through. The first three serve to access content that is recorded through the unit itself or transferred via VidiScape. If you select play-through, the iSee relinquishes the iPod's control to you, and you can then playback content transferred to the iPod via iTunes. Note that if you're using a video iPod and want to view media on the iSee's screen, you need to turn on the TV Out feature in the iPod's settings. All in all, it's a simple system and even those who aren't terribly tech savvy should have no trouble with it.
In testing, we were able to transfer certain videos (namely, with the .mpg file extension) with no problems, though the resulting file seemed slightly more pixilated on the iSee 360's screen due to extra conversion performed before the transfer. We're not sure why the iSee required this additional transcoding, though, as it's supposed to support MPEG-4 natively. WMV files failed to show up on the device even though ArcSoft automatically took care of the necessary conversion, and we weren't able to find a work around. Pre-existing videos looked good if a bit washed out during playback. Our chief complaint is that the iSee froze frequently during testing. Resetting the unit is a simple matter of removing and replacing the battery, so it would just be a mere annoyance, except that the it froze every time we tried to make a recording, which prevented us from using one of the main features of the device. This is definitely a major concern, and we hope it's particular to our test unit--we'll be requesting a replacement shortly, so check back soon for the final analysis.
ATO is on the right track with the iSee 360: it's a great concept that helps iPod users reclaim their past investments. Still, performance issues and minor design quirks keep it from being the ultimate must-have accessory that it has the potential to be. If you can hold off for six months, ATO plans to put out new products with larger screens and more format support, including H.264.
Remember: videos purchased through iTunes are only compatible with the fifth-gen iPod, so although the iSee 360 turns any iPod into a video player, it doesn't add native support for DRM-protected video.