Shopping Stuff

Monday, November 13, 2006
In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, an MP3 player with the unheard-of storage capacity of 5 gigabytes.
Five iPod generations later, the device plays songs, movies and photo
slideshows, and you can store up to 80 GB of any type of file you want.
The evolution has been a lesson in consumer electronics marketing and
development: Millions of people are so hooked on the iPod, they
continue to buy it and its coordinating Apple products despite quick
battery death and difficult repairs.
In this article, we'll find out why so many people buy iPod after iPod, dissect an iPod video to find out how it works and
check out what type of software is available to enhance its functionality.
iPod Basics
The fifth-generation (5g) iPod video is much more than an MP3 player. It's a digital audio player, video player, photo viewer and portable hard drive, making it a full-fledged portable media center.
It's available in 30-GB and 80-GB capacities and has a 2.5-inch, color
LCD screen. In addition to the iPod 5G, the current generation of iPod
players includes:
  • iPod shuffle, with a 1-GB capacity, which only plays songs and has no display
  • iPod nano,
    which plays digital audio, displays digital photos, comes in 2-, 4- and
    8-GB capacities and has a smaller form factor than the iPod video

(from left) iPod shuffle, iPod nano, iPod video
In this article, we'll be focusing on the top-of-the-line, fifth-generation iPod with audio and video capabilities.
the iPod is an Apple product, it works with both Mac and Windows
machines. Since it's the top-selling media player in the United States,
probably the big question is: What makes it different from any other
digital media player? The answer will differ depending on who you ask.
Some might say it's the form factor -- the 80-GB iPod video is just
over half an inch (1.4 cm) deep and weighs about 5.5 ounces (156
grams). For comparison, the iRiver PMC-140 (a Windows-based portable
media center) is 1.3 inches (3.3 cm) deep and weighs 9.6 ounces (272
grams), and it only holds 40 GB (but the screen is bigger at 3.5
Other people might tell you it's the Apple Click Wheel,
a touch-sensitive wheel that makes it incredibly easy to navigate
through the various menus and options with just a thumb. According to
Apple CEO Steve Jobs in a Newsweek interview,
"It was developed out of necessity for the Mini, because there wasn't
enough room [for the buttons]. But the minute we experienced it we just
thought, 'My God, why didn't we think of this sooner?'" And then, some
might tell you the greatest thing in the world is the super-tight
iPod/iTunes integration (which, ironically, others will curse until the
day they die).

iTunes interface
is the integrated jukebox/media- player software that comes with an
iPod. It lives on your computer, and you use it for organizing,
playing, converting and downloading files from an external source to
your computer and from your computer to an iPod. This is really no
different from the software than comes with any other portable media
player. The thing that makes iTunes a brilliant invention from a
consumer-electronic s standpoint is the built-in iTunes Store that keeps iPod users coming back to Apple on a regular basis.

iTunes Store lets iPod users purchase music, movies, podcasts,
audiobooks and music videos with a click -- it's an integral part of
the iTunes software. The Store offers 3.5 million songs, tens of
thousands of podcasts, 3,000 music videos and 20,000 audiobooks, as
well as TV shows, feature films and iPod video games. You can watch or
listen to the files through iTunes on your computer and download them
to your iPod. And you don't even have to drag and drop: The iTunes
software autosyncs with iPod whenever it's connected to your computer through a USB 2.0 port (you can use FireWire
for charging, but not for syncing). Just plug it in, and the iPod
automatically downloads every new file that you added to your iTunes
jukebox since the last time it was connected. It also uploads to iTunes
all new data that you added to your iPod since last the two conversed,
like playlists and song ratings.
iPod Myths
  • If I use iPod as my digital-media player, I can only download music from the iTunes Store.
    You can download music from other sites (as long as the site doesn't use Windows Media DRM -- iPod isn't compatible with that encoding).
  • If I use iPod as my digital-media player, I can only use the iTunes software as my jukebox.
    Not true. While iPod is made to work with the iTunes software, there are other jukeboxes out there that you can use with your iPod.
  • If I download MP3 or WAV files to my iPod, they'll be converted into a proprietary audio format.
    Not true.
    Downloading files to an iPod doesn't change the format. iPod can play
    MP3, WAV, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless and Audible 2,3 and 4 audio files.

