I've owned at least one version of every iPod that Apple's ever released, and I've been an unabashed fan of these devices since the first one arrived on my doorstep in late 2001. But let's be honest here. Several years and millions of devices sold later, a certain amount of fatigue has set in. The iPod line is mature, even tired. And though Apple still insists on releasing "new" iPods every year like clockwork, one gets the sense that even the product's maker is starting to lose interest. This year, Apple issued only one totally new iPod, the iPod nano 4G, while providing just minor revisions to a second, the iPod touch 2G.
Fortunately for Apple, even Microsoft essentially took the year off from a hardware perspective, and that company has a lot more ground to make up than does the iPod maker. In fact, Microsoft's done even less to improve its devices in 2008 than did Apple, an issue I'll discuss in more detail in my forthcoming Zune 3 review. For anyone looking to upgrade an existing device, these are dark days. But for those who have not yet made the MP3 player plunge, Apple's devices are now better than ever. How you view them, of course, will depend on where you're coming from.
The 2008 iPods: A mile-high view
As with 2007, Apple is offering four iPod products with this year's update. They include:
iPod shuffle. Unchanged over two years now, the iPod shuffle is Apple's low-end MP3 player. It comes in 1 GB and 2 GB capacities and offers no screen at all, and the only meaningful difference between this shuffle and last's year's version is the price: Last year, the 1 GB shuffle was $79, whereas a price cut earlier this year brought that down to a far more reasonable $49. (The 2 GB version is $69.) The shuffle is available in five very colorful colors. See my review of last year's version for a verdict, as nothing's changed at all. In fact, Apple didn't even mention the shuffle during its recent introduction of the 2008 iPod models.
iPod nano. Next up the price chart is the iPod nano. Based on flash memory, the iPod nano is the best-selling iPod, and it's aimed squarely at the mainstream of the MP3 player market: Those people who value music playback primarily but don't mind to venture a little off-center with video content. Since the iPod nano is the only 2008 iPod to receive a significant update this year, I'll dive deeper into this device later in this review.
iPod classic. The successor to the first iPod from 2001, the iPod classic has the feel of abandonment about it. The 2008 version doesn't offer a single functional advantage over its predecessor. And it now comes in only one variant, a "thin" 120 GB version, which costs $249 and replaces the 80 GB version from last year. The high-end 160 GB version from 2007, which was thicker, has been discontinued. "Almost everybody has wanted the thin one," Apple CEO Steve Jobs noted at his company's 2008 iPod event last week, "so we're going to discontinue the thick [model] and just focus on the thin one." Since the device hasn't really changed at all since last year, you can check out my iPod classic 6G review for details about this product.
iPod touch. Introduced last year as an iPhone without the phone, the iPod touch was actually pretty lacking as an iPod thanks to high prices, some transparent feature drops lest it compete too well with the iPhone, and other issues. Since then, however, three wonderful things have happened. First, the iPod touch has picked up all of the relevant missing iPhone features via software updates. Second, Apple has ensured that virtually all iPhone applications work on the iPod touch as well, turning the device into a much better-rounded portable device than was the case when the original version shipped a year ago. And finally, this year's hardware update, while minor, pretty much completes the picture, adding back the few crucial hardware features that were missing a year ago. For these reasons, I'll also be delving further into the 2008 iPod touch in this review.
iPod nano 4G
I fondly remember the original iPod nano, which shipped three years ago in October 2005. It was almost impossibly thin and beautiful, but like most iPods, it was also scratchtastic, and seemed to emerge from Apple's elegant packaging pre-scratched. The 2G version from 2006 fixed that by switching to a slightly thinner aluminum shell, a change that also allowed Apple to ship the device in a variety of bright colors. It was, in many ways, the perfect digital music player for the time.
Last year, Apple changed the nano in a surprising way, abandoning the chewing gum stick-like shape of previous devices and settling on a squat "fatty" design that was routinely panned by critics. I liked it, however, and the new form factor allowed for a bigger screen with video playback functionality. It also sported a new "halfie" user interface (including Cover Flow) and support for traditional iPod games.
This year, in a weird reversal, Apple has gone back to the old stick-like iPod nano form factor. But in a "best of both worlds" decision, the new nano also picks up the larger, high-res screen from last year's 3G nano. That's one way to look at it. Put more accurately, Apple has simply copied the design of the Zune 4/8 devices. Certainly, it's a proven design.
