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Continuing a regular annual update, the latest iPods were released in September 2007.

But are they actually any better than what they supersede?

If you have an iPod, should you upgrade?  And if you don't, is now the time to buy?

 
 
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Apple's new iPod range, September 2007

Major improvements or cosmetic makeover?

Apple's iPod line-up has been increased by the addition of a new model - the 'Touch' - as well as changes to their two core products - now termed the Classic and the 3G Nano.

The little Shuffle remains unchanged.

Part three of a series on the Apple iPod - see links on the right for more articles.

 

 

 

The iPod transformed Apple from a largely moribund and irrelevant computer manufacturer and gave it an entirely new - and very profitable - role in the provision of digital music players and the digital music tracks to be played on them.

With the new confidence given to the company by the iPod, Apple has now launched the iPhone as well - another device that promises to redefine a product range.

And now, hot on the heels of the iPhone comes the latest generation of iPods, with one new model - the Touch - taking design cues and user interface concepts from the iPhone, plus tweaks and changes to the three core models in the iPod lineup.

Here's what is new, and what is different.


The Evolving iPod Range

On September 5, 2007, Apple announced its latest updates to its iPod product range.  These superseded what had been known as the 5.5 generation range of players, units that had been on the market since September 12, 2006, a model life of just one year.

The new products are termed the 3G (third generation) of Nano iPods, the 'Classic' series of hard disk based iPods, and a new 'Touch' product range.

When writing about possible future changes to the iPod range in October 2006, I predicted an iPod with a larger screen, units with double the capacity for the same price, and a 16GB Nano iPod.  How close did I get?

There is indeed an iPod with a larger screen, the units now do have double the capacity for the same price, but Apple did not release a 16 GB Nano (although they did eliminate the 2GB smallest capacity unit).  I hope you'll agree that two out of three predictions isn't bad.

With slightly smoother, more rounded corners, and some tweaks to the user interface, the new units are generally evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and indeed, the new interface serves to lock users even more strongly into the limited filing system Apple uses to store its music tracks on an iPod.

The one exception is the new Touch, a product which brings a revolutionary new design to the market, modeled closely on the new design and interface of the iPhone.  But as exciting a product as it is, it is also very expensive and limited in terms of battery life and storage capacity.

Generally prices have stayed the same, but the storage capacity you get for your dollar has doubled.  And, unlike regular computers, music and video files still take up exactly the same space as they always have, so this is a true doubling of effective storage, making the units truly capable of holding twice as many songs or videos as before.

iPod Shuffle

The iPod Shuffle remains essentially unchanged, and is still at the $79 price point.  The only difference - if one can even call this a difference - is that it is now available in five different colors.

Few people will have much interest in this unit.

Update Feb 08 :  The iPod Shuffle is now priced at $49.  With an iPod Nano now only slightly larger than a Shuffle, is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to guess that the Shuffle is finally being phased out?

New Nano Features

The new 3G Nano iPods have been completely redesigned to give them a larger screen.  The screen had formerly been a 1.5" diagonal with 176 x 132 pixel resolution, and has now grown to a 2" diagonal with 320 x 240 pixel resolution, requiring the unit as a whole to be redesigned.

The new screen has massively increased resolution, but is still a very small size.  We'd earlier found the 2.5" screen on a 5.5th generation iPod to be way too small for convenient viewing of video, to attempt to watch video on the 2" screen is almost laughable, and with a maximum capacity of 8GB, you can't store a great deal of video on the unit anyway.

The new units are larger and heavier than the units they replace.  They're not as tall, but they are wider, and they weigh slightly more (49 gm instead of 40 gm).  This increase in size underscores a common problem in electronics these days - the size reductions are limited not so much by the internal electronics, but by the external controls and displays.

The new units offer only 4GB or 8GB capacities.  The 2GB units have been discontinued - this is sensible as the cost difference was minimal and it is fairly easy for people to use up 2GB.  The new units cost less - the 4GB unit costs the same as the older 2GB unit ($149), and the 8GB unit costs the same as the older 4GB unit ($199).  This is a nice improvement in value, because the larger and higher resolution screen definitely adds to the manufacturing cost.

The new 3G Nano units have the same claimed battery life as the units they replace - about 24 hours of audio playback (or, for these new units, up to 5 hours of video, if for some inexplicable reason you choose to try and watch video on the screen).  The larger screen probably consumes more power, and so keeping battery life the same is actually an improvement.

Both the 4GB and 8GB units have the same dimensions, weight, and battery life.

Summary

The 3G Nano units have a larger screen and the ability to play video as well as audio, but the screen is way too small to usefully display video.

