latest generation of iPods
The annual update - September 2009
The range of iPods is
largely unchanged by this year's new product releases,
apart from higher capacity units, with most changes being
directed towards the Nano series.
Part of an ongoing series on the Apple iPod
and other MP3 devices -
see links on the right for more articles.
With over 220 million units
sold (as of Sept 09) since their introduction, and something like
a 75% market share, the iPod range of MP3 players largely
created and now dominates the market for such devices.
But probably the biggest
excitement at this year's launch event was nothing to do with
the equipment being announced - it was the return of Steve Jobs
as front man.
If you'd just bought an iPod
prior to the new iPod's being announced in September, you should
only have buyer remorse if it was a Nano. Most of the
other new iPods are very
similar to the units they replace, merely with some extra capacity (that
very few people need or use).
Overall, the units offer
slightly larger capacity, and slightly lower pricing, but
The Six Components of the iPod
There are four obvious parts
to the iPod product range, and two not quite so obvious parts.
The four obvious parts are
the four different styles of iPod :
The two more subtle parts of
the range are :
It is helpful to consider
the changes in each of the six parts of the overall iPod family.
I had earlier predicted the
demise of the iPod Shuffle. It had seemed to be too
limited in capability and capacity, and while it served a
purpose years ago (a low priced small size entry level player)
the general sophistication of users and reducing
size and cost of the Nano iPod series has been reducing the
marketplace segment served by the Shuffle.
Apple's response was not to
withdraw the Shuffle, but rather to mildly enhance it. In March
2009 (half way between annual September major releases) they
brought out a new and smaller version of the Shuffle, with a
higher capacity and with its controls now built in to the
headset cord rather than on the unit (which was becoming almost
too small to accommodate player controls.
The new series of Shuffles
announced in September 09 essentially complete the transition from the
earlier mix of what were called second generation (units with
on-player controls) and third generation (headphone controls),
and offer the player in 2GB and 4GB capacities.
The 2GB unit is now priced
at $59 and the 4GB unit at $79.
The concept of adding the
player controls to the headset was controversial to start with,
because it meant you could not use third party headphones
with the player. As you can imagine, you don't get very
good quality headphones included with a player costing about
$50. Third party headphones are now being released with
the necessary control circuitry built in, but this adds to the
cost of the headphones and still limits your choice.
On the other hand, 'serious'
users would probably not choose a Shuffle unit to start with,
opting instead for a Nano or Touch.
Oh - part of the 'new'
product range includes new colors as well. Yawn.
Overall, there is nothing
very new about the Shuffle line, and it continues to be an
underfeatured but very low priced unit that we do not recommend.
The Nano is much better for most people who don't want the extra
size and features of the Touch.
The Nano range of products
continue to have great appeal and the latest gimmicks/gadgets
added to the Nano players - most notably a video camera -
definitely add to their 'wow' factor and 'sexiness'.
We will shortly be releasing
a detailed review of this lovely little device, but for now, the
quick bottom line is this is a wonderful 'gadget' with a range
of clever new features for those of us who want to have
something that does more than just play music.
The Nano line has enjoyed a
good success in the market since its initial introduction,
although it briefly
changed its format with the third generation units released in
September 2007, changing from tall and skinny to short and squat
in an attempt to provide more screen size in a still-small form
Apparently few people liked
the new design, and the earlier tall/skinny design returned in
September 2008, and has been preserved in the latest (what is
termed 'fifth generation') product range announced in September
The new units are available
in two capacities - 8GB (costing $149) and 16GB (costing $179) -
the same capacities as the two units they replace (which were
formerly priced at $149 and $199).
The screen has been made
slightly larger (2.2" diagonal compared to 2" on the earlier 3G
and 4G units) but retaining the same QVGA resolution
(320x240). This is a relatively trivial change,
particularly because the resolution has stayed the same.
However, there are plenty of
other enhancements. The most talked about is the addition
of a miniature video camera that records 640x480 pixel video
(standard television resolution) at 30 frames per second
(standard television frame rate). A microphone has
necessarily been added so you can record sound as well as video.
Here is a sample video (19
seconds, 6.5MB, MP4 format).
