Apple's Two New Bites
After selling more than 100 million iPods, Apple could slack off a little. The digital media players would probably still fly off the shelves if the company just altered their shape or color once a year.
That's how most companies go about their business in the consumer-electronics industry.
Instead, Apple keeps tearing up the iPod blueprint, replacing popular models with designs that owe little to their predecessors. This strategy has paid off so far, leaving competitors farther behind and customers more tempted to upgrade.
For iPod buyers, it also creates a challenge: Picking up a new iPod soon enough in its lifecycle so that it doesn't get replaced right away but late enough for early production glitches to be fixed.
Apple is sticking to its playbook with its new iPod Nano and iPod Touch. The Nano puts the video capability of the full-sized iPod -- now called the iPod classic -- in a device that can disappear in a shirt pocket. The Touch bridges the iPod and the iPhone, eliminating phone functions but keeping the iPhone's WiFi wireless networking and clever touch-screen interface.
The one likelier to succeed? The iPod Nano, a trim tablet, barely over 2 ounces, small enough to hide under a credit card and barely thicker than its headphone jack. It offers twice as much memory at the same prices as its ancestor: $149 for a 4-gigabyte model, $199 for an 8-gigabyte version.
But extra room for music isn't the new Nano's real appeal. It plays video and games as well as audio and photos. In other words, things once available only in a heavier, pricier full-sized iPod with hard-drive storage instead of the Nano's more durable flash memory.
The Nano's 2-inch screen, with the same resolution as its bigger sibling's display, makes pictures look as sharp as any print. Movies are surprisingly easy to watch. You may not want to take in a three-hour epic on this, but the stuff you might otherwise watch on a cellphone will look vastly better on the Nano. You can also plug a Nano into a TV with a $49 adapter cable.
For all its added utility, the Nano remains as easy to use as before, with all controls available through a simple click-wheel dial. Its battery lasts as long as ever, running through more than 26 hours of music playback and six hours of movie viewing.
Its flaws exist at the margins. Its shiny metal backside picks up scratches and fingerprints as easily as the first Nano's did, and some of its interface graphics look pointlessly flashy.
The iPod Touch represents a bigger gamble than the iPod Nano, and it doesn't quite pan out -- in part because of the expectations it raised. It appears to be a thin iPhone with more storage ($299 for an 8-gigabyte model, $399 for a 16-gigabyte unit), but it lacks more than just voice calling.
While the Touch includes music, photo and video playback (but not game support), it leaves out most of the extras that make an iPhone so useful. It has no camera, notepad or e-mail software.