New Competitors Can't Measure Up to iPod Standards

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The iPod shouldn't dominate the digital-media-player market.

That's not a value judgment, just a statement about economics.

For all the success of Apple's iTunes Store, most digital music still consists of MP3 files, which anybody can build a device to play. And anytime one company must compete with the collective talent of everybody else in the world, it should be lucky to grab one-third of the market.

Instead, Apple owns more than 70 percent of it and has wiped the likes of Sony and Dell off the map.

Last month, Apple renewed its drive for the rest of the market by revising its lineup of iPods. Its new models don't mark a major shift in the iPod formula, but still worked far better than two other players put through the same tests.

As before, all of Apple's models-- the $79 iPod Shuffle; the iPod Nano, from $149 to $249; the full-size iPod, $249 and $349-- can play iTunes Store music purchases, AAC and MP3 files, audio books and podcasts. The Nano and full-size models also display photos, calendars, addresses and text notes. In addition, the full-size iPod plays TV downloads, movies and games.

The iPod Shuffle, shipping later this month, is much smaller. But on the other iPods, the size and basic design have barely changed: a sharp, color display below the clever ClickWheel control, which puts every possible function a flick of your thumb away.

The new Nano, just 1.75 ounces with its headphones, is the easiest to spot in this bunch, encased in colorful anodized aluminum instead of scratch-prone plastic. The $149, two-gigabyte model is silver; the $199, four-GB version can be had in silver, blue, green or pink; and the $249, eight-GB variant comes only in black.

Inside that sturdy exterior, the battery life has been boosted to an advertised 24 hours -- though the four-GB Nano I tried lasted almost 26 hours. (Its battery, like those of all iPods, is sealed inside its case; Apple charges $59 to replace it. ) The Nano also now lets you search for a song by spelling letters out with the ClickWheel.

The full-size, don't-call-it-video iPod looks no different from before but adds the Nano's search option and longer battery life. An 80-GB model lasted for 22 hours of music and seven hours of video.

This updated model can also double as a handheld game player, at least for the small set of $4.99 titles sold on iTunes.

The program included with these new models, however, needs work. ITunes 7 (Win 2000 and XP and Mac OS X 10.3 or newer) can transfer iTunes purchases from an iPod to another computer signed into your iTunes account, eases updating an iPod's software and finally brings "gapless playback" to iPods, removing pauses between classical, opera and other tracks meant to be heard uninterrupted.

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