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Since its introduction nearly three years ago, the iPod has pulled off an amazing feat that goes beyond squeezing the contents of several shelves of CDs into your pocket. The portable music player has helped transform Apple—from a computer company serving a loyal (but relatively small) contingent of users, to the world’s chief purveyor of legal digital music and digital music devices. Apple hopes to keep the music playing with the latest versions of the iPod—this generation incorporates hardware and software changes that alter the device’s look and feel.

Hardware Happenings

Like previous updates, the fourth-generation iPod is notably different from earlier editions, both on the inside and on the outside.

Click and Roll Apple faced a significant design challenge when it assembled the slim iPod mini—fitting all the controls and functionality of the original iPod’s manual interface on a diminutive version of the music player. Born of necessity, the iPod mini’s Apple Click Wheel now has a home on the full-size iPod (see “iPod Close-up”).

In form and function, the Click Wheel is very similar to the ring of buttons that surrounded the scroll wheels of the first- and second-generation iPods. Gone is the horizontal row of four touch-sensitive buttons introduced in April 2003. Its departure will be welcome news to iPod users who complained that the four buttons were too easy to touch accidentally and too unwieldy to operate on purpose—as well as to people who postponed buying a new iPod for that reason. (Even so, Apple sold more than 860,000 iPods and iPod minis from April to June 2004—buttons and all—bringing total iPod sales to more than 3 million since late 2001.)

With those buttons gone, the new Click Wheel pulls double duty, providing a wheel for scrolling through songs, menus, settings, and the like, as well as a set of buttons. Next/Forward, Play/Pause, Previous/ Back, and Menu controls are on the edge of the wheel, at the three, six, nine, and twelve o’clock positions, respectively; a slight push on the wheel at those positions acts like a button click. Those clicks let you control playback and navigate the iPod’s interface. You make selections by clicking a button in the center of the Click Wheel. (You do have to physically push down this button—it’s not touch-sensitive like the one on the last generation of iPods.) Stan Ng, director of iPod product marketing, says that iPod customers prompted the change; they told Apple that the Click Wheel simplified access to menus and browsing, since it didn’t force them to take their fingers off the wheel to access the buttons.

In a departure from previous models, the latest iPod doesn’t have the familiar all-white design. The Click Wheel is now gray, which Ng attributes to both aesthetics and function. “Our industrial-design team decided on something that looked great,” Ng says. “And from simplicity and ease of use, it brings you directly to it—you know where to put your thumb.”

Better Battery The first two incarnations of the iPod promised 10-hour battery life. That changed last year, when battery life on the third-generation iPod dropped to 8 hours—a change that the device’s more compact design necessitated.

The new iPod reverses the downward trend, with a battery rated to run for 12 hours on a single charge. Apple attributes the longer battery life to several factors. “It is a slightly higher-capacity battery,” Ng says. “But the majority comes from engineering of a new hardware architecture and new software.” Both factors reduce the iPod’s overall power consumption. Like the batteries in earlier iPods—and in any device that uses a lithium-ion power source—the new battery has a finite number of charge cycles (see “Mac Users in a Fix,” Mac Beat, April 2004). Eventually, it will wear out and need to be replaced.

The iPod is still rechargeable via its AC power adapter, its FireWire cable connected directly to a Mac or a PC, or the dock (which is included with the 40GB model or is available as a $39 add-on for the 20GB model). And for the first time with the full-size iPod, you can charge via an included USB 2.0 cable, just as you can with an iPod mini.

A word about the iPod dock—Apple sells a version made specifically for the Click Wheel models. But since the connection is the same as with the previous dock, you should be able to use an older dock with your new iPod. And since the iPod’s dock connection remains the same, most third-party accessories compatible with the previous model should work fine with the new versions.

Curious Capacities The new iPod is available in two configurations, a 20GB model, for $299, and a 40GB model, for $399. These capacities should sound familiar—Apple offered both sizes in the third-generation iPod line, but those older models cost $100 more than their fourth-generation counterparts. That fits with Apple’s pattern of dropping prices on older capacities as production costs fall and new technologies emerge. However, unlike previous iPods, neither new model comes with a remote control or a case—a decision Apple made in order to keep the price down, according to Ng.

