By Steven Levy
Veteran Podsters understand that at least once a year Apple performs a feat that at once infuses them with dread and delight: an iPod upgrade. The delight comes from a new look and new capabilities. The dread comes from the realization that you’re a step behind the cutting edge and must consider whether to buy your way back on it.
And here it goes again. The considerably tweaked fourth-generation iPod will roll out this week, and NEWSWEEK got an advance peek. It looks a bit different, operates more efficiently, has a few more features and costs less. Here are the highlights.
The click wheel. The iPod keeps getting slimmer and more streamlined. While the initial version had a relatively boxy feel, subsequent versions have been curvier and smaller. This one is about a millimeter thinner and, more significantly, eliminates the control buttons that sat under the display screen. Instead, it uses a “click wheel,” where the controls are placed on the compass points of the circular touchpad that lets you scroll through menus. This is an innovation carried over from the diminutive iPod Mini. “It was developed out of necessity for the Mini, because there wasn’t enough room [for the buttons],” says Steve Jobs. “But the minute we experienced it we just thought, ‘My God, why didn’t we think of this sooner?’ ”
More efficient menus. There’s less thumbing required to get to your favorite stuff. “Music” is a first-level entry, and now a single click initiates the popular technique of shuffling your library for playback.
New features. You can create multiple on-the-go playlists and delete songs from those ad hoc mixes. And audiobooks are not only easier to find, you can listen to them at normal speed, slower or 25 percent faster, without its sounding like a Munchkin.
Longer play. Coast-to-coasters rejoice: the new iPods are rated for 12 hours of rockin’ between chargesâ€”a 50 percent boost in battery life. This is accomplished, Apple says, not by a heavier battery but diligent conservation of power.
Lower price. The top-of-the-line iPod, holding 10,000 songs (40 gigs, as geeks will tell you), now costs $399. The lower-capacity model, with room for 5,000 songs (20 gigs), costs $299. That’s a $100 price reduction for each. (There’s no more 15-gig model.)
Color. Fuggedaboutit. Despite rumors to the contrary, the wide-bodies are still as pure as the driven snow.
Bottom line: If you have yet to jump on the iPod bandwagon, it’s cheaper and more attractive to do so. If you’re already plugged in, the question is whether you should engage in the “iPod Bump,” where you snap up the spiffy new version and pass Old Reliable to a grateful friend or family member (or the highest eBay bidder). If your music collection has exceeded your iPod’s storage space, or your listening binges exceed your current iPod’s battery lifeâ€”or if you want to hear Bill Clinton’s abridged book in 4-1/2 hours rather than sixâ€”consider the Bump this time around. Of course, if your heart went aflutter at the very sight of this year’s model, you’re probably in line at the Apple Store already.
Â© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.