From September 2005 to June 2006 a team of thirteen scholars at the The University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication explored how new and maturing networking technologies are transforming the way in which we interact with content, media sources, other individuals and groups, and the world that surrounds us.

This site documents the process and the results.

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video ipod review

Last month I was ready to upgrade to a new iPod from my third generation model, but the rumor sites began to make noises that an upgrade to 80gb was in the works so I held off. After the announcement of the video iPod last week I decided that even though I was a little disappointed by the size of the drive, a bigger one would be unlikely before January so I ordered a 60gb unit from Apple.

I was supposed to get my iPod tomorrow, but FedEx delivered the unit a day early. No Apple promotional packaging here! To thwart thieves, the iPod came in a small brown package with "ACI" (Apple Computer International, get it?) listed as the sender. Inside was a tiny black box, barely bigger than the kind that would hold an iPod shuffle. Packed within was a 60gb iPod together with a pair of headphones and a USB 2.0 cable in distinctive, opaque, sealed envelopes designed to evoke either luxury cosmetics or expensive pharmaceuticals. A scant manual and a CD were in another envelope.

After opening up the packages (this required scissors as the tear points didn't tear), I plugged the unit in. iTunes required updating so it took some time—and a reboot—before the new iPod was ready to go. After I began the long process of transferring my music library to the iPod, I went shopping for videos in the iTunes songs.

This wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. The selection was pitifully small and virtually no classic videos were available (I would put the Robert Longo's video for New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle on the iPod in a second). I finally settled on M. I. A.'s "Sunshowers," a video by a band that I like and, given their role in Internet remix culture, seemingly appropriate as a first download to the new device.

The video plays well and, even though the screen is small, its brightness and relatively low latency make videos surprisingly easy to watch. It's disappointing that there is no visual feedback as you scrub the video back and forth, but that would probably have taxed the processing power of the unit. The soundtrack to the video appears not only in the video library but also under my music selection, so I suspect that only confirms my suspicion that the Vingle is indeed a video single.

Coming to the video iPod from the 3G unit was a treat. The wide color screen is bright and easy to read, unlike the 3G's unit's low contrast black and white LCD. Even If I am a fan of retro technology, the 3G unit sometimes felt like I was living in the 1980s. The biggest surprise came when I first listened to the unit. Although I haven't heard any more recent iPods, the Shuffle had significantly better audio than the 3G unit and the video iPod is better still. The soundstage is much more open while bass seems much fuller.

Although I'm certainly far from a golden-eared audiophile, I am even further from those people who somehow think that 96kbps MP3s sound on a cell phone is as good as a Rega Planet CD player piped through a decent amp and a set of B&W speakers. I've often been dismayed by the low-quality of many MP3s floating about the net and the seemingly growing disregard for quality audio in the wake of this quality devolution.

In the case of the iPod line, however, my greatest concern has always been Steve Jobs. His legendary near-deafness certainly did little to ensure that early iPods had quality sound. The substantially better sound on the video iPod is thus a welcome relief. But Steve's hearing loss appears to be a problem for the rest of us. Supposedly in response to Steve's difficulty hearing, the iPod is capable of hearing-damaging sound levels. In Europe, iPods have their volume set at a relatively reasonable level (100db vs. 104db... 100db is still loud enough to cause hearing loss if listened to for two hours a day... 104db is 2.5 times as loud) by government mandate.

If this has been met with protests and hacks by European iPod owners, I'd like to have the reverse option available so that I could lock the sound down to a more manageable level, at least for my kids' sake. After listening to any in-the-ear soundsource for a time, it is all too tempting to drive up the volume too high. Unfortunately, the only thing that is likely to solve this problem is a pricey lawsuit or two.

video ipod playing a movie ripped with handbrake

From a design perspective, the video iPod is typical of Apple design. It's quite attractive, certainly far nicer than the 3G unit with its ungainly row of buttons and remarkably thin. The big screen is outsized compared to the scroll wheel, which sits more happily in the case, but that gives it an early 1970s look. That said, the iPod brings to mind Andrea Branzi's idea of Domestic Animals, objects that do not just serve us but rather become precious parts of our lives, beloved fetishes that act as constant companions to our everyday existence. Branzi describes Domestic Animals as magical. The jewel-like screen of the video iPod indeed feels magical. When I was a kid, TVs were big huge objects with bad pictures and VCRs-again, giant, ugly lumbering things-only became common when I was in middle school, but now I can have a crisp video in my hand whenever I want.