This is the first time that the high-end model in a new generation of iPods hasn’t had an increased storage capacity (see “The iPod Evolves”). This is particularly puzzling in light of Toshiba’s June announcement that Apple was ordering the hard-drive maker’s new 1.8-inch, 60GB hard disk. That new drive was expected to be available to manufacturers this summer, making a 60GB iPod an obvious choice to fill the $499 spot not currently included among Apple’s iPod offerings. When pressed for details about a new model based on Toshiba’s 60GB mechanism, both Ng and Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of hardware product marketing, declined comment.

Pod Problem? As this issue went to press, some users of the new iPod had reported hearing static and noise through the headphones whenever the iPod accessed its hard drive—for instance, when the iPod was transferring songs from the hard drive to RAM cache. Such transfers happen when you skip through several songs or listen to more than 25 minutes of music at a time. The cause of the static is unknown; Apple did not respond to several requests for comment.

Under the Hood

The software running on the iPod often gets lost in the glitz of design, hard-drive space, and accessory issues. But it would be a mistake to overlook version 3.0 of the iPod software, since it adds several features that will affect how you use your music player.

Menu Magic iPod navigation has gotten a tune-up. Replacing the ambiguous Browse item of previous software versions is a Music menu (though, curiously, Music also includes an Audiobooks entry). It gives you access to the same Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres, and Composers search methods as before. New to that list is Audiobooks. “We heard [from customers] that audiobooks were a great way to pass the time while commuting or on a plane,” Ng says. “So we made audiobooks [a] category.”

Book Smart The updated software does more than just give Audible-format audiobooks their own menu listing; it also gives you new control over playback speed. The software lets you speed up or slow down audiobook playback without changing the pitch (and making it sound as though you were listening to a tape player running low on battery power, or to a person who had inhaled helium just before the recording session). So this feature should prove useful for speed-listening or for foreign-language instruction.

Like iTunes, the iPod recognizes an audiobook by its file type. If you use a utility such as FileBuddy to change the file type of an AAC file from M4A (unprotected) or M4P (iTunes Music Store file) to M4B (with a blank space at the end), you can change the speed of a song the way you would an audiobook. You’ll also be able to take advantage of the iPod’s audiobook bookmarking feature, so you can continue playing back a song from where you left off (great for long pieces, such as symphonies).

Serious Shuffle Shuffling through a playlist, or an entire iPod, is a fun way to enjoy your music with an element of surprise—it’s like listening to a radio station that plays only music you like. To enhance that capability, Apple added a Shuffle Songs option to the main iPod window. Clicking on Shuffle Songs automatically shuffles all your music—excluding audiobooks—and begins playing. That saves you from having to turn on shuffling in the iPod’s Settings menu and then browsing several levels down in order to select all songs.

Playlists To Go The On-The-Go Playlist feature, which lets iPod users create their own playlists away from a Mac, has been enhanced. Now you can create and save multiple On-The-Go playlists on the iPod. To save an On-The-Go playlist, just scroll to the bottom of the playlist and choose Save Playlist. The iPod will give it a unique name, such as New Playlist 1. Once the playlist is saved, you can start creating an entirely new On-The-Go playlist. You can also delete songs from an On-The-Go playlist: just click on a song in the playlist and hold down the center button.

Polyglot Pod Until now, the iPod has supported 14 languages for displaying song, artist, and album information. The new software doubles that by adding 14 more languages, including Russian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Polish, and Hungarian.

Good Listener One feature not hyped by Apple is the iPod’s ability to sense headphone connection status. If you’re listening to music and you pull the headphone jack out of its port, the iPod will pause. (The same feature also works if you’ve got something else, such as a cassette adapter, plugged into the headphone jack.) Reattaching the headphones does not start the music playing again—you need to do that yourself. If the iPod is in sleep mode or turned off, plugging in the headphones will bring it to life but won’t start playback.

The Last Word

The changes introduced in the latest iPod generation aren’t necessarily elaborate, but they are significant. Unlike past updates, which have introduced new functions or expanded compatibility, these changes seem aimed at improving the overall iPod experience. The new features may not revolutionize how you use your music player—but if you’re an iPod enthusiast, then a new Click Wheel, longer battery life, and key software enhancements should give you plenty to sing about.

Pick to Click: Settings let you choose to hear the iPod's clicks through the speakers, your headphones, both, or neither.
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