Otherwise, the units are slightly larger and heavier than the units they replace, have similar battery life, and offer more storage for the same price points as previously.

Overall, minor improvements with the biggest differences being a different shape and lower price.

We vote 'cosmetic makeover' for the Nano units because we do not feel the major change - video playback capability - is of any practical use.

New Classic iPod Features

Apple's original line of hard disk based iPods continues largely unchanged, with increased storage and increased battery life, and the new nomenclature 'Classic'.

The earlier range of three units (30GB, 60GB and 80GB) has been changed to two units, with 80GB and 160GB capacities.  The new 80GB unit is priced at $249 (the same price as the earlier 5.5G 30GB unit) and the 160GB unit is priced at $349 (the same price as the 5.5G 80GB unit).

Externally, the units are almost identical in size, with the 80GB unit being a bit thinner than the earlier 5.5G 80GB unit and the 160GB unit measuring about the same as the older 80GB unit.  The 80GB unit weighs a bit less than the previous 80GB unit (4.9 oz compared to 5.5 oz), and the 160GB unit weighs almost the same (5.7oz).

Both units have the same screen and controls as the earlier 5.5 generation iPods.  However, the cases are now made of anodized aluminium rather than polycarbonate plastic, and Apple's trademark white color is no longer offered.  The new Classic iPods are available in either black or silver.

The user interface has been slightly reworked so that miniature pictures of the albums you are selecting music from appear on the screen.  This is an interesting concept but is also curiously outdated - increasingly music tracks are being freed from their 'album' origins.

The 160GB unit has substantially longer battery life than the 80GB unit.  Apple claims 30 hours of audio or 5 hours of video with the 80GB unit and an impressive 40 hours of audio or 7 hours of video with the 160GB unit.  By comparison, the 5.5G 80GB unit offered a claimed 20 hours of audio or 6.5 hours of video.  We're guessing they've increased the memory buffer in the 80GB unit (so as to run the hard drive less often) and increased the actual battery capacity in the 160GB unit.

These audio battery life numbers are so good there's little point in Apple extending them further, but clearly a short 5 or 7 hours of video isn't even enough for a single long flight.  However, as we commented in our earlier review of the 5.5G 80GB iPod, the 2.5" screen is too small to comfortably watch video on, and the new Classic version iPods do nothing to improve this, with the same screen size and picture resolution.  They remain primarily audio players only.  Don't consider them for video.

Summary

Almost identical in appearance, size, and weight, the only noticeable changes are increased disk capacity and longer battery life.

We accordingly vote 'evolution' rather than 'revolution' for the Classic units.

iPod Touch

This is an entirely new device, and is clearly designed to leverage off the publicity, recognition and success of Apple's iPhone.

It features a large 3.5" touch screen and all controls are 'on screen' rather than on a separate control pad.  The large screen is also higher resolution than the other iPod screens, with a 480x320 pixel display, allowing for twice as much picture information (and a larger picture) than on the Classic iPods (with a 2.5" screen and 320x240 pixels).

You may or may not consider the screen large enough to watch video on.  The 2.5" screen is clearly too small for just about everyone, and a 4.3" screen (480 x 272 pixel resolution) such as found on the Archos 504 is large enough for most people, with this 3.5" screen falling in a 'grey' area that would probably satisfy most people with average to good eyesight.

The Touch also has Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing you to browse the internet and download music from iTunes when you're connected wirelessly through a Wi-Fi network.

The screen also detects whether it is being held horizontally or vertically and re-orients itself and the images on it automatically to suit the way it is being held and viewed.

The units come in two capacities - 8GB and 16GB, with solid state memory rather than hard drives.  They are priced at $299 for the 8GB unit and $399 for the 16GB unit.

Update Feb08 :  The iPod Touch now comes in a 32GB capacity too, priced at $499.

Battery life is similar to the Nano, with a claimed 22 hours of audio playback or 5 hours of video playback.

Unfortunately, for units that are clearly designed to be video players as much as audio players, these storage capacities are ridiculously small for video storage.  Apple says the units can hold up to either 10 or 20 hours of video (and now a more realistic 40 hours for the 32GB unit), and probably this is correct, although people seeking higher quality imagery may find they store considerably less than these numbers.  However, whereas we have become used to almost limitless storage capacities for music, being restricted to 20 hours (ten movies, or 40 half hour tv shows) suddenly changes the paradigm from 'put everything you have onto the unit and still have room for much more' to 'carefully put only what you know you're going to watch' onto the unit.

