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Each September sees a refresh of Apple's iPod line; some years with massive changes, other years with minor tweaks.

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Apple's latest generation of iPods

The annual update - September 2009

The range of iPods is largely unchanged by this year's new product releases, apart from higher capacity units, with most changes being directed towards the Nano series.

Part of an ongoing series on the Apple iPod and other MP3 devices - see links on the right for more articles.

 

 

 

With over 220 million units sold (as of Sept 09) since their introduction, and something like a 75% market share, the iPod range of MP3 players largely created and now dominates the market for such devices.

But probably the biggest excitement at this year's launch event was nothing to do with the equipment being announced - it was the return of Steve Jobs as front man.

If you'd just bought an iPod prior to the new iPod's being announced in September, you should only have buyer remorse if it was a Nano.  Most of the other new iPods are very similar to the units they replace, merely with some extra capacity (that very few people need or use).

Overall, the units offer slightly larger capacity, and slightly lower pricing, but nothing revolutionary.

The Six Components of the iPod Product Range

There are four obvious parts to the iPod product range, and two not quite so obvious parts.

The four obvious parts are the four different styles of iPod :

  • Shuffle

  • Nano

  • Touch

  • Classic

The two more subtle parts of the range are :

  • iPhone (almost indistinguishable from a Touch iPod and reportedly sales of the iPhone are eating into sales of iPods)

  • iTunes (an increasingly essential part of using an iPod)

It is helpful to consider the changes in each of the six parts of the overall iPod family.

iPod Shuffle

I had earlier predicted the demise of the iPod Shuffle.  It had seemed to be too limited in capability and capacity, and while it served a purpose years ago (a low priced small size entry level player) the general sophistication of users and reducing size and cost of the Nano iPod series has been reducing the marketplace segment served by the Shuffle.

Apple's response was not to withdraw the Shuffle, but rather to mildly enhance it.  In March 2009 (half way between annual September major releases) they brought out a new and smaller version of the Shuffle, with a higher capacity and with its controls now built in to the headset cord rather than on the unit (which was becoming almost too small to accommodate player controls.

The new series of Shuffles announced in September 09 essentially complete the transition from the earlier mix of what were called second generation (units with on-player controls) and third generation (headphone controls), and offer the player in 2GB and 4GB capacities.

The 2GB unit is now priced at $59 and the 4GB unit at $79.

The concept of adding the player controls to the headset was controversial to start with, because it meant you could not use third party headphones with the player.  As you can imagine, you don't get very good quality headphones included with a player costing about $50.  Third party headphones are now being released with the necessary control circuitry built in, but this adds to the cost of the headphones and still limits your choice.

On the other hand, 'serious' users would probably not choose a Shuffle unit to start with, opting instead for a Nano or Touch.

Oh - part of the 'new' product range includes new colors as well.  Yawn.

Overall, there is nothing very new about the Shuffle line, and it continues to be an underfeatured but very low priced unit that we do not recommend.  The Nano is much better for most people who don't want the extra size and features of the Touch.

iPod Nano

The Nano range of products continue to have great appeal and the latest gimmicks/gadgets added to the Nano players - most notably a video camera - definitely add to their 'wow' factor and 'sexiness'.

We will shortly be releasing a detailed review of this lovely little device, but for now, the quick bottom line is this is a wonderful 'gadget' with a range of clever new features for those of us who want to have something that does more than just play music.

The Nano line has enjoyed a good success in the market since its initial introduction, although it briefly changed its format with the third generation units released in September 2007, changing from tall and skinny to short and squat in an attempt to provide more screen size in a still-small form factor.

Apparently few people liked the new design, and the earlier tall/skinny design returned in September 2008, and has been preserved in the latest (what is termed 'fifth generation') product range announced in September 2009.

The new units are available in two capacities - 8GB (costing $149) and 16GB (costing $179) - the same capacities as the two units they replace (which were formerly priced at $149 and $199).

The screen has been made slightly larger (2.2" diagonal compared to 2" on the earlier 3G and 4G units) but retaining the same QVGA resolution (320x240).  This is a relatively trivial change, particularly because the resolution has stayed the same.