iPod Features and Hardware

addition to the iTunes integration and autosync, the Click Wheel (more
on this in the hardware section) and the slim form factor, some of
iPod's more notable features include:
  • Audio
    80-GB iPod stores up to 20,000 songs (7,500 for the 30-GB model). The
    search function lets you type in keywords (song name, artist, album)
    using the clickwheel to locate a song on the iPod hard drive. It
    supports MP3, WAV, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless and Audible 2,3 and 4
    audio files. You can download songs from the iTunes Store, from a
    different MP3 download site or rip them from your CDs
    into the iTunes software. You need to go through the iTunes software to
    download files to the iPod (unless you download a hack that lets you
    bypass iTunes -- more on hacks in the Software section). You can listen
    to audio books at various speeds -- normal, faster or slower -- without
    seriously distorting the sound, and connect your iPod to your home
    stereo through a mini-to-RCA jack. The device comes with 22 equalizer
    presets for different music styles.
  • Video
    80-GB version holds up to 100 hours of video. It supports H.264 and
    MPEG-4 files as well as MOV files converted to iPod-friendly video
    through the iTunes software. You can play video podcasts, music videos,
    feature films and TV shows on the iPod, plus your own DVDs and home videos that you encode using QuickTime Pro and
    download to your player through iTunes.
  • Photos
    80-GB player holds up to 25,000 photos. It supports files converted
    from JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, PNG and PSD. You can download your photos to
    the iPod from Mac iPhoto or Windows Adobe Photoshop Elements/Album.
    Using an RCA or S-video connection (S-video through the dock
    accessory), you can connect the iPod to your home-theater TV to watch photo slideshows (complete with soundtrack) or video on a larger screen.
  • External hard drive
    iPod can function as portable hard drive, carrying all file types
    between computers. Just choose "enable disk usage" in the iTunes
    software, and you can load whatever you want onto the player's hard
  • Calendar/contacts syncing
    iPod automatically downloads all new contact/calendar data added to Mac iCal or Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express since the
    last time iPod was connected to your computer.
  • Games
    comes with four pre-loaded games. You can also download games from the
    iTunes store, from third-party companies or even create your own (see
    the "iPod Software" section).
  • Car integration
    you have an iPod and you're in the market for a new car or a new head
    unit receiver, you can get one that fully integrates your player into
    the sound system. There are manufacturer- built car stereos that
    support iPod integration to the level that you can control the device
    through the head-unit or steering-wheel controls.
For a full list of iPod features, see Apple: iPod. Now let's get inside an iPod video to find out how what hardware it uses to accomplish these tasks.

iPod Feature Comparison: 2001-2005
Battery life (hrs)
Avg. weight
5/10/20 GB
1,000-4,000 songs
2-in. B&W LCD
5/10/20 GB
2-in. mono LCD
Touch Wheel
6.5 oz
10/15/30 GB
2-in. mono LCD
Touch Wheel
5.6 oz
mini 1G
4 GB
1.67-in. mono LCD
Click Wheel
3.6 oz
20/40 GB
2-in. mono LCD
Click Wheel
5.6 oz
20 GB
2-in. mono LCD
Click Wheel
5.6 oz
30/40/60 GB
2-in. color LCD
Audio, Photo
Click Wheel
6.4 oz
('05- )
1 GB Flash
Control pad
.55 oz
mini 2G
4/6 GB
1.67-in. mono display
Click Wheel
3.6 oz
20 GB
2-in. color LCD
Audio, Photo
Click Wheel
5.9 oz
U2 color
20 GB
2-in. color LCD
Audio, Photo
Click Wheel
5.9 oz
('05- )
2/4/8 GB
1.5-in. color LCD
Audio, Photo
Click Wheel
('05- )
30/80 GB
2.5-in. color LCD
Audio, Photo, Video
Click Wheel
5.15 oz
iPod Hardware