Most of us want to be able to load up our portable audio/video players with as much stuff as possible and don't want the hassle of having to add and delete files before each time we plan to use our unit.  If you have a unit with maybe half the space used for music, this means the iPod Touch will only have space for 5 or 10 hours of video; a ridiculously short amount of capacity.

As a straightforward music player, the Touch units are way overpriced compared to the other iPod units.  You're paying a $100 or more premium to get a unit that is larger and heavier than a Nano, but with no more battery life.

Our feeling is that there's a huge amount of improvement potential for the iPod Touch.  Don't buy the first generation of this product.  Wait until storage capacities massively increase, and prices drop.

Update Feb08 :  As indicated above, there is now a 32GB version available, but prices remain firm, with the 32GB unit priced at $499.  This is a viable capacity for people wishing mainly to load music on their unit, perhaps with one or two short videos as well, but it is also a high price.

Summary

As a completely new design, the Touch has to be considered as something other than a cosmetic makeover.  But is it a major improvement?  Not really.  It is a first generation product that is overpriced and underfeatured.  Wait this one out - there'll for sure be a better one when next year's lineout comes out.

Update Feb08 :  A new software release in January (not free, but sold for a very reasonable $20) added considerably to the capabilities of the iPod Touch, now giving it all the same functionality as an iPhone (except for the phone part) and making it a much more attractive unit.  The better functionality, and higher capacity, now make this my favorite iPod, but the high price means that I won't be buying one anytime soon.

Video watching is almost practical on the high resolution, medium sized screen, but the short battery life limits the amount of video you could watch before needing to recharge.

Should you Upgrade?

If you already have an iPod, there are few if any 'must have' new features in this latest range of products.

Of course, if your current iPod is proving to be limited in some area in which you need better capabilities - such as storage space or battery life - then you might wish to take advantage of the new products, which offer the best value $/GB and the longest battery lives yet.

If you're wanting a unit that can play video, wait for a future release or buy an Archos unit now.

Should you Buy Now?

If you don't already have an iPod or other MP3 player, and are thinking of getting one, now is as good a time as any.

If Apple follows its traditional annual refresh of its product line, there won't be any changes for the next twelve months, and noting that Apple seems to strictly enforce its retail prices, there are unlikely to be any bargain prices sneaking out there either.

But only buy an iPod if you wish to play back audio.  If you're seeking a video unit, none of the iPods offer a good solution (with the possible exception of the $500 priced 32GB iPod Touch).  Too small screens, too short battery life, and/or too limited storage capacity make all iPods poor choices for video.

Predictions for the Future, Again

After reviewing the 5.5th generation iPods in October 2006, I made some predictions for the next generation, now released and discussed in this article.  Two of my three main predictions came true (double the capacity for the same price, and a device with a bigger video screen).

Let's see if I can guess again for what the next generation may bring, probably in another year's time.

  • The Touch unit will keep its 3.5" screen, or possibly increase it, but only slightly (ie to 4" or 4.3" but no larger).  It will add a 32GB unit and possibly another, even higher capacity unit.  Battery life will slightly increase. (Update - this came partially true sooner than expected, a 32GB Touch was released in January 08 - we'll predict a 48GB Touch in the September new model releases).

  • The Touch 32GB unit will cost no more than the 16GB unit does today.

  • The Nano will add a 16GB unit, prices will stay the same but capacity will double for the same price.  Battery life will slightly increase.

  • The Classic will stay unaltered with 80GB and 160GB units, but their price will drop by $50 for the 80 GB unit and $100 for the 160GB unit.  Battery life will slightly increase.

  • Less likely - the Nano and Touch product lines will converge into one product line, with larger and smaller form factors and capacities, but the same touch screen design.

The Surprising Dog that Hasn't yet Barked

I'm talking here about Microsoft's Zune player.  A grossly inadequate competitor to Apple's earlier generation of iPod players, the only thing that has happened to the Zune since its release in November 2006 has been a slight price reduction - it is now listed for $199, down from its original $249.  Yes, it is $50 cheaper than the entry level classic iPod, but the iPod has 80GB, longer battery life, and generally better functionality, making it a 'no brainer' choice for most buyers.

Rumors suggest a second generation Zune coming out in time for the Christmas buying season this year, but until it does, Microsoft's already weak position in the market has become even weaker.

Summary

Apple's new iPods are substantially better value than any of the previous models.

But, and to answer the question we originally posed, they are in large part nothing more than cosmetic makeovers, and the only truly new unit - the Touch - is overpriced and an as-yet unsatisfactory solution for video playback.  Maybe in the next generation, which we'll probably see in another year, the Touch will be closer to a viable video player.

 

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Originally published 28 Sep 2007, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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