However, there are plenty of other enhancements.  The most talked about is the addition of a miniature video camera that records 640x480 pixel video (standard television resolution) at 30 frames per second (standard television frame rate).  A microphone has necessarily been added so you can record sound as well as video.  Here is a sample video (19 seconds, 6.5MB, MP4 format).

Adding this simple little camcorder transforms the Nano, giving it an entire new range of functionality.  A definite plus.

The Nano now has an FM radio tuner added to it, and it supports both American and European frequencies.  The tuner relies on the headphone cord to act as an aerial to receive signal.

It extends on the accelerometer in the earlier 4G units and now can be used as a pedometer, giving moderately accurate step counts depending on where you carry the unit.  If you tell the unit your weight, it converts steps walked into calories burned as well.

Also new to the Nano is a tiny speaker - this is not intended as a way to play music normally, but rather as an 'emergency' way to playback recorded audio or video to check that its quality is okay, and perhaps as a way of casually sharing/showing something you've recorded to a friend.  The sound quality is of course poor and the volume level very low.

The Nano is available in nine different colors.

With the various extra capabilities, the Nano adds a lot of value and interesting new features to its latest, fifth generation, product offering without any increase in the selling price (although without any decrease either in the 8GB unit).

iPod Touch

The Touch range of iPods are showing the most market growth - where sales of iPods overall are flat or slightly down, the Touch series is still showing strong growth.

However, even the Touch players are under competitive threat - but not from another brand of product; instead from the iPhone (which the Touch has evolved from as an 'iPhone Lite').  Basically, there is almost no difference at all between a Touch and an iPhone, except for three extra features on an iPhone - the ability to use the unit as a phone, and its built in camera and GPS capabilities.

Everything else is the same - both can run the same range of third party applications, both have Wi-Fi connectivity (which means that you can actually use a Touch for some types of phone calls when connecting through Wi-Fi, and both play music and video.

The other big difference of course is cost.  There's not a huge difference in purchase price, but if you buy an iPhone, you're also committing to two years of phone service from AT&T at a minimum cost of about $80/month.  If you already have a phone and are locked into its contract, and don't need a second phone, or if you just want a basic phone for a much lower monthly cost, then clearly the Touch is a better choice than the iPhone.

But if you can get some benefit from the iPhone's extra features and an AT&T service contract, it is clearly the better choice.

The new range of Touch units feature a lower priced 8GB unit (now $199) plus two larger capacity units with twice the capacity of the previous Touches, but at the same price - 32GB for $299 and 64GB for $399.

These prices contrast with the iPhone, which sells at prices from $99 for an earlier 3G model with 8GB of storage, $199 for a 16GB 3GS or $299 for the 32GB 3GS.

Apart from changing the price and increasing the capacity, there's not a lot of new features on the Touch units.  The two larger units have a faster processor, but slightly reduced battery life.

To the surprise of most Apple-watchers, the Touch units do not include a camera - indeed, one poll showed this to be the most significant part of the entire release event.  Adding a camera had been widely expected, and looking inside a Touch even shows a space where a camera was clearly intended to be placed.  It is believed that quality control problems with the camera units caused them to be withdrawn, and it is expected there'll be a mid-life refresh of the Touch units prior to the next September major release, with the camera capability being added to this mid-life new model series.  It is also thought the newer models with cameras will probably sell for the same price as the current camera-less models.  In other words, if you're thinking of getting a Touch, maybe it would pay to wait until the newer units complete with camera come out.

Based on the small size of the space allowed for a camera, it will probably only support video (the same as the Nano) and not allow for still images.  A fixed focus non-zooming 640x480 video camera can be extremely tiny, whereas the much higher quality now expected in still cameras requires more space, both for the lens assembly and the sensor.

Apple is starting to perceptibly reposition how it markets the Touch.  It is no longer being described as simply an MP3/MP4 audio/video player, but rather it is also being referred to as a 'pocket computer' and as a game player.  In particular, Apple sees the huge range (more than 75,000) of programs written for the Touch and the iPhone as a major competitive advantage, and so is seeking to prominently refer to the wealth of software available as a reason for choosing a Touch for purposes well beyond 'just' listening to music and watching video.

