Thursday, October 13, 2005

That Sneaky Steve Jobs

by Tom Bozzo

By now, if you care about such things, you know that Apple yesterday announced video-playing iPods and slightly downsized iMac G5s with additional features for serving as a media center PC. The accurate rumor-mongering award goes to Tina at Pub Sociology.

I'm not surprised that Apple would want to go into the holiday season with a completely fresh iPod lineup, though I'd have also supposed that they could have just as easily stuck with the existing color-screen lineup and concentrated on supplying the very popular Nano. As someone whose iPod spends most of its working life wired into my car's audio system (in addition to serving as a baby picture backup device), the video playback functionality isn't very important to me. On the other hand, adding it would seem to be a trivial exercise in the grander scheme.

Slightly more interesting is the combination of download time and playback quality for the iTMS video content. The implementation of the H.264 codec in QuickTime was arguably the critical step on Apple's side in making this work: one of its principal raisons d'être is delivery of decent-quality video to limited bandwidth devices. (As for the other side, that reminds me that I need to call my beloved ISP/CLEC about upgrading to one of their newer, faster DSL services.) The 2.5" LCD on the new iPod wouldn't seem to be a problem, but I'll probably have to shell out $1.99 for an episode of Lost to satisfy my curiosity as to how a bitrate that's compatible with relatively poky U.S. residential access to the Internets looks on a 17" LCD.

The iMac redesign was more of a surprise, since the 3-month old model I have had not long before seen substantial technical improvements, and as armchair analyst, I'd have pegged the PowerBooks as more due for a change. On the other hand, the G4 portables will almost surely be the first to go Intel. The weird thing is that the media center angle really calls for a more robust 'headless' computer a la the Mini that can be paired with a bigger display than the 20"er in the top iMac. I suppose if the Mini concept is successful enough to survive, it'll serve that purpose by also going Pentium early in the transition.
There's some discussion of video quality over at the TUAW site. They say that it's "not too shabby," but gets quite a few artifacts at larger display sizes (ie, displays much larger than the iPod screen will show some distortion/noise/fuzz).

Also, I'm encouraged that Apple is continuing to release new hardware at what seems like a full-steam-ahead pace; seems like a much better plan for the Intel transition than slowing down new production would have been. Good for them -- continuing to grab market share, etc, etc -- and good for those of us with PowerPC-based hardware -- the longer Apple continues to build on that platform, the longer our eventually-legacy hardware will last.
Thanks for the link, Alan. I'll still have to shell out the $2 for a moving-picture look. I've been noticing a lot of compression artifacts in DVDs, particularly hour-long TV series crammed onto relatively few discs but also feature films -- maybe someone wants to make sure I can be upsold to an HD-DVD format when the time comes. An interesting question is how long the current bitrate will fit the quality/filesize/bandwidth compromise. (200 MB being pretty good for an hour of vidio, but still a big download for residential broadband speeds.)

That's a good point about the iMac introduction. I certainly got mine (after the Intel announcement) in the expectation it would be a very usable computer for an indeterminate length of time, but this could be taken as a signal that the G5s will not be going away too fast.
I agree with the assessment that the video quality is good enough for me. But I'm totally floored by the idea that you can download video in a reasonable amount of time. Have you tried it? How do they do that?
Tina: I haven't tried a download yet, but the combination of the compression technology and the data rate for the videos -- which is pretty low, all things considered -- keeps the file sizes way down. The 'hourlong' programs (~45 min actual running time) run around 200 MB, which would take a little over an hour to download via my 768K DSL line, and maybe 15 min or less over a fast cable hookup... so a 4 minute music video will download pretty quickly.
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