Lately the iPod world has been buzzing about ThinkSecret’s suggestion that Apple will soon release a 60GB, fourth-generation iPod that sports a color screen capable of displaying photos and album art. Although this alleged $500 iPod offers no removable media port for directly importing pictures into the device, it’s rumored to include a Video Out port for displaying the iPod’s pictures on a television.
Lovely though the notion of carrying 15,000 tunes in your pocket (or fewer tunes and more photos) may be, I’m more interested in how the current iPod measures up against another vendor’s next-generation digital audio player and what existing technologies might bring to future iPods. Let’s begin with what another offers that Apple doesn’t.
For $400 you can purchase an Archos Gmini 400 that includes a 20GB hard drive and a 2.2-inch color screen. The device can display still images (pictures from your digital camera and album art) in jpeg and BMP format and MPEG-4-encoded video. Like the imagined 60GB iPod, it includes a Video Out port. It also offers an Audio Input port for recording line level signals from an external device and boasts an internal microphone for voice dictation.
Unlike ThinkSecret’s iPod, the Gmini includes a built-in Compact Flash reader for loading media directly into the device (you can purchase an adapter for reading other varieties of removable media cards). The add-on remote also acts as an FM radio (and yes, the Gmini can record from the radio). Archos claims 10 hour battery life when the Gmini plays music and a 5 hour charge when you use the device to watch video. It supports MP3,WMA, and WAV file formats (in other words, no support for files purchased from the iTunes Music Store).
So, let’s run the list of extras that are either impossible with Apple’s current iPods or require additional hardware:
Line-in audio recording Built-in microphone Built-in media reader FM radio (with recording capabilities) Picture display Video playback Video Out port
Pretty impressive features, but how many am I anxious to see on the next iPod?
Compare and Contrast
Given that the iPod supports voice recording and picture storage via third-party add-ons, making them a part of the package is a no-brainer. While I love the iPod’s sleek design, I wouldn’t mind the thing being a quarter inch thicker if that meant I could shove a media card into it. Barring that, a USB 2.0 port capable of sucking pictures directly out of a digital camera would be welcome. Likewise, I could live with a few tiny holes punched into the face to accommodate a built-in mic.
I’m less enthusiastic about picture- and video display. My cell phone can display pictures and, frankly, it doesn’t do them justice. Yes, such display would be a boon for digital photographers who care to sort and delete pictures on an external device, but I doubt the majority of iPod users need to do this. And I strongly suspect my optic nerve would issue its intention to resign if tasked with watching the latest Harry Potter epic on a 2-inch screen. Sure, a Video Out port would allow me to watch this same epic on TV, but my laptop, home DVD player, and TiVo make this function redundant.
Because I’m a musician, I often find myself in situations where I’d like to record line-level input into my iPod — record a band rehearsal from the mixing board, for example, or grab something from an audio DAT — but I’m not sure how necessary a feature this is for other people. As for FM radio recording, with all the attention being paid to Podcasting, this makes a load of sense (as long as the iPod allows you to schedule such recordings).
The trick to adding such features is to do it in a way that doesn’t complicate the iPod’s interface. One of the primary attractions of the iPod is its immediacy — you can get some good out of nearly all its features without looking at a single syllable of documentation. Feature-packed though the Gmini may be, I suspect that you won’t want to misplace the manual.
Into the Future
And what benefits might we see bestowed on the iPod by developments in technology?
Japan’s NHJ will offer a 5GB music player — the VHD-550 — that includes built-in Bluetooth for playing audio through wireless headphones. Apple’s done a good job with Bluetooth so far. It would be a lousy protocol for transferring data between a computer and iPod, but how slick would it be to have headphones untethered from you music player? Very.
Toshiba ramps up production of its .85-inch hard drive in December, with large quantities of the drive available in early 2005. Rumored to offer a capacity of between 2- and 3GB, these drives require less power (meaning more play time from an iPod using such a drive) and offer better shock resistance. Shaving a little over .15 inches off the drive also means that an iPod mini could be a bit mini-er.
And speaking of mini-er, now that flash media is coming down in price and increasing in capacity, what’s to keep Apple from making an even smaller (and, hopefully, less expensive) iPod? Nearly everyone predicted that the iPod mini would be cheaper than what Apple eventually offered and many suggested that it might use flash media rather than a hard drive. At that time, however, Apple had little to worry about from competitors. The iTunes Music Store was the only online music service worth a damn and other players were clumsy in comparison to the iPod. Apple’s now got more competition in both areas and it may feel that the time is right to go after the $99 – $150 market. Doing so would get the iPod into the hands of more people, thus helping to ensure the future of Apple’s AAC audio format — a format not supported by any other music service.
And once again, the trick is to design this device so that it’s as easy to use as any other iPod. Loads of companies are making “the world’s smallest MP3 player,” but who wants to try to discern the display on a player the size of an oyster cracker? Smaller isn’t better. Smaller and functional is and if any company can do both, it’s Apple.
Let’s see if it does.