Apple has certainly mastered the art of creating Domestic Animals, but in the video iPod, it has once again proved either incapable of or uninterested in creating an object that could survive everyday wear and tear. The neoprene case accompanying the video iPod masks both the units screens and its control. The slick surface has already led the unit to slip out of my hands twice. Apple's domestic animals, it seems, are meant to be replaced every year or two, probably at the precise moment when the warranty and battery run out simultaneously.

But what are the video iPod's consequences for networked publics? After all, netpublics is hardly engadget.

The iPod was a vast revolution in consumer lifestyle, allowing individuals to take ambient audio programming—as exemplified by Muzak—away from the workplace and retail store and deploy it wherever they wanted. Unlike an FM walkman, the iPod promises total audio programming control to its owner and unlike a cassette or CD walkman, the amount of content that one can store on an iPod (mine already has more songs in it than I could listen to in a year) is nearly limitless, allowing the individuals to more effectively program music for their lives. In this, the iPod is extremely effective: because it provides nothing less than a soundtrack for our existence, it allows us to détourné our everyday lives, turning them into something profound.

The video iPod, interesting though it may be, adds little to such a transformation. On the contrary, videos are much more absorbing and escapist. If you're watching a video while on the subway in Manhattan, you're checking out of the scene entirely. If you're merely listening to music, you're reshaping the world around you in an audio landscape of your desires.

Moreover, iTunes treats video very differently than audio. Because of the DCMA, iTunes has no option to rip DVDs as it can with audio CDs. Still, the free program Handbrake does a fantastic job, shrinking a sample DVD to under 300mb in a little over an hour on a dual 1.8 g5. But, if trading audio playlists and music has become a popular cultural practice with iTunes, it's hard to see how that would develop with video playlists. The built in Fairplay copy protection will prevent the proliferation of videos while video playlists are simply a less attractive proposition. And while it is tempting to imagine a group of people on the street looking into a video iPod together to watch some form of alternative news programming, the lack of any external speaker largely undoes that.

On the other hand, maybe the video iPod will create a new boost to ambient video or to atmospheric movies that can be played over and over such as clips from NASA, Sofia Coppola's the Virgin Suicides or Lev Manovich and Andreas Kratky's Soft Cinema. In fact, I am finding it relaxing to have such a DVD in the iPod sitting on my laptop while I type this review.

What of homemade content? To be sure, it's out there. Thus far, however, it has been a mixed experience. I downloaded one video podcast from the web—a podcast highly touted as video iPod compatible—along with two from Apple's own podcast directory. I was disappointed that the video downloaded from the web and one of the videos from Apple's own podcast library were incompatible with the iPod. It seems likely, however, that the video iPod will generate a new surge of amateur production of video content. But here iTunes misses an opportunity by lacking even a rudimentary interface to iDVD. Why shouldn't I be able to take my own Final Cut Pro or iMovie videos and export them to my iPod? To be fair, Apple does offer a tutorial on how to make podcasts. Perhaps future versions of iDVD and iMovie will include this, although bloggers have already noted with surprise that Steve didn't tout homebrew content in his presentation of the video iPod.

In the end, then, video arrives on the iPod not as a revolutionary feature but as a cautiously evolutionary extension of the iPod's feature set. I'm certainly glad I have it without having to pay a penny extra for it. But video also still feels like a bit of an after-thought, rather than as an integral part of the iTunes/iPod experience. Will video be an appendage of audio's role in creating networked publics or will it be an integral part?

Submitted by kvarnelis on October 19, 2005 - 5:30pm


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