The New iPods: A Rational, Post-RDF Analysis

Note: AtAT2 Editor-in-Chief Paulo Rodrigues puts on his serious face to discuss the new iPods released this week.
"5.5G" iPod
The newest video iPod is an under-the-skin revision that gains better battery life for videos, a brighter screen, more capacity in the high-end model, and a lower price. A decent feature bump, no doubt, but otherwise, the 5.5G iPod is little-changed from the 5G iPod released a year ago. The white model's fundamental design: silver back, white front, squarish screen above and wheel below, is essentially identical to the original iPod released 5 years ago. Its iconic design, which looked weirdly cool in October '01 and hipper than anything in Summer '03, now seems almost dated. Black-finish models have helped give the design legs, but can't help forever. Price drops have helped too. Five years later, the new top-of-the-line iPod is now $50 less than the original iPod and only $50 more than the cheapest 3G model from when its popularity exploded.

Today's 5.5G iPod is filled to the rim with features that would spin the head of any 1G iPod. A bright, sharp color screen, video playback, photo viewing, long battery life, and huge drive capacity have all been added to the iPod in increments over the past five years. However, the ever-expanding feature set has pushed the iPod out of its original market for many. Consumers looking for a simple and easy-to-use portable music player are now typically better served by the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle.

What the iPod needs now is a new "killer app" that will drive prospective Nano/Shuffle buyers back to the big daddy. With the iTunes Movie Store, many are expecting video playback to be that app. Maybe, in the future, that dream will come true; on the 5.5G, it's not quite ready for prime time. Disagree? Watch The English Patient on that 2.5 inch screen, and then we can discuss it.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to dish hate on the iPod. In its market, it's the best game in town. As full-featured music players go, it's the best out there, and at $249, it's now value priced. Kind of like a minivan.

2G iPod Nano
The key to the design of the new iPod Nano is the implementation of what worked well in the previous Nano (flash storage, small size) and the elimination of what went horribly wrong (rhymes with matches breezily.) By reverting to the iPod Mini's scratch-resistant aluminum case design, Apple thwarts a customer attrition problem from those frustrated by their 1G Nanos that scratched to the point of being unusable. It also reminds Wall Street once again that this is the new Apple, the Apple that actually learns from its mistakes and moves forward.

The design of the new Nano is sleek and fresh--an iPod mini on a Fresca diet--if not groundbreaking. It's still the same basic size and shape. Like the 5.5G iPod, the value equation of the 2G improves significantly with a doubling of storage capacities vis-a-vis the 1G nano. It also sports a dramatic boost in battery life to 24 hours, an improvement that should, in theory, make battery replacements less necessary for aging Nanos.

The pricing structure of the Nano is, shall we say, curious. $149 for a 2GB in Silver. Okay. $199 for a 4GB in Silver, Green, Blue, or Pink. Sure. $249 for an 8GB in Black. Whaaa? From a marketing standpoint, it doesn't make any sense to restrict the 8GB model to one color. I'm not complaining about putting a higher price on Black. Apple can and clearly does pull off charging premium prices for premium colors. (See my article Black MacBook to Paris Hilton: I'm hot. for more on that.)

However, it's not like the black MacBook has a 4 GHz processor. 8GB of storage capacity in a thin, light flash player is a big deal, and it does not make sense to pitch a hot new capacity in a single, ostensibly polarizing color, while offering more choice in lesser Nanos. Never mind that you can now get a black 8GB Nano and a black 30 GB iPod for the same price. Just think of all the affluent girly-girls who would surely want a Pink 8 GB model. Maybe there are supply issues with high-capacity flash memory. Maybe Apple has an ingenious master plan. We'll have to wait and see.

At any rate, while it's really an evolutionary redesign at best, the 2G Nano nevertheless brings the best features of the Mini and 1G Nano together to make what looks like Apple's best midrange iPod to date.

2G iPod Shuffle
This is the one new iPod that's really exciting. The old Shuffle was a pretty neat product that was inexpensive and had great sound quality, but was overshadowed when the Nano and especially its $149 model came out. The new Shuffle blows them both out of the water and into orbit. It's a stunner.

Not much larger than a dollar coin, it's less than half of the size of the original Shuffle, while not sacrificing any capacity or battery life. With a slickly integrated clip, the 2G Shuffle sports an industrial design that says "whoa, nice remote, so what kind of player do you have?" Weighing less than the fat in a Filet-o-Fish, the 2G Shuffle w/clip should prove a most convenient way to take music with you, dispensing of the need to lug an armband or carrying case.

The new Shuffle is not without compromises. With no space for a USB plug, the 2G Shuffle actually runs USB backwardsly into its headphone jack, requiring a special USB-to-miniplug dock for syncing and charging. This reduces the shuffle's utility as a USB flash drive, though most users probably won't mind. It also remains to be seen if the new shuffle sports the same excellent audio quality as its predecessor.

Still, at only $79, it's only a bit more expensive than the, er, iPod Radio Remote, and comes with Apple's new $29 headphones. Only $79 for a music player with art-house design and unrivaled portability? I'll take mine in Silver.


At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, isn't the new iShuffle 1GB not 2GB as reported in this story?

At 11:44 PM, Blogger AtAT2 said...

2G = 2nd Generation, and you're right.


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