Adding this simple little
camcorder transforms the Nano, giving it an entire new range of
functionality. A definite plus.
The Nano now has an FM radio
tuner added to it, and it supports both American and European
frequencies. The tuner relies on the headphone cord to act
as an aerial to receive signal.
It extends on the
accelerometer in the earlier 4G units and now can be used as a
pedometer, giving moderately accurate step counts depending on
where you carry the unit. If you tell the unit your
weight, it converts steps walked into calories burned as well.
Also new to the Nano is a
tiny speaker - this is not intended as a way to play music
normally, but rather as an 'emergency' way to playback recorded
audio or video to check that its quality is okay, and perhaps as
a way of casually sharing/showing something you've recorded to a
friend. The sound quality is of course poor and the volume
level very low.
The Nano is available in
nine different colors.
With the various extra
capabilities, the Nano adds a lot of value and interesting new
features to its latest, fifth
generation, product offering without any increase in the selling
price (although without any decrease either in the 8GB unit).
The Touch range of iPods are
showing the most market growth - where sales of iPods overall
are flat or slightly down, the Touch series is still showing
However, even the Touch
players are under competitive threat - but not from another
brand of product; instead from the iPhone (which the Touch has
evolved from as an 'iPhone Lite').
Basically, there is almost no difference at all between a Touch
and an iPhone, except for three extra features on an iPhone -
the ability to use the unit as a phone, and its built in camera
and GPS capabilities.
Everything else is the same
- both can run the same range of third party applications, both
have Wi-Fi connectivity (which means that you can actually use a
Touch for some types of phone calls when connecting through
Wi-Fi, and both play music and video.
The other big difference of
course is cost. There's not a huge difference in
purchase price, but if you buy an iPhone, you're also committing
to two years of phone service from AT&T at a minimum cost of
about $80/month. If you already have a phone and are
locked into its contract, and don't
need a second phone, or if you just want a basic phone for a
much lower monthly cost, then clearly the Touch is a better
choice than the iPhone.
But if you can get some
benefit from the iPhone's extra features and an AT&T service
contract, it is clearly the
The new range of Touch units
feature a lower priced 8GB unit (now $199) plus two larger
capacity units with twice the capacity of the previous Touches,
but at the same price - 32GB for $299 and 64GB for $399.
These prices contrast with
the iPhone, which sells at prices from $99 for an earlier 3G
model with 8GB of storage, $199 for a 16GB 3GS or $299 for the
Apart from changing the
price and increasing the capacity, there's not a lot of new
features on the Touch units. The two larger units have a
faster processor, but slightly reduced battery life.
To the surprise of most
Apple-watchers, the Touch units do not include a camera -
indeed, one poll showed this to be the most significant part of
the entire release event.
Adding a camera had been widely expected, and looking inside a Touch even
shows a space where a camera was clearly intended to be placed.
It is believed that quality control problems with the camera
units caused them to be withdrawn, and it is expected there'll be a mid-life refresh of the Touch units prior to the
next September major release, with the camera capability being
added to this mid-life new model series. It is also
thought the newer models with cameras will probably sell
for the same price as the current camera-less models. In
other words, if you're thinking of getting a Touch, maybe it
would pay to wait until the newer units complete with camera
Based on the small size of
the space allowed for a camera, it will probably only support video
(the same as the Nano) and not allow for still images. A
fixed focus non-zooming 640x480 video camera can be extremely
tiny, whereas the much higher quality now expected in still
cameras requires more space, both for the lens assembly and the
Apple is starting to
perceptibly reposition how it markets the Touch. It is no
longer being described as simply an MP3/MP4 audio/video player, but rather it is
also being referred to as a 'pocket computer' and as a game
player. In particular, Apple sees the huge range (more
than 75,000) of
programs written for the Touch and the iPhone as a major competitive
advantage, and so is seeking to prominently refer to the wealth
of software available as a reason for choosing a Touch for
purposes well beyond 'just' listening to music and watching
That is all true, but our
feeling is that people who want access to all the other features
and capabilities and software will probably also want the phone
capabilities and so will go for the iPhone. If you are in
a position where you can justify the cost of the AT&T monthly
contract, then you too are almost certainly better advised to
get an iPhone rather than a Touch iPod. If you do choose
the Touch, remember that it will likely be re-released within
the next six months, and this time complete with video camera
The iPod Classic is
increasingly the dinosaur of the iPod range, having been
technologically obsoleted in most respects by the growing
capabilities of the Nano and Touch units.
