Apple underwhelms with new iPod, a few upgrades

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - Here's what Apple announced Tuesday: a new iPod Nano and a fresh scheme to sell you more songs.

The rest is just fancy packaging wrapped around window dressing. Oh, and Apple's God-like CEO Steve Jobs assured us he wasn't about to leave this Earth.

Apple did cut prices and added storage capacity on some models, but refreshing the product line has been happening on a fairly regular basis since the iPod was first launched in 2001.

The new Nano looks nice but I liked the previous model, which everyone called the "fatty" because of its squat shape. Now Apple has gone back to its origins with the Nano and delivered a taller and thinner device.

This year's new iPod news was not nearly as interesting as 2007's, when the iPod Touch was introduced.

Here's what's new:

A software update for the iPhone. Jobs said the iPhone 2.1 software will address some nagging problems, such as crashes and a battery that drains faster than a bathtub. It will be available for download on Friday.

New headphones. No, not replacements for the ones that ship with the iPod (keep dreaming) but in-ear models, priced at $79, that will compete with higher-end models from a slew of other makers. I've said it often that the best way to improve the sound of an MP3 player is to spend a little on headphones; I'll let you know how Apple's offering compares to others. They will be available soon.

Updated Touch. It's thinner and comes with built-in volume controls, not just touch controls for the music. That's a likely improvement, as is including a built-in speaker. Otherwise, it's a touch-screen device that looks the same.

Three versions are offered: 8GB for $229, 16GB for $299, and 32GB for $399. The memory is the same but the prices are $100 less. Again, this pricing strategy is typical for Apple: cut prices while offering a few more features.

Classic. Apple discontinued the 160 GB and 80 GM Class iPod, and instead will offer only the 120 GB version for $249.

Genius. Here's the money scheme. Genius is a feature built into the new iTunes 8 software, available now. The good: Genius creates playlists based on songs in your music library "that go great together," Apple says. The bad: It will recommend similar songs you may purchase on iTunes.

I love these so-called preference engines, where the software learns what music you like. Check out Pandora.com for a great - and free - example. But I don't like the shilling to buy new music. I, admit, though, I'm anxious to try Genius to see how Apple determines the songs "that go great together."

The new Nano. The most important bit, of course, is that it comes in nine "vibrant" colors as Apple seeks to reinforce its relevance among high school girls. Long and thin, like the first two versions of the Nano, the "4th generation" model features curved aluminum and glass. It has a 2-inch display and is Apple's thinnest iPod to date.

An added feature is the accelerometer. That's used on the iPhone and Touch, and that bit of technology helps the device understand its orientation, such as horizontal or vertical. Movies and other features - there will certainly be games - will adjust accordingly. Also, the accelerometer will automatically shuffle songs when the device is shaken. Cool. It's on sale now for $149 (8 GB) or $199 (16 GB). The "fatty," which has been discontinued, came in two models, 4 GB and 8 GB for the same pricing.

Then there was Jobs' health issues. In June, while introducing the new iPhone, Jobs appeared "gaunt," according to one report, and helped spark a sell-off in Apple shares. Jobs is a cancer survivor and did look thin Tuesday, despite being his usual energetic self.

He acknowledged those concerns and rumors during his presentation. "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," flashed on a screen behind Jobs. That was a jab at a pre-written obituary accidentally posted by a wire service recently. After taking the stage, Jobs added, "Enough said," according to reports.

Later, Jobs told CNBC that "I'm doing just fine; I'm healthy," yet added he could "stand to gain 10 or 15 pounds."

We sometimes joke about Jobs and his bigger-than-life personality, but there are few people in American business as interesting. We wish Jobs many more entertaining, and sometimes less than interesting, days in front of a big crowd showing off his shiny new gadgets.


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