Regarding the Features and Capabilities of the Various Fifth Generation iPods

So what exactly are the differences between the new 30 and 80 GB iPods released last week and the previous 30 and 60 GB iPods updated with the latest firmware? For clarity, I’ll call the iPods sold from their introduction last year through September 12 “5G” iPods (i.e. fifth generation, per Apple’s own parlance), and the new ones released last week “5.5G” iPods.

Feature-wise, the new 5.5G iPods offer the following differences from the 5G iPods that debuted last year:

  • 60 percent brighter screens
  • Search
  • Significantly longer battery life during video playback
  • Quick Scroll — a new feature that shows the current letter of the alphabet in a heads-up display while scrolling through a list
  • Gapless playback
  • New video games
  • 640 × 480 video playback

(And, quite obviously, the “large” model goes from 60 to 80 GB of storage.)

The first two features, the brighter screen and the search feature, are only available on the 5.5G iPods. The remaining features are enabled for all 5G iPods updated with the latest firmware (version 1.2) — including improved battery life for video playback.

What’s notable about the search feature not being available on 5G iPods is that the only significant hardware change in the 5.5G iPods is the new screen.1 There is no technical reason the search feature couldn’t have been included in the firmware update for existing 5G iPods. I believe this was solely a marketing decision.

According to my source for some of this information, there are two reasons for the improved battery life in the 5.5G iPods: better power management software in the firmware, and lower power consumption by the new displays. I.e. even though the new screens are brighter, they are more efficient. Older 5G iPods updated with the version 1.2 firmware also benefit from the improved power management for video playback. (Battery life for audio playback is unchanged from a year ago.)

Here’s where things get really interesting: Some 5G iPods sold prior to September 12 also benefit from the more energy-efficient displays. In his “Ten Must-Read Details on the New iPods” article, iLounge editor-in-chief Jeremy Horwitz wrote:

Apple says that the “enhanced” 5G iPod is 60 percent brighter than the original, but the difference wasn’t that much more noticeable during our limited testing time. Apparently the new screens have been quietly trickled into pre-Showtime 5G iPods, and no one has noticed.

Apple switched to the new, brighter, more-efficient iPod displays at some point before September 12. No one noticed because these iPods throttle the display brightness to match the maximum brightness of the older 5G iPods. [Update: Note that Horwitz’s observation quoted above regarding screen brightness was made just a few hours after the Showtime event; iLounge’s subsequent coverage indicates just how much brighter the new screens are. E.g. this side-by-side photo.]

This means there are really three 5G iPod hardware configurations: the original 5.0G (30 and 60 GB capacities), the new 5.5G introduced a week ago (30 and 80 GB capacities), and an unpublicized batch of 30 and 60 GB iPods with the new display, which iPods I will henceforth refer to as 5.25G.

I don’t know when these 5.25G iPods began shipping, and I don’t know how many were sold. Throttling their brightness to match the maximum brightness of the original 5.0G iPods allowed them to be sold alongside each other, without notice. I’m aware of no way to identify which iPods are 5.0G and which are 5.25G without disassembling them. (Presumably they could be identified by serial number, of course, but Apple has only published serial numbers to identify 5.5G iPods.)

Thus, some older fifth generation iPods — the ones that are actually 5.25G iPods with the new display — are, in theory, capable of supporting all of the new iPod features. However, even with last week’s firmware update, the brightness on these 5.25G iPods remains throttled. I don’t know whether this brightness throttle is controlled by firmware or whether it’s enforced in the hardware itself.

It might be possible to identify 5.25G iPods through battery-testing. Even though all existing video iPods get the improved power management software via firmware version 1.2, the more energy-efficient display in the 5.25G iPods should lead to at least somewhat better battery life during video playback than in 5G iPods with the old display. (Note to the gang at iLounge, or anyone else with access to a bunch of 5G iPods: It would also be interesting to see battery tests between 5G iPods before and after installing the firmware version 1.2 update; this could help determine how much of the new battery life improvement is due to the software, and how much is due to the new displays.)

Half-Full or Half-Empty?

I’m not sure I agree with Apple’s decision not to enable the new search feature for all 5G iPods. For one thing, I find it hard to believe anyone would upgrade from an older 5G iPod to a new one just because of the search feature, so why withhold it from them?

But, on the other hand, my instinct is to view iPods as computers — combinations of hardware and software — and this instinct is probably wrong. If I buy a Mac today, I expect to be able to install future system updates for at least the next four or five years. iPods, technically, are computers, but that’s not how they’re sold or positioned in the market. They’re sold as consumer electronic gadgets. If you buy a new TV set or DVD player today, you almost certainly aren’t going to get new features a year from now in a firmware update.

It’s easy to see why Apple included in the firmware update the extended battery life for video playback, 640 × 480 video support, and the ability to play the new iPod games — these are features that allow Apple to sell games and movies from the iTunes Store to owners of older iPods.

But gapless playback and the quick scroll “current letter” heads-up display are cool features, neither of which Apple had any direct financial incentive to include in the firmware update for older 5G iPods. (Indirectly, there’s the fuzzy, impossible-to-measure way that these features make people happy and therefore at least somewhat more likely to buy another iPod in the future — the same reason software developers will release free .1 and .2 updates that include new features.)

I’d prefer to see Apple let the new 5.5G iPods be compared against the previous 5G ones based solely on their hardware improvements — the bigger 80 GB drive and the brighter screens. But I can see why they’d want at least one new software feature as a differentiator as well.

  1. There may be other insignificant changes to minor components, but nothing that makes a difference in terms of the devices’ capabilities. This tear-down report at AppleInsider, for example, shows that the new 5.5G iPods are still using the same PortalPlayer and Broadcom processors as last year’s iPods. ↩︎