That is all true, but our feeling is that people who want access to all the other features and capabilities and software will probably also want the phone capabilities and so will go for the iPhone.  If you are in a position where you can justify the cost of the AT&T monthly contract, then you too are almost certainly better advised to get an iPhone rather than a Touch iPod.  If you do choose the Touch, remember that it will likely be re-released within the next six months, and this time complete with video camera included.

iPod Classic

The iPod Classic is increasingly the dinosaur of the iPod range, having been technologically obsoleted in most respects by the growing capabilities of the Nano and Touch units.

However, Apple has chosen to again extend the life of the Classic, and has released a new unit that is virtually identical to the previous version, with the only difference being an increase in hard disk capacity, up from 120GB to 160GB, now at a $249 price point (the earlier 120GB unit was most recently selling for $229).

Interestingly, there had earlier been a 160GB model which was discontinued in September 2008, when the Classic range was reduced from two units (80GB and 160GB) to only one unit, a 120GB based player.  Now the Classic range remains as a single unit, but with 160GB of capacity again.  One suspects that the reason for these slightly strange shifts in capacity may be related to the availability of appropriate 1.8" sized hard drives to be incorporated in the units.

The Classic unit these days is a paradox, with little appeal to anyone.  The large 160GB capacity is way more than almost anyone would need for simple music storage, and instead suggests use for storing videos.  But the small 2.5" diagonal screen with low resolution (320x240 pixels) makes video playback very disappointing, and not nearly as satisfactory as on the Touch and iPhone (both of which have a 3.5" diagonal screen with 480x320 resolution).

We suspect that, barring any upset in flash memory capacity and price trends in the next year, we will see the September 2010 lineup finally eliminate the Classic model, replacing it instead with a 128GB Touch, probably priced around the $400 level.  This would be almost the same capacity as a Classic, but with all the extra features and potential of the Touch, and a vastly better (but still inadequate) video screen to watch video on.

For now, unless you really need the extra storage for music, there's no reason to consider the Classic.

iPhone

The iPhone has a different annual release schedule, with new models being announced in June/July rather than September.

As discussed above in the section on the Touch, there is very little difference between an iPhone and a Touch.  The first Touch unit was released in September 2007, after the iPhone's launch in June 2007, and the new generations of each unit track each other reasonably closely in terms of capabilities.

We mention the iPhone here merely to record the fact that the iPhone does double duty as an excellent state of the art iPod as well as its obvious phone and other capabilities.  It is the best solution for many people, particularly when you add a supplementary external battery (such as our favorite, the Mophie Juice Pack Air) which means you can happily use up as much battery as you like playing music and video and still have a backup for when you continue to use the unit as a phone).

iTunes

An unavoidable part of owning an iPod is the need to load your music and other content onto the iPod through Apple's iTunes program.  This program, alas, adds as much hassle as it does convenience, and its dreadfully intrusive copy protection makes it difficult to share music between computers and iPods.

A new version of iTunes was also announced at this time, but with no improvements to the rigid straitjacket copy protection/digital 'rights' management (in Orwellian doublespeak, the 'rights' refers to your non-rights).  This is particularly regrettable because Apple itself is shifting from selling copy-protected music to unrestricted music.

Also absent was any improvement in how iTunes can manage music that doesn't conveniently fit within its predefined structure of music track as part of an album which is all done by one group/performer.  This structure, while working acceptably well for popular music, completely fails with classical music.  If you are looking for a piano concerto by Beethoven, how will you ever find it if it is on an album called 'My favorite music', and even if you can find it, the combination of a pianist, an orchestra and a conductor is all way too much for iTunes to handle, categorize and index.

Fortunately, there are third party alternatives to iTunes available.  Here's a list of alternative programs for you to consider if you find iTunes too restrictive or intrusive.

Some improvements to how iTunes recommends music (its 'Genius' feature) and a new feature allowing you to stream and play (but not copy!) music from one computer to another in your local area network (called 'sharing') was also added.

The Genius feature has now been added to recommend new applications as well as recommending music.  With over 75,000 different applications available for iPhones and Touch iPods, truly many/most applications are irretrievably lost and impossible for most potential purchasers to find.  Hopefully this might help, but so far, its recommendations are strange and stupid.

Should you Upgrade (or Buy for the First Time)?

