A Week With The New iPods

After spending seven days living with our new iPods, we're gonna let them stay. As far as media-slinging sidekicks go, they're pretty good. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows.

iPod Touch: Multimedia Life-Partner

It's easy to say that the new iPod Touch is the best iPod Touch ever. (It is.) It is impossibly thin - so thin that you release a slow gasp as you peel it out of its snug acrylic womb. The way the polished chrome back bends space around it renders it thinner still, like you're holding a screen imprinted into the air in front of you. (At least until it's scuffed and scratched and nicked into reality.) You only get a true sense of its dimensions when you plug it in for the first time: It's exactly thick enough to accommodate the holes for a dock connector and headphones.

The price of invisibility is that the lock and volume buttons also dissolve into imperceptibility. The in-line remote and mic have been removed from the headphones as well, in a fit of cheapness by Apple. A sliver of a corner to cut, but it's emblematic of the little ways Apple sabotages the Touch's potential.

That said, the new Touch comes closer than ever to being a true iPhone-without-a-phone - ;HD video recording! FaceTime! Retina Display! Yet Apple uses lower-quality parts all around to keep it from being just that: The "Retina Display" is a noticeably lower-quality panel; blacks fade into shimmery greys at even slight viewing angles. It only has 256MB of RAM, half as much as the iPhone 4. That's just strange, given Apple's emphasis on silicon-scorching games as the Touch's primary function and that previous Touches were at least on par if not faster than their iPhone counterparts.

The rear camera is disappointing, even if it is a concession to the physics of thinness. Too wispy to house the 5MP shooter from the iPhone 4, still photos don't even amount to a megapixel. HD video isn't quite as good. It's hard not to long for an iPod Touch with the iPhone 4's camera that could replace the low-end point-and-shoots, Flip cams and dumbphone cameras that line the bottoms of bags and pockets.

The Touch's biggest limitation: connectivity. Or rather, the lack thereof. We don't live in a world of ubiquitous Wi-Fi, so the iPod Touch is aching to be connected more often than it actually is. Without being tethered to Wi-Fi, there's no Maps. No FaceTime. No Skype. No Safari. And there's no 3G data option like there is with the iPad.

But when Apple reshuffled the iPod line-up, the new Touch assumed a new role. It's not the expensive, fancy iPod. Or the cheap, gimped iPhone anymore. It's the iPod.

iPod Nano: Prime Player, Crazy Potential

Apple's iPod Nano 2010 is a good MP3 player. It's tiny, the battery seems to last forever and it has a great user interface.

This is the best pure music player out there right now, thanks to the combination of its physical specs and user interface. It may not be the prettiest - it reminds me of some Chinese generic MP3 player designs - but the combination of its hardware and user interface make it a winner for anyone in search of a simple, ultra compact, no-complex-apps-or-games-needed, extremely easy-to-operate music player. Especially sports people.

This thing is tiny and ultra light. Large enough to allow for easy touchscreen operation but very thin at 0.35 inches - including the clip. At only 21g, I forgot where it was clipped to my clothes until I needed to change a playlist. It lasted through three days without recharging one single time.

The fact is that, like with the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod Touch, the Nano's hardware is getting generic, almost invisible, condensed into a slice of glass and metal. The iPod Nano is the last incarnation of the morphing computing paradigm, a 1.54-inch 240x240-pixel touchscreen that is just platform for its software.

The only concession to the physical world are three physical buttons, two of them a very welcome addition: I could change the volume level without having to look at any screen. This is not only coherent with the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, but it makes sense, unlike the previous Nano's scroll-the-click-click-the-click-wheel operation.

Securely clipped right on my bike's handlebar, right in front of me, I could easily change the volume too. Most importantly, I could easily access any function on the Nano with a single finger, even while riding through the park. That's the main advantage of this new design: The user interface is fast and works perfectly. I was afraid the screen would be too small for the format, but it works.