Unfortunately for Apple, the company's penchant for ever-thinner devices has begun hampering usability, and that's certainly the case with the iPod nano 4G. The thing is, Apple has pretty much hit the limit for making these devices thin, so the company's begun cheating a bit by tapering all of their electronics products at the edges so that that they're thicker in the middle but super-thin at the edge. The company started this trend with its iMac PCs, I think, but the thinner-at-the-edges design theme has continued more recently with the iPhone and all screen-based iPods. It hits ludicrous heights with the iPod nano 4G.
Here's the problem: Because the iPod nano 4G is thinner at the edges than it is in the middle, the front and back fascias curve as they encase the device's electronics. That means the screen is curved as well, and that curved design creates a lot of glare, under almost all viewing conditions, rendering its video watching capabilities less enjoyable than that of its predecessor. The glare really gets in the way.
Also problematic is the hard-wired and now ancient scroll wheel. When the device is held in traditional portrait mode, the scroll wheel includes a menu button at the top, back and forward buttons on the side, and a play/pause button on the bottom. But once you rotate the device to watch a video, these controls are all placed on their sides. With a Zune, the Zune pad's functionality rotates with the device. So volume up and down are always up and down, respectively, on the pad, regardless of the orientation, and back and forward are always left and right. It's more logical. Now, my guess is that a future iPod will turn to an electronic scroll wheel. But that doesn't help anyone buying the current version. It's just harder to navigate when used horizontally.
The new nano features a slightly enhanced version of the user interface that debuted last year. Because of the portrait orientation of the screen, the "halfie" design now descends from the top of the screen, instead of the left side, and it takes up more of the available real estate. (It takes up about 3/4 of the screen instead of half.) Beyond that, the basics are the same. The Artists list, for example, is still a list of text, and the Albums list still shows tiny thumbnails.
But thanks to the inclusion of an accelerometer--which first appeared in the iPhone and iPod touch--the iPod nano features a few unique new capabilities. When you turn the device into horizontal mode, it switches immediately into Cover Flow view; with the iPod nano 3G, you had to explicitly choose Cover Flow from the menu system and the performance was a bit slower.
The accelerometer is also used for one of the most god-awful features I've ever seen, a groan-inducing piece of demo bloatware that I have to imagine was created solely for use during the Steve Jobs presentation last week. (And yes, it got a healthy round of applause from the clueless Apple acolytes in the audience.) It's called Shake to Shuffle, and, get this, you can shuffle to the next song by physically shaking the nano like a tiny cocktail shaker. Yes, it's as lame as it sounds. The accelerometer is also helpful for photos, of course, due to their alternating aspect ratios. Curiously, it's not used with video content: You have to watch videos in horizontal mode.
In Now Playing mode, the iPod nano 4G copies Zune yet again, with nearly full-screen album art, a huge improvement over the stilted Now Playing screen from last year. If you push and hold down the center button on the scroll wheel, you'll see a new pop-up menu that provides access to a new feature called Genius (see below), and other entries for Add to On-The-Go, Browse Album, Browse Artist, and Cancel. Between this and the huge variety of options that are available by clicking this button, one gets the feeling that we've hit the limits of what's possible with the scroll wheel.
The Genius playlist creation feature on the device apes a feature that's new to the iTunes 8 PC software, which I'll be reviewing soon. Basically, Genius lets you make smart playlists of songs in your collection that are similar in some undescribed way to song you're currently selecting or playing. Obviously, this kind of feature is far more useful in iTunes, where you'll most likely have a much larger library of music than is available on the nano. But it's neat that you can create these things on the fly. And of course, Genius playlists you do create on the PC can be synced to the iPod nano as well.
Apple pegs the new nano's battery life at 24 hours for music and 4 for video, figures that are on par and a bit behind that of the previous version, respectively. (The 3G nano got 5 hours of battery life.) They are, regardless, perfectly acceptable for this type of device.
The 4G nano is available in 8 gorgeous and bright colors, and unlike with previous iPods, all are available in each model. There are two models, an 8 GB version for $149 and a 16 GB version for $199. That's the same Microsoft charges for its equivalent Zune 8 and 16 models.
