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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

RealPlayer's iPod-Compatible Update 'Stunned' Apple

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page F06

RealNetworks' RealPlayer program once defined digital multimedia online -- it was the only way to listen to scratchy Web radio or watch grainy Web video. Today Apple's iPod holds a similar role in the MP3-player market -- it's the gadget everybody seems to want.

Both of these products were recently updated: Apple's newest iPod adds the best design features of the iPod mini, while RealPlayer 10.5 adds the unprecedented feature of iPod compatibility.


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The new iPod, the fourth generation of this device (fans are calling it the "iPod 4G" for short), brings fewer changes than its predecessors. From the back and the side, it looks like a fractionally thinner version of the old iPod. From the front, however, you can't miss its new ClickWheel control.

This touch-sensitive dial, which debuted on the iPod mini last winter, puts all the basic controls into one circular interface: spin a finger around its edge to select songs and adjust volume, push the center button to select a song or a menu item, and push the north, south, east and west axes of the dial to select menu, play/pause, forward and rewind commands.

The new iPod also delivers much better battery life. The 20-gigabyte model Apple loaned (its actual capacity was 18.5 gigabytes) lasted for more than 14 hours in both tests, two hours better than Apple's own advertising claims. If only laptops worked this well!

The other changes in this iPod are all minor. A "Shuffle Songs" command in the main menu saves users a few taps of the ClickWheel. You can create and save multiple playlists on the iPod, but these can't be renamed -- you'll have to remember what you put in "Playlist 1" versus Playlists 2, 3 and4. You can also play back audiobook recordings faster and slower than normal.

The iPod 4G comes at a healthy discount from earlier models; the 20-gigabyte model sells for $299 and a 40-gig version goes for $399, both $100 cheaper than their predecessors of the same capacity. They also include the USB 2.0 cable that once sold for $19 extra -- while leaving out Apple's wired remote control, dock and carrying case, each sold for $39 separately.

But with the older iPod models vanishing from store shelves and the iPod mini perpetually back-ordered, the new iPod may be the only game in town.

RealNetworks would like to get into that game. Months ago, the Seattle firm asked Apple to license the FairPlay software that lets people copy songs purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store to iPods, so that it could offer the same option to its own customers.

Apple turned Real down, so Real set about making its downloads iPod-compatible without Apple's help.

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