For a company that's known for its bold innovations, Apple Computer has moved slowly and cautiously into the realm of portable digital video. Although its iPod MP3 players are market and mindshare sensations, until recently they've lacked features that Microsoft's portable hardware partners have offered for years. Chief among these features is digital video. Systems such as Portable Media Centers (see my review at the SuperSite for Windows) and Sony's wonderful PlayStation Portable (PSP) have pioneered the delivery of portable digital video content and services, while Apple has bided its time and focused solely on music. In fact, publicly, Apple executives have maintained all along that portable digital video just isn’t very interesting. Consumers, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said, just don’t care. Until the iPod with video, of course.

What's New?
Released recently at a gala media event, the new fifth-generation iPod replaces the classic white iPod line and is alternatively called both iPod and iPod with video by the company. The new version superficially resembles previous iPods and is clearly an evolutionary design. It’s similar in both height and width, but it’s dramatically thinner, giving the big iPod a form factor similar to that of the iPod nano (but larger). The color screen that graced previous iPods has been enlarged as well, from 2" diagonally to 2.5"—a big change on such a small device. Now, the screen bumps up close to the edges of the device, making it seem more expansive than before. Also, the new iPod sports the now-familiar iPod click wheel, providing users with the industry's best way to control playback and navigate through long music playlists.

Compared with the previous generation, new iPods retain the same price structure as before, while adding more storage. The entry-level version now boasts 30GB of storage but still costs $299 in the United States. The high-end version jumps to 60GB of hard disk space and retails for $399. Both models are available in black-and-white versions, like the iPod nano. Sadly, Apple continues its policy of dropping bundled peripherals. Whereas previous iPods included such niceties as FireWire synchronization cables and docks, the new iPod offers neither. (Indeed, you can't sync over FireWire even if you buy the cable separately; you can, however, charge over FireWire.) All you get in the box is the device, a USB cable, some cheap Apple in-ear headphones (which you should replace immediately), and a flimsy protective sack (which you should also replace immediately). Therefore, buying an iPod is now only the beginning of your cash outlay: You'll want a decent protective case, good headphones, and possibly a dock. All that could cost another $100 or more.

Under the Hood
Beyond these surface observations, much has changed under the hood. The new iPod gets dramatically better battery life than previous versions (for music), although it's unclear why this is so, given the larger color screen and smaller case (and, thus, smaller battery). The big change, of course, is video support. Thanks to the iPod's gorgeous—if small—320 x 240 screen and a new video chipset, it can play MPEG-4 and H.264 video at 30 frames per second (fps). That's not too shabby, given the size of the device, but I had hoped for a more DVD-like 640 x 480 experience. A widescreen display would have been nice, as well. Unlike the PSP, the iPod's aspect ratio is old-school 4:3—not 16:9 as God intended. Maybe next time.

Devices such as Portable Media Centers and PSPs have offered portable video for some time now, so what makes the iPod special? Unlike other devices, the iPod is also backed by a unique online service that lets you purchase video content relatively inexpensively. Unlike the PSP (but like the Portable Media Center), you can display content from the new iPod on your TV (although you'll need to purchase the optional AV cables to make that work). And unlike the PSP (but like the Portable Media Center), it's easy—if time-consuming—to convert your home movies into a format that will work on the new iPod.

A New Standard
In next week's Connected Home Express, I'll examine ways in which you can get video content into the new iPod. In the meantime, the new iPod features everything that was right about iPods to begin with and adds video as a bonus. Thus, it is the new standard by which all portable media players are measured. Highly recommended.