With new line of iPods, smaller isn't always better

For the technophile in your life, these items are must-haves.
By Rob Pegoraro
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 7:05 PM

The iPod isn't even nine years old. But that's been enough time to dull the marvel of a pocket-size device that costs less and holds more music than many CD racks.

Each year, Apple's lineup of media players gets a little smaller, and each year the results - while evidence of some extraordinary engineering - don't make quite the same case for upgrading from an older version.

The latest crop of iPods, introduced Sept. 1 at a media event in San Francisco, show that a miniaturization mind-set still rules at Apple. But they also show that gadgets can be too small.

Consider the most compact of the new lineup, the iPod Shuffle. It's a wafer of a device, less than an inch and a half on each- and unlike its immediate predecessor, this one includes a set of physical buttons to control playback.

But on this model, $49 for about two gigabytes of flash-memory storage, there's almost no room outside those controls to undo the clip without pressing the previous-track button. Using its clever "VoiceOver" spoken-word interface (which gets around the lack of a display by reading titles of songs and playlists to you) requires pressing a tiny, unlabeled button.

Like every Shuffle but the first version, the new Shuffle relies on a non-standard variant of Apple's already-proprietary iPod cable; try not to lose it.

The even more problematic iPod nano ends a history of steady improvements to this flash-memory player. Although this year's model - $149 for an 8 GB version, $179 for 16 GB - is smaller than its already-tiny ancestors, it had to sacrifice their elegant, efficient ClickWheel controls to fit into a case only about two inches on each side.

In their place you'll find a touch-sensitive screen that looks terrific standing still but can be a mess in daily use. Numerous actions require skipping back and forth between menus with gestures of varying intuitiveness - forget using it without looking at the display. Its nearly-square shape also means you're likely to find yourself looking at a sideways screen until you flip the display into the correct orientation with a two-finger gesture.

Past Nano models have made good running companions, but forget about this one - even if it incorporates a nifty pedometer application and supports Apple's Nike+ run-tracking technology. In the winter you'll need to remove your gloves (or buy special touch-screen-friendly models) to tap any of its icons.

The new Nano also nixes not only the older unit's ability to record video, a defensible move, but also its video-playback options. Considering all of the features jettisoned from this model, it almost looks like a research project that was meant for focus-group testing but somehow escaped to volume production.

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