News

IPod getting away from the basics

Eric Benderoff [Chicago Tribune]

In most respects, this review affirms how mighty Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod remains.

Yes, the iPod still works seamlessly with the iTunes software for fast music transfers.

Yes, the new iPods are a nice, if unspectacular, improvement.

And, yes, competitors who hope to squelch the iPod's market might face a difficult battle.

But with new services, including movie downloads, Apple is starting to stray from what made the player and software package top-notch. It is beginning to give us too much content and, in the process, may start slipping from what it does exceptionally well -- providing a great music experience.

With music, the new products provided the usual excellent experience. However, when it came to navigating the upgraded iTunes store, frustration crept in much faster than it took to download a film.

I like the improvements made to the iTunes software that sits on your computer to manage your digital entertainment.

The library of content -- music, podcasts, videos and, now, movies -- at the top left of iTunes makes finding your stuff pretty easy. Album art has been more tightly integrated with your music collection as well, making the experience of looking for songs more visual.

When you plug in your iPod to a computer, iTunes breaks down the type of content you have loaded -- music, videos and other -- and tells you how much space is devoted to each. This is helpful in managing your iPod, considering that one movie equals roughly 400 songs in terms of space.

But I had nagging problems with the iTunes store. A service I once delighted in using to find new music has become an online bazaar of digital content, with TV shows, podcasts, audio books and games and movies, that is increasingly frustrating to wade through.

More troubling, I can't access the store nearly as fast or as reliably as I once did.

At home and on my office computer, when I clicked on the iTunes store sometimes it opened quickly, while other times it took a few refreshes. Once opened, those pauses and lack of a quick connection happened when moving from item to item. Sometimes previews of music videos or movies played flawlessly, and other times not all.

The iTunes store is optimized for high-speed Internet use. Apple recommends iPod users have high-speed connections, and with this version of the iPod it no longer ships the iTunes software on a CD with the device. Rather, users need to download the software directly from Apple.com.

For me and countless others, this is a problem because not all high-speed connections are the same. And if you use dial-up, don't even bother.

Connection speeds are most evident when trying to download a movie. While I doubt I'll ever make a habit of watching a movie on a 2½-inch screen, I do know I don't want to spend hours trying to download a movie, as I did last week.

My home DSL connection comes with a lower price for what's called high-speed light. If I spent more, I'd have higher speeds. But it's fine for downloading music from iTunes. I get songs in minutes and an album in roughly 10 minutes.

But movies take much longer. Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, says a movie can be downloaded in 30 minutes, assuming you have a 5-megabyte download connection.

I don't, and suddenly that's a conundrum. Do I upgrade my Internet connection and spend $20 more a month to switch to a cable modem so I can download a movie to my computer and watch it on a small screen? And why would I want to give the cable company more money if I'm already paying extra for premium movie channels?

Yes, people do want to download movies to watch on a laptop or beam to their TV. And I talked to a few folks that did not share the problems I experienced.

Apple, like other online movie services, allows you to start watching a movie on your computer before it finishes downloading. But you have to wait for the download to finish before transferring it to your iPod.

Still, playing music is what the iPod does best, and there are nice touches in the new line of products. I tested a 4 gigabyte Nano and an 80 gb iPod, but not the Shuffle, which has seen its price cut nearly 40 percent.

I downloaded the iTunes software onto my work computer to test a blue Nano with a Windows computer. After I burned a few CDs and downloaded some free podcasts, the content transferred quickly in to the Nano.

The Nano comes in five anodized aluminum colors -- silver, green, blue, pink and black -- and three storage choices, 2 gb, 4 gb or 8 gb. (Note: not all colors are available in all sizes.)

The new Nano is slightly longer than its predecessor and just as thin. The corners are squared, not rounded as in the first line. The scroll wheel is the same, while the screen is brighter and slightly easier to read. It's a nice upgrade, but there is no reason to buy one if you have last year's model.

Likewise, the new 80 gb iPod looks like last year's model, and the only real changes are more storage and a brighter screen.

I tested this model on my Apple iBook laptop to see how long it would take to transfer all my digital content -- 2,875 songs, 1,706 photos, a dozen music videos, one game and one movie. The transfer took 40 minutes.

That's quick enough, particularly when you consider that such a large iPod effectively doubles as a back-up storage device for your digital content.

Watching the movie "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," was about what I expected: an OK experience if you are stuck waiting for a plane.

There are several nice touches to the Nano and the iPod. Both models include a volume lock to prevent a youngster from turning the sound up too loudly and potentially damage hearing. A four-number combination sets the lock.

A search function has been added as well. Using search, you scroll through the alphabet to spell a word. The software then seeks the matching song or artist, narrowing down the choices as you input more letters. This is handy if you have thousands of songs on your iPod.

There are some annoyances as well. Besides no longer shipping software with new iPods, Apple also stopped including foam ear covers for its headphones. The headphones were redesigned to provide a better fit and improve the sound -- hard to tell the difference in both cases -- so Apple felt the foam covers were unnecessary.

I'm mixed on that since those foam covers quickly go missing anyway. But it continues a trend that Apple started a few years ago. The iPod once shipped with a battery charger, a remote device for volume control and a hard case to protect the iPod.

Hence, Apple keeps giving us a little less with each iPod, save for increased storage, but keeps adding more content to sell.

It's worth noting because as Apple focuses less on music, it opens the door a bit more for a competitor to make some noise

___

© 2006, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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