There’s no getting around the fact: Apple’s iPod line—last updated a year ago—was in dire need of a refresh heading into this week’s press event in San Francisco. And Apple provided that refresh in spades, updating all its existing iPod offerings and adding a new music player to the mix.
That newcomer, the iPod Touch, is the subject of its own profile elsewhere on this site. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the changes and enhancements to the existing iPod line—the redesigned nano, the renamed iPod classic, and the more colorful iPod shuffle.
My colleague Christopher Breen summed up the changes to the shuffle thusly:
Indeed, the iPod shuffle saw the fewest changes of any existing model. The only difference is a splash of color—while the silver version introduced a year ago is still around, the colors introduced last January have been replaced.
The iPod nano and iPod classic
If previous versions of the full-size and nano iPods were defined largely by how they differed, the new iPod nano and iPod classic—Apple’s official new name for the full-size iPod line—are perhaps most notable for the ways in which they are similar.
The new iPod classic gains the nano’s black or silver anodized-metal casing—at least on the front; the back is still shiny metal. This should make the classic’s face less scratch-prone, although the combination of anodized metal on the front and shiny metal on the back looks a bit odd at first. (The classic’s headphone jack remains on the top edge. However, it appears that you can no longer output composite video through this jack using Apple’s iPod AV cable; you need to go through the dock-connector port using Apple’s new $49 Component AV Cable or Composite AV Cable, or a dock cradle that supports video.)
The iPod classic gets a smidge thinner than its predecessors, despite featuring considerably more storage capacity: the new 80GB model is .41 inches thick (down from .43 inches for the previous 30GB version) and the ginormous 160GB version is just .53 inches thick (compared to .55 inches for the old 80GB model). On the other hand, the new iPod classic models are imperceptibly heavier, at 4.9 and 5.7 ounces, respectively (up from 4.8 and 5.5 ounces).
The iPod classic’s screen is the same 2.5-inch, 320-by-240-pixel version found on the previous model, but battery life is improved significantly. The smaller model’s battery life jumps from 14 hours of music playback or 3.5 hours of video to 30 hours of audio or 5 hours of video; the cavernous 160GB model gets 40 hours of audio playback or 7 hours of video (compared to 20 or 6, respectively, for the previous 80GB iPod). Apple also now includes three games—Vortex, iQuiz, and Klondike—with every iPod classic.
The new iPod nano is wider (2.06 inches versus 1.6 inches) and shorter (2.75 inches vs. 3.5 inches) than the previous nano; the nano remains 0.26 inches thick. Gone is the 2GB model of the previous lineup, leaving a silver 4GB version and an 8GB version available in the same colors as the new shuffle, although with black replacing purple.
But in many ways the new nano looks more like a scaled down version of the iPod classic than an updated nano. For example, instead of using anodized metal all around, the new nano has a shiny chrome-looking back, just like its larger sibling. The new nano’s 2-inch screen (now half an inch larger, 65 percent brighter, and using the same 320-by-240-pixel dimensions as that of the iPod classic) can also play videos, and the nano now supports the same iPod games as the iPod classic. (The same three games mentioned above are also included with the nano.)
The new nano provides the same 24 hours of audio playback as its predecessor, or 5 hours of video. In addition, it also gains the classic’s ability to output video (TV shows, movies, video podcasts, or photos) to a TV or projector via the dock-connector port, making the nano—as far as we can tell—the smallest gadget ever for transporting video and playing it back on a TV. (You can use the same video cables or dock mentioned above for the iPod classic, and the output is a full 640-by-480 pixels, like that of the classic.)
For those who worried that the iPhone’s recessed headphone jack was a sign of things to come, both the iPod classic and iPod nano have headphone jacks that can be used with third-party headphones without requiring an adapter.
The new nano and classic both feature an improved iPod interface that retains the familiar iPod menu system but adds some fancy visuals. For starters, iTunes’ Cover Flow feature is now available via a new Cover Flow item in the Music menu. Select this item and the iPod’s Click Wheel lets you cycle through album covers. When you find the album you want, clicking the Center button brings up a list of tracks on that album; select a track to begin playback.
A new Now Playing screen looks much like the one you’ll see on the Apple TV —except with a white background—and displays more information: artist, track, album, rating, and track number. Cover Flow felt quite a bit slower to me on the new iPods than it does in iTunes, and I suspect it will have a similar love/hate following, but it’s an interesting feature nonetheless.
Another new visual can be seen on the main menu and in many submenus: the display is split in half with the menu’s items on the left side and a preview of the selected menu item’s contents—music, podcasts, playlists, artists, etc.—shown on the other. When a music-, photo-, or video-related category is selected, the iPod uses the album art of tracks or videos, or the photos, in that category for this display, and you even get a mild “Ken Burns” panning effect. (Does this mean the new iPods no longer have an option in iTunes to not sync album art? We’ll find out once the devices reach retail shelves this weekend.) However, once you navigate down to the actual list of items, the split-screen view is replaced by a full-screen listing that makes it easier to read longer names. A similar preview is shown when navigating the Extras menu; a preview of the selected Extra—for example, the clock or calendar—is shown; when you choose an Extra, you get a full-screen view of that Extra. (The Extras also have more-attractive visuals on the new iPod models.)
The new iPod software also includes a long-requested feature for video-watching: closed captioning. With this option enabled and you play a video that includes closed-captioning information, the text is displayed on the screen. I didn’t get to see this feature in action during my limited time with the new iPods; we’ll provide our impressions in our full reviews of the new models. You also get more options for customizing menus; we’ll have more on that in our full reviews.
My hands-on time with these new models left me with a largely-positive impression. Although the new nano appears a bit squat in pictures, it looks much better in person, and the shorter, wider size feels more practical than the shape of the previous nano—it fits in a pocket better and the wider shape has a better feel in your hand. Thanks to the highest pixel density of any display Apple has ever released, the new screen is stunningly clear and makes it easy to read even very small type. My only initial negative reaction was that the new shiny-metal back will likely be more susceptible to scratching than the all-over anodized-metal finish of the previous nano.
The new iPod classic was less exciting in terms of its new appearance and fewer major feature upgrades. However, two of those improvements—considerably better battery life and a major boost in storage capacity—are welcome changes and should make the classic especially attractive to those who want to listen to large music libraries on the go and away from outlets. I’m looking forward to testing both new models.
Look for our full reviews to appear on the Web shortly.
[ Dan Frakes is Playlist’s senior reviews editor. ]
UPDATE 9/7/2007: Corrected the location of the iPod classic’s headphone jack.