Thursday, September 2, 2010

Highlights and Commentary From Another Apple iPod Keynote

jobsdealThough it didn’t generate quite the mainstream buzz that its earlier iPhone keynote did, you’re probably at least dimly aware of the fact that Apple held its traditional yearly iPod conference yesterday.

None of the announcements were terribly surprising – as usual, a combination of logical progression and the infamous Apple rumor mill divulged almost all of the keynote’s secrets before Steve Jobs ever took the stage. For at least one more year, though, Apple’s blend of showmanship and solid underlying technology means we still have something to which we can look forward. Read on past the jump for the highlights.

iOS 4.1, 4.2

ios41Loyal readers (and you are a loyal reader, yes?) will know how I feel about iOS 4, both via my first-blush review and during my time with it overseas – iOS 4.1, due sometime next week for supported iPhones and iPods Touch, looks to bolster the good while fixing the bad.

Fixes include much-needed speed improvements on older iPhone 3G models and second-gen iPods Touch, accelerometer fixes for the iPhone 4, and some unspecified bug fixes and fine-tuning. I have no evidence to support this supposition, but this should be the mature, relatively trouble-free release of iOS 4 we’ve been waiting for.

The new stuff is a little more fun – Game Center, which was in pre-release versions of iOS 4.0 but stripped out at the last second, looks to bring an Xbox Live-style gaming experience to iDevices. You can have friends, and you can invite them to play games with you. Nothing revolutionary going on here, but it looks to bolster the iPod/Phone/Pad’s respective statuses as alternative gaming devices.

What Apple calls “HDR photos” also looks to improve the photo quality of the iPhone 4 – the camera will now, if enabled, take three pictures in rapid succession instead of just one. One photo will be overexposed, one underexposed, and one normal – the most vivid colors from each will be combined to make one, hopefully higher-quality photograph.

Other additions include TV show rentals and AirPlay, which will allow for streaming content to your iDevice from your computer’s iTunes library.

Jobs also teased iOS 4.2 briefly – this next, iPad-compatible release, due in November, brings the iOS 4.0 and 4.1 features to Apple’s tablet while also adding support for things like wireless printing.

New iPods

Apple announced that its entire line of iPods would be updated yesterday, which is totally true as long as you ignore the fact that the iPod that started it all has been left to slowly wither and die in favor of its newer, sleeker cousins.

ipodshuffleThe fourth-generation iPod Shuffle took a step backward to take a step forward – freed of its weird, headphone-attached buttons, it looks a lot more like the second-generation Shuffle than something new or revolutionary. Addition by subtraction, I suppose. The sole 2GB model is $49.

ipodnanoThe sixth generation iPod Nano is perhaps the most interesting revision, and shows just where Apple is drawing the line – the Nano gets new sexy touchscreen controls and iOS-style icons. It is part of the Future. The iPod Classic stays with its fuddy-duddy old click wheel, and it is going to be put out to pasture as soon as Apple can make a 128GB iPod Touch. The Nano also gains an accelerometer, loses its video camera, retains its FM radio, and sports a supposed 24 hours of play time on a fully-charged battery. The 8GB model is $149, while the 16GB model goes for $179.

ipodtouchFinally, the fourth-generation iPod Touch defines the predictable-yet-still-interesting quality I mentioned in my opening paragraph – it packs most of the non-phone features of the iPhone 4 into a slimmer package, including its front- and rear-mounted cameras, higher-resolution screen, and faster processor. Everyone saw this coming, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a damn impressive piece of technology. 8GB, 32GB, and 64GB models retail for $229, $299, and $399, respectively.

iTunes 10

itunes-10-and-ping-take-on-facebookEvery time they announce a new version of iTunes, the first question I ask myself is “well, how are they going to ugly up the interface this time?” The answer, for the record, is “monochrome icons.”

Even though my home computers have always been powered by Windows, I’ve been a staunch iTunes user since late 2004, and not just because my iPods and iPhones lock me into it. I really do enjoy its ability to organize and quickly search through my music, it’s just that (with the exception of the sublime Genius playlists) I spend most of my time trying to make each new version look and act like iTunes 4.

The main change with iTunes 10 is not in its ability to play music, but in its ability to connect you to music, at least in theory – in keeping with the current zeitgeist, this version of iTunes introduces a social networking service called Ping.

Ping allows you to follow your friends and your favorite artists. You’ll be able to look at the music your friends are digging on, while for your artists, you’ll be able to keep up with new releases and concert information. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea in theory, though I myself have reached critical mass for social networks.

Apple TV, As If You Know What Apple TV Is

appletvDid you know that Apple had a little box that you could connect to your television? It’s called Apple TV, and I’ll bet you didn’t.

Introduced in March 2007, Apple’s little multimedia box has sold mostly to tinkerers and hobbyists, and it has gotten a corresponding amount of love from the company – the device had not seen a major hardware update before yesterday, and its last major software update (version 3.0) came out nearly a year ago.

The new Apple TV has shed about three-quarters of the old one’s size, along with more than half its price – Jobs says the new Apple TV will cost $99 and will fit in the palm of your hand. It features an HDMI port and wired and wireless network connections, and all content is delivered over the Internet in high definition – if Apple TV is the sort of thing you’re into, it looks like an incredible device.

The problem is that Apple TV is not something that everyone is into. The increasingly omnipresent Netflix streaming is here, but for current television shows and movies you must depend on Apple – rental (read: you don’t own this and you watch it on Apple’s terms) of new movies is $4.99, and rentals of new TV shows costs 99 cents. Oh, and also, you’d better not like anything on NBC or CBS or any other channel, because only ABC and Fox have agreed to the 99-cent pricing scheme.

Hulu and Hulu Plus (in which, coincidentally, NBC is pretty invested) are conspicuously absent and will likely continue to be, as Apple isn’t one to give users an alternative to its own storefront. Without that support, the new Apple TV seems best equipped to serve people who already own Apple TVs – the device has not gained much mass-market appeal before now, and I don’t expect today’s announcements to change anything, in spite of the mass market-friendly price tag.


No surprises. Apple again shows why it has an uncontested lead in the portable media player market, while making the hobbyist-centric Apple TV even more appealing to interested hobbyists. Now go place your orders.