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Thoughts on the New iPod Lineup

During Apple’s annual media briefing yesterday, Steve Jobs proudly proclaimed that Apple has produced their strongest lineup of iPods in their storied history before, during and after showing off the fruits of their engineering labor in the form of the newly updated iPod Shuffle, iPod Nano and iPod Touch. While I haven’t had the chance to play with the new iPods like tech writers over in California yesterday, I have a number of initial impressions of the new iPod devices that I would like to share with you now.

iPod Shuffle

Apple has obviously been listening to the criticisms reviewers and consumers alike have railed against the outgoing third generation iPod Shuffle, mainly focused on the Shuffle’s complete lack of buttons. Because of the lack of buttons, the device was controlled entirely by the remote on the iPod headset. This means that the Shuffle couldn’t be used with any headphones other than the stock earbuds or those that are equipped with a special remote. Names of songs were spoken to the user through Apple’s VoiceOver feature. For those of us who have much higher quality headphones/earphones than the stock earbuds that Apple ships with their iPods, the Shuffle’s appeal was inherently limited.

The new Shuffle sees the return of tactile buttons while retaining the same VoiceOver feature. The form factor is very small and square shaped and features a clip which allows it to be clipped to clothing, belts, handbags, etc. which is very convenient for use for active users.

There are a few disappointments I have with the new Shuffle. First, it’s only available with 2GB worth of storage, down from the 4GB maximum of the previous generation Shuffle. While I understand that 2GB is enough space for the average active listener to work out to or mill about with, I would still prefer the option to have more storage capacity, especially when other, competing players like the Sansa Clip+ offer 4GB worth of storage and many more features for the price of the 2GB iPod Shuffle. My second concern is with the lack of a display of any kind. As much as I like to enjoy my music on shuffle mode, I prefer having the ability to call up a specific song or playlist via the player’s display if I so choose. While VoiceOver has the ability to speak your playlists to you, there’s no way (as far as I know) to choose a particular song on the Shuffle.

The Shuffle is a nice option for active users and at $49, it’s not a bad deal at all but I do believe it is one-upped by the Sansa Clip+ in terms of value for the money and features.

iPod Nano

This is definitely the biggest disappointment of the show for me. In essence, Apple has taken their popular Nano design and completely overhauled its design. Doing away with the click wheel, the new Nano is controlled by a small, multitouch display and has a design that makes it seem like little more than an iPod Shuffle with increased capacity and a display. Sure, the display is multitouch and likely very sharp, vibrant and responsive as previous Apple touchscreens have been but at a measly 1.5 inches across, Apple seems to have traded functionality for aesthetics. I can’t imagine that browsing through my music collection on a display that small would be an enjoyable experience in comparison to the iPod Touch. While I find it easy to forgive the lack of tactile controls on the iPod Touch because of its size and relative ease of use; not to mention how incredibly versatile it is as a media player, handheld gaming console, web browser, document editor and so on, I can’t be as forgiving to the new Nano because it isn’t anywhere near as functional.

The biggest problem I have with the new Nano isn’t its smaller display or the lack of a storage size increase from the previous generation. No, I’m disappointed that, instead of adding features, Apple has taken some away. First on the list is the complete lack of video playback. While I’m sure that many Nano users weren’t watching movies on this thing, the ability to do so if desired is nice to have but is not an option afforded to buyers by the new Nano. Second, the VGA-quality camera taken from the previous generation Nano is gone. This is not a huge omission but an omission nonetheless and takes value away from the Nano as a whole. Personally, if I were in the market for an iPod Nano, one of the new Nanos wouldn’t be on my list. Instead, I would pick up one of the remaining previous generation Nano devices purely because of its better feature set and, thus, better inherent value, at least in my eyes. I’m not saying the Nano is a total failure of design but it seems like a huge missed opportunity. Giving it a widescreen multitouch display, video playback and the VGA camera (or perhaps one of the HD quality shooters from the new iPod Touch) for the same price would’ve been a much better deal in my eyes.

Seeing as the Nano and Shuffle are almost identical in size, one containing a display, the other relying entirely on buttons, the Nano now feels like little more than a Shuffle with a screen. In that respect, it does offer some of the things I’ve wanted out of the Shuffle but coming in at $149 for the 8GB version and $179 for the 16GB version, it’s far more expensive than I’d be willing to pay for a player with such limited functionality. While I like the idea of being able to clip a small player like the Nano to my belt (or even to a wristband, making a little iWatch), if I’m in the market for a small music player like this, I’m not going to want to pay a premium for a tiny multitouch display that doesn’t offer many advantages over, say the blue and yellow OLED display of the Sansa Clip. All I want a player as small as the Nano to do is play music. While the Nano has the ability to view photos and does show album art while playing music I have to ask myself…what’s the point?