However, Apple has chosen to
again extend the life of the Classic, and has released a new
unit that is virtually identical to the previous version, with
the only difference being an increase in hard disk capacity, up
from 120GB to 160GB, now at a $249 price point (the earlier
120GB unit was most recently selling for $229).
Interestingly, there had
earlier been a 160GB model which was discontinued in September
2008, when the Classic range was reduced from two units (80GB
and 160GB) to only one unit, a 120GB based player. Now the
Classic range remains as a single unit, but with 160GB of
capacity again. One suspects that the reason for these
slightly strange shifts in capacity may be related to the
availability of appropriate 1.8" sized hard drives to be
incorporated in the units.
The Classic unit these days
is a paradox, with little appeal to anyone. The large
160GB capacity is way more than almost anyone would need for
simple music storage, and instead suggests use for storing
videos. But the small 2.5" diagonal screen with low
resolution (320x240 pixels) makes video playback very
disappointing, and not nearly as satisfactory as on the Touch
and iPhone (both of which have a 3.5" diagonal screen with
We suspect that, barring any
upset in flash memory capacity and price trends in the next
year, we will see the September 2010 lineup finally eliminate
the Classic model, replacing it instead with a 128GB Touch,
probably priced around the $400 level. This would be
almost the same capacity as a Classic, but with all the extra
features and potential of the Touch, and a vastly better (but
still inadequate) video
screen to watch video on.
For now, unless you really
need the extra storage for music, there's no reason to consider
The iPhone has a different
annual release schedule, with new models being announced in
June/July rather than September.
As discussed above in the
section on the Touch, there is very little difference between an
iPhone and a Touch. The first Touch unit was released in
September 2007, after the iPhone's launch in June 2007, and the
new generations of each unit track each other reasonably closely
in terms of capabilities.
We mention the iPhone here
merely to record the fact that the iPhone does double duty as an
excellent state of the art iPod as well as its obvious phone and
other capabilities. It is the best solution for many
people, particularly when you add a supplementary external
battery (such as our favorite, the
Mophie Juice Pack Air) which
means you can happily use up as much battery as you like playing
music and video and still have a backup for when you continue to
use the unit as a phone).
An unavoidable part of
owning an iPod is the need to load your music and other content
onto the iPod through Apple's iTunes program. This
program, alas, adds as much hassle as it does convenience, and
its dreadfully intrusive copy protection makes it difficult to
share music between computers and iPods.
A new version of iTunes was
also announced at this time, but with no improvements to the
rigid straitjacket copy protection/digital 'rights' management
(in Orwellian doublespeak, the 'rights' refers to your non-rights).
This is particularly regrettable because Apple itself is
shifting from selling copy-protected music to unrestricted
Also absent was any
improvement in how iTunes can manage music that doesn't
conveniently fit within its predefined structure of music track
as part of an album which is all done by one group/performer.
This structure, while working acceptably well for popular music,
completely fails with classical music. If you are looking
for a piano concerto by Beethoven, how will you ever find it if
it is on an album called 'My favorite music', and even if you
can find it, the combination of a pianist, an orchestra and a
conductor is all way too much for iTunes to handle, categorize
Fortunately, there are third
party alternatives to iTunes available. Here's a
list of alternative programs for you to consider if you find
iTunes too restrictive or intrusive.
Some improvements to how
iTunes recommends music (its 'Genius' feature) and a new feature
allowing you to stream and play (but not copy!) music from one
computer to another in your local area network (called
'sharing') was also added.
The Genius feature has now
been added to recommend new applications as well as recommending
music. With over 75,000 different applications available
for iPhones and Touch iPods, truly many/most applications are
irretrievably lost and impossible for most potential purchasers
to find. Hopefully this might help, but so far, its
recommendations are strange and stupid.
Should you Upgrade (or Buy for
the First Time)?
