Improvements to iPod line lost in shuffle
A few interesting things were overlooked last week amid the uproar over the iPhone's sudden price cut: Apple Inc.'s new line of iPods.
The iPod Touch is a direct descendant of the iPhone, which should appeal to anyone who likes the iPhone's fabulous touch-sensitive navigation. It will be worth a long look later this month when it goes on sale, even though its 16 gigabytes (and $400 price tag) may not satisfy iPod fans with sizable music and movie collections.
Those folks will want the ridiculously large and newly named 160 gb iPod Classic, priced at $350.
So, considering those breakthroughs in design and storage, it would be easy to overlook the revamped iPod Nano. Don't, because this snappy little gadget offers the same cool features, more actually, first used on the iPhone in a remarkably small and familiar package. The only difference is that navigation is by scroll wheel, not touch.
The Nano is available in two versions, a 4 gb silver model for $149 and the 8 gb version offered in five colors for $199.
I've been using an 8 gb version and I quite like what Apple has done. Like the iPhone, it is another gadget you want to touch. It is small enough to sit in the palm of your hand yet so thin that when you slip it into a pocket you could forget it was there.
Frankly, it's so small you could drop it into an envelope and mail it across the country for about the cost of a first-class stamp.
As for appearance, the Nano looks like an iPod Classic but much smaller. It is as if someone put a Classic into that gizmo in Willy Wonka's Television Room that miniaturizes things.
Like its brawnier sibling, the new Nano now plays video. The 2-inch screen (measured diagonally) is surprisingly bright and easy to watch. Apple says it is 65 percent brighter than the previous Nano, and I wouldn't dispute the claim. It shows videos, photos and album art quite well.
Could you watch an entire movie on the Nano? On a plane, sure, but you probably wouldn't at home unless the cable was out.
A great feature is the new menu screen. Along the left side sit the standard menu choices - music, videos, photos, podcasts and a few others - but on the right, as you scroll down, you see images of your content. That could be album art if "music" is highlighted, or a picture of your kid if "photos" is selected. The images change randomly every few seconds.
The inclusion of "cover flow" is nice too. On the iPhone, you use a finger to virtually flip through album covers. Here, you use the scroll wheel. It is more fun with a finger, but flowing through album art is still nice with the scroll wheel.
As you scroll , you can click on an album cover to get a list of all the songs found on that album. Click on one to hear the music.
For those who like to improve the sound of the iPod, which I strongly advise, I have two ideas that should be heard.
First, Niles, Ill.-based Shure Inc. (www.shure.com) is introducing a pair of $99 sound-isolating headphones, the SE110s, that are worth getting yours ears into as soon as possible for two reasons:
The sound is considerably superior to what Apple includes with each of its products. You will hear details in the music you may have missed before.
More important, these are what is known as in-ear headphones, or what Shure calls sound-isolating earphones. That means when they are in your ear canal - they go deep, but comfortably - you will hear nothing else, only music.
If the phone rings, you won't hear it. If the dog barks, he will think you are ignoring him. If the person on the bus next to you chats incessantly into a mobile phone, you won't care.
With Apple's earbud-style headphones, and many others like them, listeners compensate for such external noises by turning up the volume. That is not healthy for your ears.
The sound is the main driver here, and you won't be disappointed. No, they don't compare with Shure's E500 line of headphones, which sell for about $500, but this new line is a nice entry for a sub-$100 price point.
There's a bonus for iPhone users too: These are among the first pair of after-market headphones that fit into the iPhone's peculiarly designed headphone jack. Add Shure's $40 music phone adapter and you can make and receive calls while wearing these.
The SE110s will be available Sept. 17 at Apple, Best Buy and other retailers.
Also coming to Apple stores in mid-September is an iPod speaker system from high-end audiomaker Bowers & Wilkins (www.bowers-wilkins.com). The Zeppelin, which will be priced at a hefty $600, provided an immediate improvement in my home on two fronts: sound and style.
I placed these relatively heavy speakers (they weigh 16½ pounds; definitely not for the beach) on the top of my living-room computer cabinet and they immediately improved the look of that furniture. It didn't hurt the decor in the rest of the room, either.
They look more like a kayak to me than a zeppelin, measuring 25 inches from end to end and about 8 inches tall in the middle. They are black, with a silver stand that holds an iPod dock. The new silver Nano looked right at home and quite fashionable perched in the dock.
For my first test, I streamed music through these speakers from my laptop via Wi-Fi. I'm not sure if it was how well designed Apple's Airport router is or how well the engineers at Bowers & Wilkins designed the guts of the Zeppelin, but my iTunes music software recognized the Wi-Fi connection with the unit almost instantly, filling my living room with warm sound. Very easy and very pleasant.
One drawback: I almost couldn't do this test because Bowers & Wilkins does not include a connector cord to attach the Zeppelin to an Airport router. I happened to have one laying around, but since these speakers cost $600, throwing in a generic cable should be a no-brainer.
For the Nano, I simply set it into the dock and pressed play. Out came the rich sound.
The Zeppelin would look great in a loft or a home library. It's a stylish sound system that doesn't take up too much room but delivers satisfying results. Much like Apple's new Nano.