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Thursday, December 20, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Using iPod & iPhone Video Out: Background and In-Depth Review


iPod Video vs Apple TV

Viewing photos and movies from an iPod or iPhone on TV makes a handy way to show content on TV or perform presentations without a laptop. It can also serve as a simple alternative to Apple TV, acting as a mini VCR to present the movies and TV shows you sync to your iPod, as well as music and photos. Apple TV was reviewed earlier in Some time spent with Apple TV — an in-depth review.

There are some significant advantages to the Apple TV however, particularly when using an HDTV set. The most seemingly obvious difference is that it supports 720p output over HDMI, or optionally upconverts to 1080i, both of which offer a significant improvement when viewing photos and video, even at the limited "near DVD" resolution offered by iTunes purchased video. This quality difference is most obvious in menus and text, where the Apple TV's HD output really shines over its lower resolution output settings.

Watching TV and most movies, the difference between non-HD versions and cable variants isn't significant; upconverting iTunes' "existing near-DVD" content to an HD display ranges from good to very good depending on compression. The quality differences are usually not a product of resolution, but rather related to the amount and quality of compression used. In motion video, both the iPod video out and Apple TV are as good or better than digital cable, and comparable to HD cable channels that can vary from good to excellent depending on the quality of content and how much compression the cable or satellite broadcaster uses.

As described in Why Low Def is the New HD, resolution specification numbers aren't the primary thing that matters to most consumers. Both the iPod video and Apple TV offer a lot of convenience and a freedom from cable fees, a pair of compelling features that have resulted in Apple making the same kind of headway into the video business as it did in music, as the article Apple TV Digital Disruption at Work: iTunes Takes 91% of Video Download Market details.

If you organize lots of content in iTunes and iPhoto, Apple TV puts it on your TV in a way that requires less cable play and device work, and can be controlled by its remote in a TV experience. On the other hand, an iPod paired with the composite or component AV cables offers more portability between locations and a less initial setup. Using an Apple Universal Dock, you can also control an iPod using a remote (identical to the Apple TV remote) when you have it plugged into the TV. When controlling an iPod directly, you can pause and fast forward instantly, whereas there is often a delay involved with the Apple TV's IR remote. The video-capable iPods offer an alternative for users who don't have a newer TV with component or HDMI inputs required by the Apple TV.

Apple TV has some other features that aren't matched by the iPod's video output, such as the Ken Burns effect Apple TV applies to photos which gives them more visual interest than the static pictures the iPod displays. It also streams content from YouTube and theatrical trailers; of all the video capable iPods, only the iPhone and Touch can play video from YouTube or the web on TV. Since the iPhone and Touch present all video using the same QuickTime player, video output works with any video source on the devices.

One last advantage of the Apple TV is that rather than hooking up an iPod and manually presenting movies or photos, you just click a menu and can watch anything on it with no "session setup." Further, the Apple TV's 40 or 160 GB internal capacity can hold a lot more than the NAND Flash-based iPods and iPhone, and you can also stream content from several computers in the home. It can also play higher resolution 720p HD content, although Apple isn't currently selling any from iTunes. That's likely to change in the near future, as Apple's plans to expand iTunes to encompass paid and rental HD content mature, as was noted in How Apple Could Deliver Workable iTunes Rentals.

The Wrap Up

Video output is a great feature across the iPod line. For the latest models, the only way to unleash the feature is using Apple's special Dock Connector cables detailed throughout this article. If you have an iPod released prior to the iPhone, you might try finding the previous iPod AV Cable or dig up a camcorder cable and use the TV connectors in a different order to coax out video. Either solution is a cheaper and involves a simpler cable.

The longer, more elaborate new Dock Connector cables offer some physical advantages for plugging your iPod into different types of video and audio gear, and act like a dock replacement by allowing you to charge while you play video. When viewed that way, the new $49 cables are half as much as the old AV Kit, and the component option offers the potential for higher quality output, although the difference between component and composite cables on the iPod isn't really visible on screen in most uses.

Photo use is excellent on the Nano and Classic, but only Very Good on the iPhone and Touch, due to the lack of options for filling the full screen with photos. That may be addressed in a future update of the iPhone's firmware.

Video use is Very Good on all iPod models. Don't expect the iPod to rival Blu-Ray, but its video output is very watchable, comparable in quality with the higher end of digital cable. As a portable device for playing iTunes purchased video, home movies prepared in iMovie, or DVDs ripped with Handbrake, the iPod and iPhone make for a portable, convenient way to display movies with minimal setup and wiring. The quality of the video encoding and the amount of compression used are the largest factors that plays into how impressive video will look.

It would really be clever for Apple to deliver a mirrored output of the entire iPhone or Touch screen on TV, which the existing cables don't provide. Of course, the limitation is not with the cables but with the iPhone and Touch firmware itself. It appears that Apple has the capacity to offer this, because its onstage demos appear to use a mirrored video output mode. Offering that same functionality as a public feature would make the iPhone and Touch valuable in new applications, and even turn them into a full handheld computing tool that, paired with an HDTV, would offer a cheap alternative to a simplified desktop computer for web browsing and email.

Until that happens, the cable kits unleash an additional set of latent features built into the last several years of video-capable iPods at a reasonable price while also providing an external power adapter.

Rating 4 out of 5
4-stars


Composite AV Cable
Component AV Cable

Apple Universal Dock and Remote sold separately.

Pros
  • They Just Work
  • Power adapter included
  • Longer, more versatile cable
  • Reasonably priced

Cons
  • RCA cable ends look wimpy
  • Ends only color coded on wire end of connector

Where to Buy