If you already have an iPod, there are few if any 'must have' new features added to the Shuffle, Touch and Classic iPods.  But the Nano - with video camera, microphone and FM radio tuner - has become considerably more feature rich.

This isn't necessarily a reason to junk your older iPod and replace it with a new Nano, but it might encourage you to, ahem, pass your older Nano on to a friend or family member and get a new unit for yourself.

And if you've been thinking you'd like to get a low priced basic personal camcorder, then the Nano's combination of basic camcorder and all other iPod functions may prove to be a compelling temptation.

Otherwise, there's nothing particularly compelling in the new lineup, and for people wishing personal video players, the small and low resolution 3.5" screens on the Touch (and iPhone) remain too small for convenient and quality viewing of video.

And if you're considering a Touch, it might be best to wait until the newer Touch units emerge complete with built in camcorder capabilities.

Microsoft Zune - Still Not a Viable Competitor

Microsoft first released its Zune product in November 2006 (see my review) and at the time, there was a lot of anticipation, as well as a reasonable degree of 'forgiveness' on the part of reviewers who accepted the inadequacies of the first generation Zune, but who anticipated (and hoped - the iPod desperately needs a strong competitor) the product would vastly improve in future iterations.

The Zune has been regularly updated since then, and on 15 Sep 2009 Microsoft announced what is considered to now be the fourth generation of Zune players.  Up until that point, the Zune has languished as an irrelevancy in the marketplace, having somewhere between a 1% and 2% market share.  Most companies other than Microsoft would probably have given up on the product range well before now.

The new Zunes fall sort of midway between the Nano and the Touch.  They are Nano-like in terms of having limited functionality beyond the core ability to play music and video, and they are Touch-like in terms of having some Wi-Fi capabilities, and a touch screen, and are priced comparably.  The 16GB Zune lists for $220 and the 32GB Zune is $290, which closely compares with the Touch with an 8GB for $200, 32GB for $300 and 64GB for $400 (there is no 16GB Touch).

The Zune boasts 'high definition' video.  It truly can play better video than the Touch, but this difference is only apparent if you are outputting the video to an external monitor.  While the screen on the Zune uses a brilliant OLED display which gives amazing richness and increased contrast to its colors, it is both smaller (3.3" diagonal rather than 3.5" diagonal) and lower resolution (480x272 compared to 480x320) than the Touch.  The HD video claim is good for brochures, but in real life, we're very unlikely to ever choose to load HD video onto the player in the first place, and so should be ignored as an irrelevancy when considering if one should purchase the Zune or an iPod.

The Zune is smaller than an iPod Touch (2.1" x 4" x 0.35", compared to 2.4" x 4.3" x 0.33") and lighter as well, not that weight is really an issue with either unit (2.6 oz compared to 4.1 oz).  Battery life is comparable, and both units have a sealed non-user-replaceable battery.

Who would buy a Zune rather than an iPod Touch?  I've no answer to that question.  I can't clearly see a single relevant attribute where the Zune significantly outscores the iPod, whereas on the other hand, the iPod is massively better than the Zune in many respects - a much better user interface, a much better web browser, and an 'open architecture' that currently has over 75,000 applications written for it (compared to about half a dozen for the Zune).

Some die-hard Microsoft enthusiasts may continue to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, and may continue to hope for a better Zune that truly will trump the iPod in the future.  But this - the fourth range of Zunes - is no closer to matching/beating the iPods now than were the first unsuccessful Zunes back in 2006.

Summary

Apple's new iPods continue to improve in terms of features and value, although this positive evolution is in line with the general reductions in electronic goods.

Although there are four main product lines within the iPod family, these days the Nano and Touch ranges should be considered as the two key product lines, with the Shuffle and Classic ranges being largely obsoleted and maintained merely to give Apple a 'defensive' position at the bottom and top of their product ranges, keeping competitors at bay.

The new Nano players with extra features are very tempting, but if you prefer the Touch unit, keep in mind that it really is no good as as video player and for most people, the iPhone may be a better choice than a Touch.

The new Microsoft Zune players, announced a week after Apple's announcement still do not effectively compete with the iPod products.
 

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Originally published 18 Sep 2009, 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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