For the past several years in a row, every September, Apple held a music event at which it unveiled new versions of its dominant iPod music players and iTunes jukebox software. Generally speaking, the new iPod revisions would range from dramatic to evolutionary, depending on the year and the iPod model in question, and the iTunes update would be purely evolutionary, regardless of the version number.
This year, 2011, was different. Partially because of outgoing CEO Steve Jobs' declining health, perhaps, Apple skipped its September music event for the first time in recent memory and instead discussed its "new" iPods at an October event that also saw the launch of the iPhone 4S. This time the products aren't even evolutionary, from a hardware perspective, since nothing has changed at all. That said, one might argue that the iOS 5 software (see my review) and iCloud services that power the iPhone 4S and iPod touch are a big deal, as is the Siri voice control software for the 4S.
Here's what's new with the 2011 iPods.
As you may recall, Apple last year released its fourth generation iPod touch--see my review--which provided basically the same innards as the then-current iPhone 4, including the A4 processor, the 960 x 640 "Retina" display, a 3-axis gyroscope, and dual cameras (less capable than those in the iPhone 4). This year, Apple isn't talking up the iPod touch's hardware specs so much because nothing has changed.
And when you consider that the iPhone 4S gains faster processing and graphics thanks to the A5 processor, it sort of gives the lie to the notion that the iPod is the ultimate portable gaming device: That honor now applies only to the iPhone 4S, which is priced out of the reach of most children and casual gamers since it requires a two year contract. I'm curious why this iPod wasn't updated to the iPhone 4S innards.
There is one hardware change, I guess: In 2010, Apple sold a low-end iPod touch with 3rd generation innards for $229, offering 8 GB of storage, whereas the 32 GB and 64 GB versions offered the then-new hardware. This year, the 8 GB version costs just $199, and it has the same internals as the other models. (The other versions are the same price as in 2010.) So that's a bit of progress. There's also a white version at each price point, a first for the iPod touch.
Put simply, the iPod touch is still the portable media player and game machine to beat, and the entry level version is a fantastic value. There's nothing like it in the market, and perhaps that's why Apple felt comfortable letting it sit mostly still for a year. I expect the iPod touch to continue to be Apple's best-selling iPod by far.
In 2010, Apple redesigned its iPod nano for the umpteenth time and removed all of its non-music functionality, including the ability to play and, via an internal camera, record videos. (See my review of the 2010 iPod nano and shuffle.) While this was no doubt heartrending for some, I think the change made sense, and while it could be cynically viewed as an iPod shuffle with a screen, I look at it more as the ultimate music-only iPod, and the ideal companion for those at the gym or out running. (OK, it does photo slideshows too, for some reason.)
This year, the iPod nano hardware soldiers on unchanged. The device has proven so portable that enthusiasts have created a weird sub-market for using the nano as a watch, so Apple has embraced that trend this year in its software update for the device (which can be installed on last year's version as well, of course), which supports, among other things, a set of fun watch faces. That these iPod nano watches look exactly like the Microsoft SPOT watches of a decade ago is, of course, an irony lost on virtually everyone.
While last year's nano sported a built-in pedometer, you had to purchase the Nike + iPod kit separately. Now, the Fitness app supports walks and runs (previously, it was just walks only), without the need for any additional sensors or devices. As with the similar interface on the iPod touch that I've been using at the gym lately, when you sync back to iTunes, you can upload your workout to Nike's web site (for free) and chart your progress over time.
The biggest software change, however, is to the UI. While the nano still supports last year's multi-touch interface, which features four iOS-like icons per screen, you can optionally enable a new view that utilizes one large icon per screen instead. You navigate from app to app by swiping right to left (and vice versa); otherwise, it works as before. I prefer this view to the old UI, simply because the icons are easier to see on the small display.
For 2011, the iPod nano is configured exactly as before, but both versions are significantly cheaper than before, with the 8 GB version costing just $129 (down from $149) and the 16 GB version hitting at $149 (down from $179). I wish there was a 32 GB version as my music collection alone is over 24 GB big. The nano comes in seven different colors, one of which, red, is available only via the Apple Store online.
Apple also released iTunes 10.5 this month, the latest in a long line of minor updates to its horrible jukebox software. As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs admits in his official biography, iTunes for Windows only exists so the company can sell more iPods, and it shows in the quality of this bloated, slow, and buggy software. Version 10.5 adds Wi-Fi syncing, which is truly useful (assuming you have a supported device, including the iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad), iCloud compatibility (and, soon, iTunes Match compatibility), automatic download support, and other features. The overall user experience hasn't changed in the slightest however, and the less said about iTunes the better.
Missing in action: The other iPods
At the event earlier this month, Apple's other iPods, the iPod shuffle and the iPod classic, received little attention. The company did mention the shuffle at least, which is still selling for $49 and offering 2 GB of storage; most users would be much better off with the 8 GB nano, which offers a screen, more colors, and more capabilities. But Apple completely ignored its iPod classic, which is the last iPod with a connection to the original iPod. This version still sells for $249, comes in a single 160 GB configuration, and can be had in the same black and gray colors as before. Apple keeps it around solely for those music enthusiasts with huge collections, I guess.
Apple also didn't really discuss the Apple TV at its recent event, though that product also received a nice software update this month aimed at compatibility with iOS 5 and iTunes 10.5. This includes AirPlay Mirroring (iPad 2 and iPhone 4S only), support for iCloud's PhotoStream, and a few other improvements. As with the iPods, the Apple TV hardware hasn't been refreshed in any way.
After several years of steady improvements, Apple this year didn't improve its iPod hardware in any appreciable way, unless of course you were previously losing sleep over the lack of a white iPod touch. Mostly, this isn't a huge deal as the iPod hardware, by and large, is still quite capable, though the lack of an A5-based iPod touch is somewhat concerning. The big changes this year are, of course to the software. And on that note, the 2011-era iPods are in great shape: The iPod nano improvements are just fine, and the touch sees massive improvements via iOS 5 and iCloud. These products are as good as they've ever been, which is of course quite good. Maybe next year, we'll see hardware improvements to match.