Even while the Nano is not iOS-based, it takes the iPhone's user interface and miniaturises it successfully, down to the garish waterdrop wallpaper - which fortunately you can change. From the scrolling springboard system - flick your finger to reveal new panes with applications and shortcuts to music playlists or artists - to the dancing icons that allow you to configure those panes in exactly the way you want, it works like the iPhone.

It could work more like the iPhone, though: I want applications, which undoubtedly will happen at one point. Not complicated applications, but simple apps adapted to the small format. Apps to check the weather or replacements for Nike+, tailored for other sports. I want connectivity too - although I'm not wild about depleting the device's insane battery life with a power-hungry 3G radio. I want a camera for FaceTime.

The only bad thing: I can hardly justify the $199 price tag of the Nano. After all, I use my iPhone for music all the time, I always carry it with me and I don't bike that much. But for those of you who don't use their mobile phones for music and want a light, specialised gadget with a simple-to-use interface, you will like this one.

The New Shuffle: Control Freak

Admitting you were wrong is not easy. But with the 2010 iPod Shuffle, Apple's owned up to the previous generation's follies in the best possible way: fixing them. Mostly.

This new Shuffle, this little square nubbin of an MP3 player, is equal parts retreat and evolution. Gone entirely is the BIC lighter styling of its immediate predecessor. In its place, a truncated version of the 2006 Shuffle, buttons and all. It's that last part that's crucial.

You'd be hard-pressed to place the 2010 iPod Shuffle in the same genus as last year's model based on looks alone. The two next to each other look like Abbot and Costello - long versus squat. The new guy measures 1.24 inches wide by 1.14 inches tall by 0.34 inches thick, with a control wheel that's almost exactly the diameter of a quarter. It weighs just under 15g, light enough to be essentially imperceptible - to the point that you may forget you have it clipped to your shirt pocket until halfway through an important meeting, like I did.

[Photo credit: Macworld]

It's really all about the control wheel, though. If you don't have much personal experience with last year's Shuffle, don't worry! You weren't missing out. The biggest gripe, bar none, was its lack of on-board user controls. Entirely. And while the mini-monolith form factor had its own appeal - sort of - having to use Apple's crappy earbuds to play, pause, skip tracks and adjust volume was a nightmare.

In this new Shuffle, though? Form and function, baby. Everything you need for navigation is on the device's face, while extra goodies like VoiceOver, battery indicator, playback mode and headphone jack all co-exist peaceably on top. Everything else is gleaming aluminium and rounded edges, in your choice of five Icee Pop colours.

Design complaints? If I had to pick a nit, the clip fulcrum is too close to the edge of the Shuffle, making it hard to attach and detach without skipping back a track. Honestly, though, this had practically zero actual use implications for me. I clipped the Shuffle on before pressing play and stopped the music before I unclipped. I'm having a hard time thinking of a scenario in which you'll want to do otherwise, but heads up if that seems like something you'd be into.

It's not that Apple scrapped last year's model entirely. They kept the brains, the interface, the sheer usability that - physical control issues aside - made the audio interface the third-gen Shuffle's redeeming quality.

Press down on the Shuffle's top button once and VoiceOver kicks in to give you a track listing. The synthetic voice isn't overly mechanical and has been expanded to support 25 languages (11 more than last year). It handles complicated words well and I actually found its stumbles - read: "Blink One Hundred and Eighty-Two" - kind of endearing. It's a great feature, decently executed, without much changed from last year.

Two pushes of the top button gives you battery life. And an extended press lets you switch between preloaded playlists, Genius Mixes, podcasts, etc. The level of effort, from a quick press to a long one, corresponds nicely to the immediacy of what you're trying to do.

The 2010 Shuffle's listed at 15 hours of continuous playback and lasted closer to 14 when I left it rocking unattended. That's more than a full day and more than enough. Understandably, there's no room here for a dock connector, so hold on for dear life to the headphone jack-compatible USB connector that comes in the box.

What's missing? A display and everything that comes with it. An FM tuner. WMA compatibility. More than 2GB of storage. And if you want any of those things (well, except for WMA), you'll be much better served by the Nano.

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