When Apple unveiled a new batch of digital music gadgets this month, the major release was supposed to be an "iTunes phone" that could play songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes Music Store. But its big news turned out to be something a lot smaller -- the iPod Nano.
This tiny digital music player, barely 1/4 inch thick and weighing a scant 2 ounces with its headphones, is roughly the size of a candy bar and about as hard to turn down. It packs in almost all the functions of the model it replaces, the iPod Mini, while adding a bright, sharp color screen and a few extra programs.
The Nano comes in two colors, white and black, and two sizes: a $199, 2-gigabyte model and a $249, 4-gigabyte version. (A 4-GB unit actually clocked in at just over 3.7 GB.) Its ingenious "Click Wheel" control lets you select commands and whirl through hundreds of tracks -- tunes ripped from CDs or purchased from iTunes Music Store, as well as podcasts and audiobooks downloaded from iTunes -- with a tap or wiggle of your thumb.
The Nano's flash-memory storage, unlike the hard drives used in regular iPods, has no moving parts to suffer from skips. The Nano even kept playing after suffering a fall hard enough to cause half the iPod's screen to go blank.
Apple advertises the Nano's battery life as 14 hours, but my test unit ran one hour longer.
This gadget's color screen, 1.5 inches diagonally, reproduces enough detail to make viewing album cover art or your digital photos -- automatically copied to the iPod by Apple's iTunes software -- pleasant. Unlike full-size iPods, however, the Nano can't plug into a TV to show your snapshots on a larger screen.
The iPod Nano carries a bag of other tricks beyond music playback. Like other iPods, it can store addresses and appointments (although the test Nano took its time opening a calendar that spanned several years), plus text notes. It also includes a world clock and stopwatch/timer programs and a nifty utility to lock and unlock itself.
People who see and touch the Nano tend to fall into something of a swoon. But some may not find as much to like -- and not just the executives of Apple's competitors.
For one, music can be transferred to a Nano only via a USB connection -- which means that FireWire users or those whose computers have only the older and slower USB 1.1 ports will spend a long time waiting for their music to transfer from computer to Nano. (Apple was still shipping computers without the faster USB 2.0 ports in spring 2004.)It took most of an hour to copy 1.5 gigabytes of music via an iMac G4's slower USB 1.1 link.
The iPod Nano is also pickier in its stated system requirements, Windows 2000 or XP and Mac OS X 10.3 or 10.4. Older iPods also accept OS X 10.2. (Note that the Windows iPod software defaults to sharing your e-mail address with Apple.)
Because the Nano lacks a remote-control jack, many iPod accessories won't work with it -- although it does use the same dock connector as other iPods.
And the iPod Nano's rechargeable battery, hidden inside its sealed case, can't be easily replaced by users. Apple charges $59 for battery replacement -- although by the time any iPod Nano will need that service, after a few hundred discharge-and-recharge cycles, Apple will probably be selling versions that store 20 or 30 gigabytes of music.
The longevity of the Motorola Rokr E1, the iTunes phone Apple showed off, isn't nearly as certain. This fusion of Apple's software and Motorola's hardware -- sold only by Cingular for $250, with a two-year contract -- is a mobile mediocrity, phenomenally unworthy of the hype built up before its arrival.
The Rokr isn't even the first phone to play songs downloaded from a major online music store -- phones with Microsoft's Windows Mobile software already do that. It is the first to support iTunes, but it does so about as awkwardly as possible.
Copying music from your computer -- either Windows 2000 or XP or Mac OS X 10.3 or 10.4 -- will take about an hour, thanks to the phone's poky USB 1.1 plug. (Although Motorola couldn't be bothered to add a USB 2.0 connection, it did find the time to put in speakers that provide all the thump of a clock radio.) The iTunes software in the Rokr accepts only 100 songs, even if the phone's 512-megabyte memory card can hold more. And you can't download songs over the air to the Rokr, should inspiration strike while you're away from your computer.
Without a Click Wheel, controlling iTunes on the Rokr requires flicking a tiny joystick back and forth -- then waiting as this program haltingly moves from one screen to the next. The phone's screen doesn't just dim but shuts off if you don't touch its controls every two minutes or so -- although the Rokr is smart enough to pause music playback when a call comes in.
Even as a phone, the Rokr is a bit weak. It offers excellent battery life -- 161/2 hours of music playback -- but it buries its Bluetooth wireless capability so deep in its interface that it took me a week to stumble across it. It leaves out any software to synchronize a Windows PC's address book, though Apple's built-in iSync software can do the job on a Mac.
To go with the iPod Nano and the Rokr, Apple released iTunes 5, the latest edition of its digital music program. (The old 4.9 version also supports these new models.) Beyond offering a refreshed, slightly more angular appearance, iTunes 5 can group playlists inside folders, allows more ways to focus a search and shuffle songs for random playback, provides parental controls to block access to explicit songs in the iTunes store (or to the store itself), lets you store song lyrics, and adds a more efficient "variable bit rate" advanced audio coding format to its menu of CD-importing choices.
In addition, the Windows version of iTunes 5 can synchronize Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express contacts files and Outlook calendars to an iPod. But if you run a current version of Outlook, you'll have to click past numerous security warnings before iTunes can get your schedule on your iPod.
More awkward moments ensue when you try to manage your music library, since iTunes 5 lumps podcasts in with songs. One of its most important settings, the CD-importing format, now lurks behind an "Advanced" heading in the Preferences window -- and you'll want to double-check this after upgrading, as the new software alters some custom MP3 format settings.
Some Windows users have reported more serious, systemwide issues with installing iTunes 5; Apple announced last week that it was working on a bug-fix update to the Windows version.
Since the first iPod, Apple has maintained an impressive winning streak in the music business. Sloppy releases such as iTunes 5 -- not to mention outright duds such as the Rokr -- can put that in jeopardy. But as long as this company can invent products with the art and utility of the iPod Nano, it should continue to be successful.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.
The iPod Nano, Apple's replacement for the iPod Mini, has 2 or 4 gigabytes' worth of storage and, with no moving parts, is more durable than its predecessors. The 2-gigabyte version retails for $199.