Apple formula works wonders again

Apple formula works wonders again

Apple formula works wonders again

The diminutive iPod Shuffle still has no screen and is still made of brushed aluminum, but it now has _____ and comes in _____ colors. Apple tinkered with the proportions of the iPod Nano, too, adding _____ and redesigning the _____. The popular iPod Touch also received a makeover; it’s thinner now, and gains new features like a _____ and a _____. All models now offer better battery life and greater storage capacity.

Yes, the ritual of Apple’s annual September new-iPods announcement is so well entrenched at this point that you can practically reuse the same news item every year. But even if it’s a formula, it works. Even after nine years, no other company’s music/video players come anywhere close to the iPod in popularity.

That’s not to say, however, that the obligation to cough up new designs every year doesn’t sometimes force Apple into corners. Sometimes, redesign for its own sake isn’t always an improvement. Last year’s Shuffle, for example, had no buttons at all, so operating it was something of a challenge.There are no design missteps this year, though, at least none as egregious. The 2010 iPod crop takes some design risks and, in some cases, subtracts some longstanding features. But in general, the tradeoffs are worth it.

Last year’s minuscule, buttonless iPod Shuffle, with its earbuds, almost looked like dental floss snagged on a tie clip. The new one, though, looks a lot like the Shuffle of two years ago, complete with playback and volume buttons, although it’s slightly smaller (1.1 by 1.2 by 0.3 inches).

When you press a button on top, the new Shuffle speaks the name of the current song or playlist out loud in a computer-generated voice, a feature retained from the tie-clip Shuffle. Apple would probably tell you, though, that the Shuffle’s best feature is its price: $50. The storage is 2 gigabytes, and you have a choice of five metallic colours.

The riskiest new iPod is the Nano, which dispenses with the click wheel that has come to define the iPod. Instead, the entire front surface is a glass touch screen like an iPhone’s. The software looks like the iPhone’s, too. You navigate by swiping the screen left or right, you play a song by touching its name and you rotate a photo by twisting two fingers on the screen.

In fact, you can rotate the entire screen that way. That’s handy, because the Nano now has a clothing clip, too, and you don’t always clip it on upright. The Nano is now about the size of a Triscuit, so only about four of the traditional iPhonish icons fit on a screen. You will have to do a lot of flipping through the screens until you find the control or the list you want.

To return to the Home screen, you can either keep swiping to the right, or just hold down your finger for a moment on any empty part of the screen. You can rearrange the icons, but you can’t install any new ones; it’s not really the iPhone software. The touch screen is smooth as silk, quick to respond, and crazy fun to use. So much fun, in fact, that you may completely miss how inefficient it really is. In lists, only three song or album names at a time fit on that tiny screen.

Note, too, that while Apple giveth, Apple sometimes taketh away, big time; in this round it has removed the previous Nano’s camcorder, video playback and alarm clock, and even its tiny speaker. Maybe that would have been too much to cram into a 1.5 x 1.6 x 0.4-inch square, but it’s sad to see them go. The FM radio is, mercifully, still there, and you can even look at your photos, although an electron microscope would be helpful. You can’t spread two fingers to zoom in, as on the iPhone and Touch. You can double-tap to enlarge a photo a bit, but that’s it.

The really bad news: bizarrely, the earbuds supplied with all of this year’s iPods no longer have playback controls on the cord. That’s O.K. on the Shuffle, which has physical buttons for Pause and Next Song. But on the new Nano and Touch, you can’t pause or change songs without stopping your run, looking down, waking the screen and tapping buttons on the glass.

Bad Apple!Your only option is to pay $30 for Apple’s playback-control earbuds, or $11 for a Scosche adapter that adds these controls to any earbuds or earphones. Factor that in when you’re considering the new Nano, which otherwise costs $150 for the 8-gigabyte model and $180 for 16 gigabytes.

Without question, the most droolworthy new iPod is the new iPod Touch ($230 to $400, for capacities of 8 to 64 gigabytes).

Because it looks like an iPhone and can run the same 250,000 apps, the Touch is often described as “an iPhone without the phone”— and now, that’s more true than ever. The Touch gains front and back video cameras, microphone and the iPhone 4’s high-resolution screen (what Apple calls the Retina display). At 4.4 by 2.3 by 0.28 inches, the Touch is also noticeably thinner, almost nuttily so. You could use it as a letter opener.

The built-in mike and speaker make the Touch a Wi-Fi cellphone. Apps like Skype or Line2 let you make free or cheap phone calls whenever you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot. The speaker’s on the bottom, so you can’t really hold it to your ear, but the speakerphone or Apple’s $30 earbuds work fine. And using a free app like TextFree, you can send all the text messages you like without paying the phone company anything.

The new Touch can also do FaceTime calls: high-quality, effort-free video chats with any iPhone 4 or this version of the Touch. (Touch-to-Touch video calls work great already. Touch-to-iPhone calling will be available when Apple releases its free iOS 4.1 iPhone software update this week.)

The new cameras let you take photos and record video (in the case of the back camera, high-definition video). The Touch’s cameras aren’t as good as the iPhone’s excellent 5-megapixel camera with flash; the Touch’s photos aren’t even a single megapixel, and there’s no flash. But you know: baby steps.


Above all, Apple intends the Touch to be the ultimate game machine. Already, the company says, the Touch outsells Nintendo and Sony pocket players combined. The new Touch has the same screaming-fast chip as the iPad and iPhone 4, along with a new Game Center app that lets you compete wirelessly with other iPhone and Touch owners.

In other words, even though Apple commits itself to churning out new iPod designs every year, the 2010 crop includes a modestly improved model, the Shuffle, at a better price, an exciting but risky touch-screen model, the Nano, and a home run, the Touch. The high-capacity iPod Classic, with a hard drive inside and the last remaining click wheel, is still available, although Apple didn’t say a word about it at last week’s iPod coming-out party. Of course, the online Apple bashers will be jumping in with their own annual prose templates. “Once again, Apple’s arrogance is on display as it forces the _____ lemmings to buy its overpriced ____-ware.” And it hasn’t escaped the pundits’ notice that the market for stand-alone music players is no longer growing.But the new iPods are still beautiful, smooth and a pleasure to use. Yes, yes, that’s the consensus every year — but isn’t that a good thing?

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