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

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.

Only the updated iPod touch represents a major advance. This WiFi-enabled gadget catches up to the new iPhone 4 in a variety of areas. Its screen offers the same absurdly high 960-by-640 pixel resolution; its faster processor and upgraded motion sensors let it play the same games as the iPhone 4; it includes video-capable cameras on the front and back; most importantly, it adds a microphone.

That last feature allows you to use the new Touch - within areas of WiFi access- as a sort of AT&T-liberated iPhone. Beyond browsing the Web and checking your e-mail, you can place and receive phone calls with Skype and other Internet-calling programs (pity that Google's Google Voice is not among them) and stage videoconferences with iPhone 4 owners and other Touch users in Apple's FaceTime software.

The cameras on the Touch can also record 720p high-definition video, but they're woeful for taking still photos, thanks to their low resolution and fixed focus.

The Touch - since earlier this year, the best-selling type of iPod - starts at $229 for an 8 GB model. That seems like a lot, considering that a 32 GB version only costs another $70 and $399 buys a 64 GB model.

For still more capacity, you'll have to buy the iPod Classic, which remains unchanged at $249 for 160 GB.

While Apple has been tinkering in less-than-useful ways with its media-player inventory, the rest of the market has been evolving. Most smartphones now come with music-playback software that does the basics passably well- certainly as good as the new Nano. With the demise of proprietary "digital rights management" controls on iTunes Store music, the only thing tying you to Apple's music lineup is Apple's iTunes program, which will only sync music to iPhones or iPods.

But Apple's developers seem to have lost their way with the new iTunes 10. Its Ping social-networking feature doesn't connect to other networks - forget looking up Facebook friends - and can't even be used from outside iTunes. It is just as closed and limited as Apple's mediocre, expensive MobileMe data-syncing service.

In terms of performance and interface, iTunes 10 manages the rare feat of fitting poorly in Windows while also looking like a misfit in Mac OS X.

The iPod Touch has considerable potential as a miniature mobile communicator. But as far as music playback goes, the iPod might be nearing the end of its white headphone cord.

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