In addition to a cracked LCD, the iPod we're dissecting is nice and scratched.
we take apart our iPod video, there are a couple of things you should
know. First, the screen on this iPod is cracked. Since no one at
HowStuffWorks volunteered their perfect little iPod as a subject for
this author's screwdriver, we turned to eBay
to find a damaged unit we could take apart with good conscience. Which
brings us to the second thing you should know: iPods are almost as
valuable broken as they are in mint condition. After several
last-minute outbids, we found out we had to pay about $200 for a 30-GB
iPod video with a cracked LCD
-- this was the typical ending price for this type of unit. And a
brand-new, perfect one costs $299! We were left shaking our heads. Are
hundreds of people writing articles that incorporate an iPod
dissection? Are hundreds of people that addicted to tinkering
with high-priced electronics? Are iPods really so hard to get fixed by
Apple once the one-year warranty runs out? The New York Times article
"Good Luck With That Broken iPod" (February 4, 2006) would suggest the
latter, although it's really anybody's guess.
That said, let's pry this baby apart.
For most of the iPod video's functionality, we're dealing with seven primary components:
  • Hard drive - 30-GB Toshiba 1.8-inch hard drive
  • Battery - rechargeable lithium-ion (700 mAh, 3.7V)
  • Click Wheel - navigation via touch-sensitive wheel and mechanical buttons
  • Display - 2.5-inch TFT LCD
  • Microprocessor - PortalPlayer PP5021C with dual ARM7TDMI cores
  • Video chip - Broadcom BCM2722
  • Audio chip - Wolfson Microelectronics WM8758 codec
case actually isn't that difficult to get into -- we used a 6-inch
metal putty knife to pry apart the seam. Once you see that you need to
get the knife under the thin edge of one side of the casing (instead of
driving it straight down), it comes apart pretty quickly. Here's what
we saw when we pulled it apart:

This iPod video uses a 30-GB Toshiba 1.8-inch hard drive (model MK3008GAL),
featuring 4200 rpm and a USB interface. It weighs 1.7 ounces (48 grams)
and fits 30 GB onto a single platter, squeezing in 93.5 gigabits per
square inch. To fit so much into so little space, the drive uses
smaller and lighter sliders (which keep the right spacing between the
read/write heads and the recording surface) and a more sensitive
thin-film technology on the heads and the platter. The increased
sensitivity allows for a greater number of recorded bits per square
When you remove the front casing, you're looking at the LCD, the motherboard and the Click Wheel:

Click Wheel is a section unto itself, and we'll deal with that
technology on the next page. Let's start here with the iPod video
The display is a 2.5-inch, 16-bit, TFT LCD. It
has a 320x240-pixel resolution and a 0.156 dot pitch. The screen is
incredibly thin -- just 0.125 inches (3.175 mm) deep.

connectors used in the iPod are miniscule. Instead of the plastic
connectors you find in larger devices, the ends of the wires that
connect the various components of the iPod are coated in a film that
stiffens them to create a viable input. Here you can see where the LCD
connects to the back side of the motherboard (with a U.S. dime for

All of the chips and memory devices that make an iPod run are situated on the motherboard. Here's the front:

