Musically Speaking

As I'm a mere four days away from indulging my ears in audio nirvana with Linkin Park's new album, I'm (still) gnawing over Apple's newly-refreshed lineup of iPods. This year's batch is perplexing and, quite frankly, I never expected the Click Wheel to go out with such a whimper. CEO Steve Jobs said at last week's music event that the new iPods were "the best ever", but I'm not so sure. "Hyperbole" is Steve's middle name, after all. Let's review:

  • iPod shuffle. The fourth-generation iPod shuffle is the new old model. The buttonless third-gen player was so reviled that Apple relented and put buttons on the thing again. As an owner of  second- and third-gen models, I can attest that while I didn't have any qualms about the former's buttons, I actually liked the latter's design. I thought it was pretty clever of Apple to put the controls on the headset. The ergonomics feel right that way, at least to me. Especially if the shuffle is supposed to be the iPod of choice for the athletically inclined. This year's iteration does cost less ($49), but you only get 2GB of storage space. Surprising that Apple didn't include a 4GB version as an option.
  • iPod nano. What happens when you slap a Multi-Touch display on an iPod shuffle? You end up with the sixth-generation iPod nano. It's the most radically remixed iPod of the lot. Gone is the video camera, the Click Wheel, and video playback. Make no mistake: if you really want to "touch your music", this is the player for you, because essentially music is all the little guy does anymore. It looks cool and some of the gestures are cool, but it's overpriced ($149 and $179 for 8 and 16GB capacities, respectively) and that 1.5" display is awfully small to manipulate with your fingers or see what you're doing. Looking forward to playing with one next time I visit Mecca the Apple Store.
  • iPod touch. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perhaps the best way to describe the new iPod touch. It's got FaceTime, the A4 chip, Retina display, and iOS 4.1, but it's what it doesn't have that's most glaring. Chief among them is the camera. While it does shoot 720p HD video and has the same front-facing cam as the iPhone 4, the rear one is of inferior quality for still photos. 0.7 megapixels! A lot of people were very unhappy upon finding out about this little caveat. For something to be "the iPhone without the phone", it's totally unacceptable to me that Apple resorted to using such a crappy system. A spokesman for the company addressed this by saying that a larger module wouldn't fit the slim confines of the player without compromising its figure. Now, as far as I know, nobody's ever complained the iPod touch was too thick, so I don't see any practical reason Jony Ive and friends had to make the thing thinner, if only to say they can and did. Granted, I love Apple's penchant for thinness and industrial design as much as the next person, but if that thinness is achieved at the expense of higher-quality components, that's not a worthy trade-off, in my opinion. Having said that, camera specs be damned, the overall value of the iPod touch is undeniably positive and will likely -- yet again -- sell like gangbusters. Just make sure you pocket a decent point-and-shoot for those impromptu photo ops.
  • iPod classic. Steve lied when he said every single iPod got a makeover this year. The iPod classic sure didn't. It still holds 40,000 songs on a spinning-platter hard drive. $249 for 160GB. And it's got a Click Wheel. Not much else to say here. It's still a very capable player, but with it not being updated, I'm left wondering when the funeral's being held.
  • iTunes 10. Still bloated. New logo. Apple released iTunes 10 to the masses last week, too. The biggest new feature is Ping, Apple's social-networking tool for music. I like the concept, but it's kind of lame in its current state. I might sign up once they iron out the wrinkles and add some more functionality, but I don't feel real compelled to jump in at this point. Next year, though, I hope they consider a name change. iTunes clearly isn't just about music anymore.

... All models are shipping now in cute-as-a-button little boxes. Stocking stuffers, indeed.