If you already have an iPod,
there are few if any 'must have' new features added to the
Shuffle, Touch and Classic iPods. But the Nano - with
video camera, microphone and FM radio tuner - has become
considerably more feature rich.
This isn't necessarily a
reason to junk your older iPod and replace it with a new Nano,
but it might encourage you to, ahem, pass your older Nano on to
a friend or family member and get a new unit for yourself.
And if you've been thinking
you'd like to get a low priced basic personal camcorder, then
the Nano's combination of basic camcorder and all other iPod
functions may prove to be a compelling temptation.
Otherwise, there's nothing
particularly compelling in the new lineup, and for people
wishing personal video players, the small and low resolution
3.5" screens on the Touch (and iPhone) remain too small for
convenient and quality viewing of video.
And if you're considering a
Touch, it might be best to wait until the newer Touch units
emerge complete with built in camcorder capabilities.
Microsoft Zune - Still Not a
Microsoft first released its
Zune product in November 2006 (see my
review) and at the time, there was a lot of anticipation, as
well as a reasonable degree of 'forgiveness' on the part of
reviewers who accepted the inadequacies of the first generation
Zune, but who anticipated (and hoped - the iPod desperately
needs a strong competitor) the product would vastly improve in
The Zune has been regularly
updated since then, and on 15 Sep 2009 Microsoft announced what
is considered to now be the fourth generation of Zune players.
Up until that point, the Zune has languished as an irrelevancy
in the marketplace, having somewhere between a 1% and 2% market
share. Most companies other than Microsoft would probably
have given up on the product range well before now.
The new Zunes fall sort of
midway between the Nano and the Touch. They are Nano-like
in terms of having limited functionality beyond the core ability
to play music and video, and they are Touch-like in terms of
having some Wi-Fi capabilities, and a touch screen, and are
priced comparably. The 16GB Zune lists for $220 and the
32GB Zune is $290, which closely compares with the Touch with an
8GB for $200, 32GB for $300 and 64GB for $400 (there is no 16GB
The Zune boasts 'high
definition' video. It truly can play better video than the
Touch, but this difference is only apparent if you are
outputting the video to an external monitor. While the
screen on the Zune uses a brilliant OLED display which gives
amazing richness and increased contrast to its colors, it is
both smaller (3.3" diagonal rather than 3.5" diagonal) and lower
resolution (480x272 compared to 480x320) than the Touch.
The HD video claim is good for brochures, but in real life,
we're very unlikely to ever choose to load HD video onto the
player in the first place, and so should be ignored as an
irrelevancy when considering if one should purchase the Zune or
The Zune is smaller than an
iPod Touch (2.1" x 4" x 0.35", compared to 2.4" x 4.3" x 0.33")
and lighter as well, not that weight is really an issue with
either unit (2.6 oz compared to 4.1 oz). Battery life is
comparable, and both units have a sealed non-user-replaceable
Who would buy a Zune rather
than an iPod Touch? I've no answer to that question.
I can't clearly see a single relevant attribute where the Zune
significantly outscores the iPod, whereas on the other hand, the
iPod is massively better than the Zune in many respects - a much
better user interface, a much better web browser, and an 'open
architecture' that currently has over 75,000 applications
written for it (compared to about half a dozen for the Zune).
Some die-hard Microsoft
enthusiasts may continue to give Microsoft the benefit of the
doubt, and may continue to hope for a better Zune that truly
will trump the iPod in the future. But this - the fourth
range of Zunes - is no closer to matching/beating the iPods now
than were the first unsuccessful Zunes back in 2006.
Apple's new iPods continue
to improve in terms of features and value, although this
positive evolution is in line with the general reductions in
Although there are four main
product lines within the iPod family, these days the Nano and
Touch ranges should be considered as the two key product lines,
with the Shuffle and Classic ranges being largely obsoleted and
maintained merely to give Apple a 'defensive' position at the
bottom and top of their product ranges, keeping competitors at
The new Nano players with
extra features are very tempting, but if you prefer the Touch
unit, keep in mind that it really is no good as as video player
and for most people, the iPhone may be a better choice than a
The new Microsoft Zune
players, announced a week after Apple's announcement still do
not effectively compete with the iPod products.
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18 Sep 2009, last update
26 Aug 2018
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