And here's the back:

the image above, you can see the Click Wheel controller. A
"mixed-signal array" is a chip that can deal with both analog and
digital data. In the case of the Click Wheel, the controller has to
accept analog data generated by the movement of a finger over the
surface of the wheel and turn it into digital data the microprocessor
can understand. Let's find out how it does that.
The Thing About the Battery
battery is completely built-in -- you can't just pop in a couple of new
AA batteries when it stops charging. This built-in battery has been a
headache both for iPod owners and for Apple.
Originally, the iPod
battery was not only non-user-replaceabl e, but it was also very
expensive to replace via Apple. When your battery died (sometimes
within a year of buying the iPod), you had to send your iPod to Apple
for a replacement, and the new battery cost $100. A lot of bad press
and a class-action lawsuit later, Apple's iPod battery-replacement
program costs $59. The class-action suit was settled, and iPod owners
listed in the suit were compensated with $50 vouchers and partial
refunds for their $100 battery replacement.
defends the use of a non-user-replaceabl e battery by explaining that
the built-in battery allows for the ultra-slim form factor for which
the iPod is known.

The Click Wheel

The Click Wheel
is a touch-sensitive ring that you use to navigate through all of
iPod's menus and control all of its features. It provides two ways to
input commands: by sliding your finger around the wheel and by pressing
buttons located under and in the middle of the wheel.
Under the plastic surface of the Click Wheel, there are four mechanical buttons (Menu, back, forward, play/pause), and there's one button in the center (select).

Click Wheel face

Behind the Click Wheel face (left) and Click Wheel contacts on the motherboard
got five buttons and five corresponding contacts on the motherboard.
When you press, say, the right side of the wheel while you're listening
to a song, the wheel pushes down the forward button. The underside of
each rubber button is metal, so pressing it completes the corresponding
circuit on the motherboard. The motherboard tells the processor this
circuit is complete, and the processor tells the operating system to
fast-forward through the song.
Click Wheel's touch-sensitive function lets you move through lists,
adjust volume and fast forward through a song by moving your finger
around the stationary wheel. It works a lot like a laptop touchpad.
In fact, the company that supplied the Click Wheel for the 4G iPod was
Synaptics, most widely known for making laptop touchpads. For the 5G,
Apple created its own proprietary Click Wheel design based on the same capacitive sensing principle as the previous Synaptics-designed Click Wheel.
the plastic cover of the Click Wheel, there is a membrane embedded with
metallic channels. Where the channels intersect, a positional address
is created, like coordinates on a graph.

its most basic, a capacitive-sensing system works like this: The system
controller supplies an electrical current to the grid. The metal
channels that form the grid are conductors -- they conduct electricity.
When another conductor -- say, your finger -- gets close to the grid,
the current wants to flow to your finger to complete the circuit. But
there's a piece of nonconductive plastic in the way -- the Click Wheel
cover. So the charge builds up at the point of the grid that's closest
to your finger. This build-up of an electrical charge between two
conductors is called capacitance. The closer the two conductors are without touching, the greater the capacitance.

