How Apple Hits Replay Again

This week, Apple introduced slimmer iPod media players.
This week, Apple introduced slimmer iPod media players. (By Andrew Harrer -- Bloomberg News)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Want to discourage somebody from buying an iPod? Don't talk up other companies' media players -- just suggest that Apple will ship a new iPod soon.

In its almost-seven-year lifespan, the iPod has often changed form and function as Apple has scrapped old versions to give this gadget new capabilities. Not all of these experiments worked -- few folks seemed eager to pay extra for the iPod Photo -- but this company has generally managed to keep customers excited about what's next.

Apple's latest updates arrived last week. It yet again redesigned the iPod Nano, long the best-selling model, to make it a far more useful video viewer. It gave the larger iPod Touch a badly needed price cut and some useful hardware tweaks and delivered what could be the last update to its iPod Classic.

The new Nano (available in nine colors, at $149 for an 8-gigabyte model and $199 for a 16-GB unit) could be mistaken for the one Apple sold two years ago. But it's thinner, especially at its edges, and features a much larger screen. And it hides an accelerometer that, like a Nintendo Wii controller, responds to how you hold the thing.

When you tilt the Nano on its side, the image on its screen flips automatically from portrait to landscape mode, providing much more room for viewing photos, videos, TV shows and movies. (With music on, turning the Nano sideways brings up the Cover Flow view of your library, as a list of album covers -- and, annoyingly, stops the Click Wheel dial from adjusting the volume.) Hold the Nano upright, so the screen is on top, and the display reverts back to portrait mode.

This clever trick allows this year's Nano to pack the same size screen as last year's model into a smaller and lighter package.

That accelerometer also lets you shuffle music with a vigorous shake of the Nano. But this giggle-inducing option can come into play uninvited -- people who wear iPods while exercising may want to turn it off.

A more serious addition to the Nano makes it accessible to users with impaired vision: A "spoken menus" option pronounces the name of each item on the screen.

The year-old iPod Touch got a less notable refresh. The best thing Apple did here was trim its price from $299 to $229 for the entry-level 8-GB unit; the Touch's 16- and 32-GB versions are now $100 cheaper, at $299 and $399.

Apple also added physical volume buttons to the side of the Touch, remedying a big usability defect.

The iPod classic got the least consequential update of all: more storage, a 120-GB hard drive, at the same price as the old low-end model, $249. Considering how cheap the sturdy, compact flash memory used in the Nano and the Touch is getting, it's easy to see Apple retiring this model in a year.

All of the new iPods incorporate a new music-browsing feature, Genius, that finds songs to complement the current track. (Apple's iTunes 8 software -- for Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5 or Windows XP and Vista -- includes a Genius mode of its own that also suggests new music to buy from the iTunes Store.)

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