Ok, so this may not count as a breakthrough discovery, it’s actually more of a revelation: Apple’s fifth-generation iPod with video works really well as a video player when connected to a television… and there’s a cheap, simple way to hook it up.
I’ve owned a 60GB iPod with video since the beginning of the year. I bought it primarily because my music collection had outgrown the hard drive of my original second-generation iPod. I really wasn’t interested in the video functions at all, and aside from a couple of music videos I bought from iTunes, I never used it to watch videos. I find the screen is just too small to watch something comfortably for more than ten minutes or so, and more importantly, not being a TV addict, I never really have the urge to watch anything when I’m away from home. I’ve always known that it was also possible to connect my iPod to a TV to watch video, but for some reason I thought I needed to buy Apple’s $99 iPod AV Connection Kit to do so, and that the quality on my 31″ TV would be nearly un-watchable.
Recently, there was a harmonic convergence of events in my life that had me revisiting the iPod+TV question:
1) My wife and I recently decided to put the first season of Lost in our Netflix cue. Despite all the rave reviews it received upon its premiere, we usually find that we’re disappointed by most “prime-time” television shows and so we just never got around to tuning in. But curiosity finally got the better of us, and within the first ten minutes of the first episode, we were hooked. Last weekend we finished the first season and found ourselves in a bit of a quandary: The second season won’t be released until September 5th, and not only are we dying to know what happens, but there are spoilers everywhere you look. (It’s amazing how you suddenly start noticing references to a show or movie after you’ve seen it.)
2) My sister recently sent me an iTunes gift certificate for my birthday (my family has always suspected I was a Podophile). It just so happens that the second season of Lost is available right now on iTunes.
3) Now that I’m actually writing regularly about the iPod, I suppose if there was ever a time to figure out the best way to get iPod video onto my TV, this was it. I could combine my Lost obsession with my iPod obsession all in the name of “reporting.”
The first hurdle I wanted to deal with was the $99 iPod AV Connection Kit. It’s a package containing a Universal iPod Dock, a remote, and a iPod AV cable.
Even though it’s cheaper than buying everything separately, there was just no way I was going to spend that much money on another video component, especially since I wasn’t sure how watchable iPod video would be on my TV. I was in downtown San Francisco on Monday and decided to stop into the Apple Store to investigate. It was there I noticed that they sell the iPod AV Cable separately for $19. It has a mini headphone plug on one end and three RCA plugs (yellow, red, white) on the other. I had always assumed that the RCA ends plug into your TV and the mini end plugs into an iPod dock ($39), which I don’t own. “Certainly it doesn’t just plug into the iPod headphone jack”, I thought. “That would be too easy.” The only description on the box reads:
Compatible with all iPod models with color display.
Not very enlightening.
Finally, I did something I almost never do: I asked a salesperson for help. My question was “What’s the simplest, cheapest way to get video from my iPod to my TV?” The answer was the iPod AV Cable. The salesperson assured me that it plugs right into the headphone jack of the iPod and can be used to watch videos or slideshows with music on a TV. She went on to explain that if I wanted s-video out to my TV, I would need the iPod Universal dock instead. Since my TV is a standard definition model, and I was planning to watch iTunes encoded videos, I didn’t think s-video would make too much difference. I opted for the AV cable and made the purchase.
When I got home, it was time for some testing. I already had a couple of iTunes-purchased music videos on my iPod, so I was ready to go. I plugged the RCA jacks into my TV and the mini plug into my iPod, selected Daft Punk’s “Around the World” video and pressed play. I could hear the music start but the screen was black, though the video was playing on my iPod screen. I checked my cable connections, checked that my TV was set for “input,” checked that I was on the right channel. Still a black screen.
Next I looked at the documentation that came with the cable. Here’s what it says:
For information on using this product, see the documentation that came with your iPod.
…in four languages. That’s strike two for Apple documentation on this adventure. Instead of digging through my closet for my iPod box (I may be a Podophile, but I’m not a box fetishist), I decided to turn to Apple’s website for support. Searching for “iPod AV Cable” led me to this helpful iPod video tutorial, which explained that I needed to select “TV On” under the Video Settings menu on my iPod (this shows how out of touch I am with my iPod video functions). Once I did that, I was up and running.
(These are photographs of my TV screen to give you a general idea of the picture quality on my 31″ standard definition TV. The actual picture is even sharper in person. As always, YMMV.)
The first thing I noticed was that the video quality was better that I thought it would be. Even more-so when watching a more recent video like Young Jeezy’s “And Then What” (my other iTunes purchased video). Colors seemed bright without much bleeding, and while it isn’t as sharp as a standard broadcast or DVD image, the picture quality wasn’t a distraction at all, especially when viewed from a comfortable distance. The only real noticeable defect is the presence of some digital artifacts, or “blockiness,” during black or very dark scenes.
Convinced that this would be fine for watching the second season of Lost, I pulled the trigger and spent my gift certificate. Each episode is about 43 minutes long, and the first one took about an hour to download (on my Comcast high-speed connection). However, things sped up after that and I had all 24 episodes about 6 hours later. We’ve watched two so far, and agree that it’s just as enjoyable as watching the DVDs.
That being said, there are a couple of caveats: First, the audio is standard stereo, so you won’t be getting any of the surround sound effect that you may be used to. Second, Lost is filmed in widescreen format but the iTunes video episodes are in standard 1.33:1, so there’s a portion of the picture cropped out. I’m not sure how many videos on iTunes opt for standard vs. widescreen, but if it’s important to you it’s something you definitely want to check. On the plus side, the instant gratification of iTunes is hard to beat. Also, playing video on the TV screen rather than the iPod screen conserves battery life. After about 130 minutes of video, it looks like I’ve used less than 20% of the battery.
Overall, I’ve been really happy with the experience, but I’m not quite ready to change the way i watch TV. If there’s a choice between DVD and iTunes, I think I’d choose the DVD every time (especially since I use Netflix). And if I want a show that’s currently running on TV, I’ll leave it to Tivo to record the episodes. But if it’s a situation where I may have missed a couple of episodes and want to catch up, or it’s just not available on DVD, iTunes and the iPod is a surprisingly good option. After seeing how well it works, I may even step up to the iPod AV Connection Kit for the s-video and remote.
As I said earlier, I know this isn’t an amazing discovery I’ve stumbled upon, but I figure if an iPod enthusiast like me hasn’t really considered using his iPod this way, maybe there are others out there who could benefit from my story. More iPod video tips coming soon…
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