Front of membrane: Here you can see the conductive grid

Back of membrane: Here you can see the Click Wheel controller.
"sensing" part of the system comes in with the controller. The Click
Wheel controller (see above) is programmed to measure changes in
capacitance. The greater the change in capacitance at any given point,
the closer your finger must be to that point. When the controller
detects a certain change in capacitance, it sends a signal to the
microprocessor. As you move your finger around the wheel, the charge
build-up moves around the wheel with it. Every time the controller
senses capacitance at a given point, it sends a signal. That's how the
Click Wheel can detect speed of motion -- the faster you move your
finger around the wheel, the more compacted the stream of signals it
sends out. And as the microprocessor receives the signals, it performs
the corresponding action -- increasing the volume, for instance. When
your finger stops moving around the wheel, the controller stops
detecting changes in capacitance and stops sending signals, and the
microprocessor stops increasing the volume.
in discussing the workings of the Click Wheel, a particularly curious
HowStuffWorks staffer raised the following question: If your finger
controls the Click Wheel because your finger is a conductor, why can't
you control the Click Wheel with a paper clip?
While we scratched our heads, we embarked on a experiment.
Experiment: How About an Apple?
What can you use to control the touch-sensitive Click Wheel? Here's an abbreviated list of what we tested:
  • Finger: Yes
  • Orange: Yes
  • Apple: Yes
  • Plastic pen cap: No
  • Silly Putty: No
  • Paper clip: No
  • Tip of Cold Heat soldering tool: No
  • Prongs from iPod charger: No
yesses are easily explainable -- fruit and flesh can conduct
electricity. The no's, however, are a bit more mysterious. The pen cap
and the Silly Putty are not conductors, end of story. But what about
the tip of the soldering tool, the paper clip and the charger prongs?
Those are conductors! To solve this riddle, we contacted an expert in
the electronics field, who recommended the following action: Wrap your
finger in aluminum foil and try to work the Scroll Wheel. Our expert
was thinking "surface area." This finger-wrapped- in-foil input worked
it be that the surface area of the paper clip is not enough to trigger
the conductive grid? To investigate this hypothesis, we tried to work
the Scroll Wheel using the blunt end of a dinner knife (approx. 0.75 in
x 0.5 in). It worked. We concluded that surface area matters.
there's another factor, too, because holding the dinner knife between
two plastic pens and moving it around the Scroll Wheel doesn't
work. Same with the apple and the orange. You need to be touching the
knife or the orange in order for the Scroll Wheel to detect it. The
determining factor, then, is you -- the human body is a very big
conductor, providing a very big neutral area for a charge to jump to.
The charge difference between your body and the Click Wheel's
electrodes provides the voltage -- or electrical "pressure" -- that
activates the Click Wheel system.

Now that we've checked out the iPod hardware, let's take a look at the software it's supporting.

iPod Software and iPod World

Photo courtesy Apple
iPod video main menu
While Apple is very tight-lipped about its iPod software, most reports have the iPod 5G running on the Pixo OS 2.1 operating system along with PortalPlayer' s Digital
Media Platform
The PortalPlayer platform is an all-in-one "system on a chip" that
provides some of the hardware we already looked at, including the two
ARM7TDMI microprocessor cores. The developer package includes
audio-decoder support, customizable firmware (with support for DRM-system
development) and software-developmen t tools. The iPod user-interface
is reportedly based on the Pixo Toolbox software that was available
when Apple was creating the device (Pixo is now part of Sun
Microsystems) .
In addition to the user-interface and
operating-system software, the iPod's video coding and decoding happens
at the software level. The Broadcom video chip we looked at in the last
section handles processing at the hardware level but has a
corresponding piece of software to run the video codec.
As far as operating-system
requirements, iPod video is compatible with Mac OS X v10.3.9 or later,
Windows 2000 (with Service Pack 4 or later) and Windows XP Home and
Professional (with Service Pack 2 or later).
iPod software starts getting really interesting is in the third-party
software and "hacks" that have sprung up in response to iPod's
popularity. iPod third-party software consists of programs that
use or build on current iPod functions without changing the way the
device is supposed to work. This includes downloadable iPod games,
programs that convert a bunch of DVDs to iPod-friendly video files in
one shot, programs that convert PDA data and PowerPoint presentations to iPod-compatible files and software that lets you create your own text-based iPod games.
iPod hacks
are programs written to give iPods new (non-Apple-intended )
functionality. You know how we talked about things you can't do with an
iPod, like sync via FireWire? Well, you can hack an iPod to sync via
FireWire. Unless you're a programmer, "hacking an iPod" just means you
download a chunk of code that alters your iPod's functionality at the
software level. If you're a programmer, it means developing that code.
iPod hackers are publishing all sorts of programs that alter the way an
iPod works -- some of the software is free, and some of it is for
purchase. Some currently available hacks let you:
  • Make an iPod work with Linux machines and run Linux applications
  • Remove volume caps (iPods sold in Europe cap the volume at 100 decibels; uncapped iPods can reach more than 115 decibels.)
  • Turn your iPod into a universal remote
  • Attach an external hard drive to your iPod to increase the storage capacity
  • Change your iPod's font and graphics
  • Watch movies on your iPod in full-screen mode
  • Plug your iPod into any computer (even without iTunes) and listen
    to music from the hard drive
  • Transfer photos to iPod without using iTunes
  • Replace iTunes all together as the iPod's main jukebox
  • Use an iPod with a Windows 98 machine
the built-in applications and the outside iPod software, this 5-ounce
device offers a lot of functionality. Add in the slew of iPod
accessories out there, and you start to see why some people's daily
lives revolve around an iPod.