Overall, the 2008 iPod nano 4G is a winner, and a worthy continuation of Apple's best and best-selling iPod line. Some features are a step back, however, including the glare-happy screen and the now-ancient scroll wheel. A bigger problem, of course, is that virtually anyone who might want one probably already has an iPod. If you're in the market for a new iPod--that is, you don't already have one for some reason, or your current device is a 2006 or older model--then give the iPod nano 4G a look. But if you're already using a 2007-era device, just skip it: There's virtually nothing here to make you look twice.
iPod touch 2G
Last year's original iPod touch was the quintessential Apple product: Great at the basics but curiously lacking in several key areas. Well, a year has passed and those problems are all behind us. And if you've been holding off on this device for any reason, take note: The 2008 iPod touch is now arguably the ultimate iPod, and its list of problems has grown amazingly short.
To understand how Apple turned things around, let's step back for a second and recall how things have changed over the past year. First, the company has shipped a number of software updates for the iPod touch (at a total cost to users of $9.95) that dramatically improved the device's capabilities. Next up was the re-emergence of the Internet applications that Apple had originally included with the iPhone but left out of the iPod touch. These include such things as Photos, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Notes, and Mail. Just adding those back made the iPod touch into an interesting Web-enabled device, assuming you can use it within range of a Wi-Fi signal. (The iPod touch lacks the iPhone's cellular capabilities, of course.)
Then, earlier this year, Apple shipped the iPhone 2.0 software update, a version of which was also made available for the iPod touch. This update added, among other things, support for the App Store and its thousands of available iPhone applications and games. Suddenly, the iPod touch has become what Apple now markets as "the funnest iPod ever." Fair enough.
With the 2G iPod touch, Apple has made a few changes that right wrongs from the original hardware design. First, unlike the 1G unit, the 2G includes hardware volume controls, just like the iPhone. Second, it includes a mono speaker, which appears to emanate out of the bottom of the device. (This too, is an iPhone feature.) The lack of these obvious hardware features made the first iPod touch frustratingly compromised. Their inclusion this year makes all the difference.
As with the iPod nano 4G, Apple now claims that the iPod touch 2G is thinner than ever, but as with that other device, the same thinner-at-the-edges chicanery was used to create this illusion. Yes, the iPod touch is indeed thinner at the edges than its predecessor, so thin in fact that the dock connector appears to cut into the curved bevel of the device's back. But at the midsection, it appears to be the same thickness. It does appear to be a bit lighter.
Apple also changed the bevel frame around the device from last year's nicer-looking black matte design to an iPhone 1G-like silver that will pick up smudges as readily as does the rear of the device. I prefer the old design.
From a software perspective, not much as changed. The iPod touch comes with the new iPhone 2.1 software, which is mostly about bug fixes, but I noticed a few other small changes. For example, when you're scrolling through a list of songs, you'll see artist and album names listed along with each songs, and in a smaller font. Nothing serious.
Apple has lowered the price of the iPod touch 2G in order to fit the device more comfortably into the new iPhone 3G pricing scheme, and that's good news for potential customers. The baseline 8 GB unit is now $229, compared to the previous price of $299. You can also choose a 16 GB unit for $299 and a 32 GB unit for $399.
These flash memory allotments are one of the only things really holding back the iPod touch at this point. I'd love to see at least 80 GB of storage at a reasonable price, but we'll get there. And there are always going to be those that aren't keen on constantly smudging up their new $400 device, a constant issue with the iPod touch which, by definition, requires you to touch the screen.
What we're left with is a device that answers virtually all of the issues I raised in last year's review and adds a number of useful new features this year as well. The iPod touch is no longer the compromise it once was. If you're not an iPhone or iPod touch owner, give it a whirl, and its large screen is certainly optimal for video in a way that nano and classic will never be. If you're already an iPod touch owner, obviously you should just skip this revision, though you'll likely find yourself wishing you had the hardware volume buttons and speaker from time to time.
OK, this is the weakest line of iPod updates that Apple has shipped in years, but so what? Unlike the Zune, Apple offers mature and capable products at every possible price point and even extends that functionality into the smart phone market with the iPhone. Too, the iPods are all backed by the enormous libraries of music, TV shows, movies, applications, games, podcasts, audiobooks, ringtones, and other content that's available on iTunes, and the market-leading ecosystem of iPod hardware accessories. Compared to last year's iPods, the new devices may not offer much for upgraders. But if you're in the market for a new portable media device, Apple's iPod lineup is, once again, the one to beat.
September 13, 2008