Apple introduces fourth-generation iPod

Apple on Monday introduced its fourth generation iPod, revised with a new interface similar to that found on the iPod mini and a new feature called Shuffle Songs. The new iPod also sports a battery that's good for up to 12 hours of use at a time, according to Apple. The iPod is available in 20GB and 40GB capacities for US$299 and $399 respectively.

The iPod's new Click Wheel is similar to the interface found on iPod Minis: It's a continuous-scrolling surface that features five push buttons: a center button, a menu button positioned at 12 o'clock, fast forward and rewind buttons positioned at 3 and 9 o'clock, and a play/pause button positioned at 6 o'clock. Apple said the Click Wheel offers users better one-handed navigation.

Apple previously made available three models of iPods: 15GB, 20GB and 40GB systems, with prices at $299, $399 and $499. The 15GB model has been dropped all together, in favor of 20GB and 40GB models priced at $299 and $399. The fourth-generation iPod's overall dimensions are similar to its predecessor, though it's 1 millimeter (mm) less deep than before.

Apple's iPod has become the system to beat in a market increasingly crowded with competitors that include major PC manufacturers like Dell and home entertainment hardware giants like Sony. Greg Joswiak, vice president of Hardware Product Marketing at Apple, told MacCentral that his company welcomes the competition. "The more competitors we have, the better we do," said Joswiak.

"We started the year with 30 percent marketshare and now we're over 50 percent," he said, quoting figures offered by market research and analysis firm NPD Group.

Apple's decision to effectively drop the prices of 20GB and 40GB iPods by $100 is a savvy strategic move, according to Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox. "Apple has been successful selling higher-priced players but there's a point where you grab all the low-hanging fruit," he said. "By lowering the price point Apple opens up a new opportunity to a different market of buyers."

"It's also a smart move to fend of potential competitors," said Wilcox. "Look at Dell, for example. They're selling a player that costs less and they've even offered a bounty for iPods.

New software features

Gone is the "Browse" menu, now replaced with a "Music" menu. Audiobooks are now easier to find, available from a menu under the Music menu item. And users can adjust the reading speed of those audiobooks to be faster or slower if they prefer.

The iPod's new "Shuffle Songs" feature is a new command that appears in the main menu. Activating Shuffle Songs causes the iPod to shuffle the songs in your active playlist (or all songs on the iPod).

The iPod's On-The-Go Playlist enables mobile iPod users to create their own custom playlists while they're traveling. Another new feature of fourth-generation iPods is the ability to save multiple On-The-Go Playlists.

Some under-the-hood improvements

A new high-capacity iPod is notably absent from Apple's lineup with this release, although hard drive manufacturer Toshiba announced in June a new 1.8-inch 60GB hard disk drive that it said had already been ordered by Apple. That new drive was expected to be available to manufacturers in July or August at the time of its unveiling. When pressed for details about a new model based on Toshiba's 60GB mechanism, Joswiak reiterated to MacCentral that Apple's white iPod line comprises 20GB and 40GB models only.

The absence of a new high-capacity iPod isn't causing concern for Wilcox. "Our survey shows that most consumers have less than 1,000 songs digitized on their computers," he said. "For most users, the iPod mini's capacity is the sweet spot."

The new battery on the iPod is good for up to 12 hours of use at a time. The iPod previously sported a battery good for about an 8 hour charge, under optimal conditions. The improved battery performance is a function of three overall improvements, according to Joswiak. "The battery has a higher capacity, there have been a number of software improvements, and this is fourth-generation hardware under the hood too," he said.

"People want longer battery life," said Wilcox, who noted that Sony's new hard disk-based Walkman boasts up to 27 hours of battery life when playing music encoded at the same bit-rate as iTunes Music Store songs. "What I'd like to see is an easily removable battery; some of Apple's competitors offer that. But that introduces size issues, and smaller size does matter."

Also new to the fourth-generation iPod is the ability to charge its battery through USB 2.0 interfaces. This capability is already present on iPod mini systems, but third-generation white iPods needed to either charge from a FireWire interface or use an included AC adapter to recharge their batteries.

Duke freshmen get iPods

Joswiak told MacCentral that Apple has worked out an agreement with prestigious Duke University in Durham, NC to offer iPods to all incoming freshmen for the 2004-2005 academic year. Incoming freshmen will receive iPods pre-loaded with content related to the University itself, and Apple and Duke have created a special iTunes site where Duke students will be able to download class-related notes and other material.

HP iPod coming in September

In January Apple and HP announced a partnership that would allow HP to sell its own branded iPods, manufactured by Apple. Although HP-branded iPods still aren't shipping, HP Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina noted on Monday that her company would begin shipping its own version of the iPod in September. "We decided to wait for this amazing new fourth generation iPod, as it will offer our customers an even better experience," said Fiorina.

Apple and HP's partnership has already yielded a positive benefit for Apple: Its iTunes software is already shipping pre-installed on a large quantity of Windows-based PCs sold by HP. HP anticipates having the software on over 8 million of its PCs within the first year.

07/19/04 10:30AM: Comments added from Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox.

07/19/04 9:40AM: Updated with comments from Greg Joswiak and more details about the iPod's new features and capabilities.

07/19/04 8:50AM: Updated with more details about the iPod and HP.

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