iPod Hi-Fi system
iPod has become so ubiquitous that you'll regularly hear people refer
to MP3 players as "iPods," even if they're not talking about Apple's
device. An entire genre of broadcasting has evolved to take advantage
of the iPod -- you can download "podcasts" to any type of MP3 player (or computer), but these home-made broadcasts originally popped up as an iPod application.
extensive list of accessories available for the iPod, both Apple and
third-party products, builds on the iPod's hardware and software to
place it at the center of a "digital-media experience." From Apple,
just some of the accessories you can purchase to outfit your iPod
  • Microphone for recording voice memos
  • External digital voice recorders
  • Universal dock for charging, syncing or connecting to external A/V equipment
  • Remote control compatible with universal dock
  • Camera connector for downloading photos directly from a digital camera to an iPod
  • Armbands for portability, cases to protect the shiny exterior, and skins to
    personalize the appearance of the iPod
  • Car audio adapters, in-car iPod holders
  • Portable, desktop and wireless speakers
  • iPod Hi-Fi speaker system
  • Car chargers and power adapters
  • Radio transmitters

HSW Shopper
Tavo iPod Gloves
companies besides Apple are developing some pretty cool accessories for
the iPod. Numerous car-stereo manufacturers have come out with
iPod-compatible head units. Tavo has created "Click Wheel-friendly"
gloves for people who use their iPods outside in cold weather. The
material of the gloves' index and thumb has silver-alloy- coated nylon
strands running through it to make your fingertips warm but still
conductive. DesignMobel' s iPod-compatible bed has an iPod dock built
in and comes with an optional Bose sound system, and Atech's iLounge is
a combination iPod dock, speaker system and toilet-paper dispenser. The
GeekPod 100 from BatteryGeek. net is an external battery that powers an
iPod up to 100 hours on a single charge. Yes, 100 hours of listening
pleasure. Which brings us to a potential problem that has become an
iPod controversy: People who listen to their iPod at full volume for
extended periods of time may experience hearing loss.
possibility of long-term hearing loss for people who have their earbuds
in whenever they leave the house has created a nice talking point in
the press. The issue is mostly about the iPod's ability to produce
sound at volumes greater than 115 decibels. Some experts believe that
repeated exposure to this volume, especially via in-ear headphones
("ear buds") can cause "tinnitus and loss of hearing in later life" [ref].
In Europe, Apple has capped the iPod's volume at 100 decibels in
response to a French law requiring it, but units sold in the United
States don't have the volume cap.
In early 2006, a man in Louisiana filed a lawsuit
against Apple related to the potential for hearing loss. He claims the
iPod is "inherently defective in design" and does not appropriately
warn its users of the potential damage to their hearing. See BBC News: Man sues over iPod 'hearing risk' to learn more.
view of the bad press and the lawsuit, it's possible that Apple will
decide to include volume caps on all new iPods with the release of the
next generation. For the time being, Apple has released a volume-cap
software update for iPod video and iPod nano (see iPod Updater 2006-03-23).
Regardless of whether the volume gets turned down, it looks like the
spread of the iPod will continue. The release of the first iTunes cell phone
in 2005 marked the start of what might turn out to be the increasing
integration of iPod functionality into other portable devices. The
iPod's Broadcom video processor also supports digital camera
functions, so that's a possible utility to look for in future iPods.
Recent Apple patents include drawings of a touch screen sporting what
looks like a virtual Click Wheel, leading some to infer that the next
iPod will have a graphical, entirely touch-sensitive interface.

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