One redeeming factor that I could think of is if Apple allowed developers to write applications for this device. The problem with that is that the OS, according to Apple, is not iOS, despite bearing a striking similarity to it. This likely means that the OS is likely to be entirely closed off to development so getting applications on this device is highly unlikely to ever happen.

iPod Touch

Now we get to the main reason why I tuned in to the live stream in the first place. The 4th generation iPod Touch is practically everything I was hoping it would be, with a few minor drawbacks and concerns. The device is equipped with several of the new features of the 4th generation iPhone, including the so-called “Retina Display” that boasts an astonishingly high 960 x 640 resolution in the same 3.5 inch form factor that has been used on past devices. The display is named because, apparently, the individual pixels are so small that they cannot be discerned with the naked eye. The result is a screen that looks incredibly sharp and vibrant.

Another of the big additions to the new iPod Touch is the inclusion of not one but two cameras, similar to the iPhone 4. There is a front-facing camera sitting right above the screen that enables support for Apple’s video conferencing service, FaceTime, over local wi-fi between both 4th generation iPhones and iPod Touches. The second camera resides on the back of the device and is equipped to record 720p high definition video.

This brings me to my biggest gripe with the 4th generation iPod Touch. While the sensor on the back of the iPod Touch is capable of taking high definition video, its still photo quality is capped at a weak 960 x 720. This is rather poor and is soundly trounced in terms of pure resolution by my old Motorola RAZR and thoroughly trounced by the apparently very good 5MP sensor the iPhone 4 is equipped with. While I like the fact that an HD video capable sensor was included in the new iPod Touch, I can’t help but wish that Apple would’ve had the inclination to give iPod Touch users the same camera as the iPhone 4.

Back to the good stuff, the iPod Touch is also running Apple’s A4 processor that powers the iPad and the iPhone 4. This means super-speedy performance can be expected from the new iPod Touch, especially when it comes to running processor intensive apps such as games. Epic Games showed off a very visually impressive demo of an upcoming game, tentatively titled “Project Sword” that utilizes a version of their famous Unreal Engine 3 that has been specially developed for iOS. This means that upcoming games will be able to be even more graphically impressive than ever before, rivaling and even surpassing the likes of previous generation consoles.

All in all, the 4th generation iPod Touch is shaping up to be one of the best PMPs on the market. With access to the App Store, some of the most powerful hardware on the market and a robust suite of out-of-the-box features, the iPod Touch is going to be very tough to top. Despite some minor quibbles with the camera and the lack of a storage size increase, there’s a lot to like about the new iPod Touch.

Missing In Action – The iPod Classic

Rumored to be done away with for good prior to this event, the total lack of an appearance by the iPod Classic during the presentation did little to assuage the fears of audiophiles and music lovers who prefer the iPod Classic for its 160GB worth of storage and supposedly great sound quality (I haven’t heard one so I can’t comment). Well, the iPod Classic is still alive but Apple did not update the device at all alongside its other devices so one wonders just how long the Classic will be around. One thing is for certain…the days of hard drive based MP3 players and thus, the iPod Classic, are numbered. With flash memory growing in capacity and coming down in price, it’s only a matter of time until hard drive based players are phased out in favor of similar flash based players with larger capacities.

Conclusion

All in all, Apple has produced a nice lineup of new iPods. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the new Shuffle design, even though it is a significant step forward from the previous generation purely because of the return of tactile controls. The Nano represents a big step back for the Nano line. I honestly can’t think of a legitimate reason to choose the new Nano over the previous generation Nano unless you’re purely in the market for a positively tiny MP3 player. The new iPod Touch is a very nice upgrade over the previous generation model and, like its predecessor, is still one of the best overall PMPs on the market (if not the best). I would’ve liked to see a bump in the storage capacities but, as it is, the current lineup should be more than adequate for most users.

Regardless of what I say here, I’m sure consumers will be heading out to retail outlets en masse to pick up these new iPods, as per the usual whenever new iPods are released but honestly, Apple has done a pretty decent job on their iPod refresh this year.

About Justin McBride

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  • travis

    I’m planning on getting the new touch