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Apple iPods (Late 2009): iPod shuffle, iPod nano, iPod classic, iPod touch

Life is good when you're the market leader, but as products mature, they also pick up more and more extraneous functionality and, as a result, become more complex. Such is the case with Apple's industry-leading iPods, one of the most popular consumer electronics products of the past decade. The iPod started off as a single, Mac-only model that featured a black-and-white screen, 5 GB of storage, and Firewire connectivity. Today, the iPod consists of several very differentiated player models as well as ancillary products like the iPhone, the Apple TV, and even the AirPort family of wireless access points.

To keep the iPod on a torrid sales pace (well, at least until this year), Apple has expanded the product family and added tons of functionality over time. Today's iPod lineup consists of the iPod shuffle (no screen or traditional button-based controls), the iPod nano (full color, scrollwheel control), the iPod classic (full color, large-capacity hard drive, scrollwheel), and the iPod touch (touchscreen, with an applications platform). But those four iPods don't tell the whole story. Within those four products are four very different control schemes. The iPod shuffle must be controlled via voice or a specially-made headphone set or headphone adapter. The iPod nano sports a modern version of the classic iPod interface, with features like Cover Flow and an integrated video camera. (The iPod nano also supports the shuffle's voice interface.) The iPod classic hasn't been appreciably updated in two years and sports an older version of the classic iPod UI, but not voice control or a camera. And the iPod touch includes what many, myself included, take to be the future of iPod UIs, one that is based on the iPhone (but, curiously, doesn't not include an integrated camera or voice control.)

Sound like a mess? Welcome to the iPod family, circa late 2009. Sure, they're still the best digital media players around, for the most part. But it's getting harder to easily pick the right model, and with high-quality competition like the Zune HD coming, it's no longer the sure bet. Let's see what Apple has on deck for this holiday season.

iPod shuffle

Who it's good for: Extremely budget-conscious shoppers only

Who should avoid it: Virtually everyone else

My rating: 1/5 STARS

When Apple introduced its iPod lineup for late 2008, it curiously decided to carry over the previous generation iPod shuffle but then replace it with an all-new model in early 2009. I wasn't impressed with that still-newest version of the iPod shuffle, and I'm still not. For late 2009, little has changed. Now, you can choose between 2 GB ($59) and 4 GB ($79) versions of the iPod shuffle in five colors, as well as a 4 GB "Special Edition" model that costs $99. This represents a price increase from last year, since you could get a 1 GB old-school shuffle for $49 previously.

Last year, you could make a passing argument that the iPod shuffle made sense in certain scenarios, such as for joggers or others who like to work out to music. But with the iPod nano picking up voice control, this is no longer the case. And I see absolutely no reason to recommend an MP3 player without a screen and on-board controls. This thing is just pointless, in my opinion.

iPod nano

Who it's good for: Virtually any fan of digital audio, photos, or music

Who should avoid it: Those with voluminous music collections

My rating: 5/5 STARS

The iPod nano is the only iPod to receive a notable makeover this year, and yet this "new" model is still very much an evolution of last year's device. The basic form factor is the identical, year over year, though the 2009 model get a much larger screen, which is very much appreciated. It also gets a slew of additional functionality, making it the near-perfect small form factor iPod. All it's missing is the touch screen from the iPod touch and compatibility with the App Store. But if you're looking for a pure media device--it now excels at TV show and movie playback in addition to music--this is the way to go.

The nano is a wonder of size and weight, or rather a lack of it. The device seems impossibly thin, and impossibly light as well. So much so that maybe getting a case for the thing is a advisable if only to make it more substantial feeling and less easy to lose.

Thanks to the larger screen, music, videos, photos, and podcasts are better than ever. New features like an FM radio (with DVR capabilities; take that Zune) and a video (but not still) camera round out the major new features. The video camera is unimpressive, however, and while it shoots at 640 x 480, the quality is lousy. I was originally not a big fan of its position on the device--it's on the bottom not the top--but because the nano has an accelerometer, you can simply flip it around and use it as you will. Nice!

If there's another complaint to be made about the nano, it's that it is incompatible with Apple's wonderful Apps Store. Those applications work fine on the iPhone and iPod touch, but not on the nano, and since the Apps Store opened, development of "classic" iPod games seems to have concluded. And the storage sizes aren't great on the nano, thanks to its small size.

iPod classic

Who it's good for: Only those with the largest music collections

Who should avoid it: Those that wish to enjoy movies, TV shows, or other visual content

My rating: 3/5 STARS

As the last bastion of the original iPod line, the iPod classic hasn't gotten an appreciable upgrade since the first one appeared two years ago. Since then, we've gotten only a couple of storage bumps, to 160 GB, and price drops, to $249. Basically, the iPod classic has been abandoned, but Apple keeps it around to satisfy the people with really large music collections. That's smart, but you have to think that the advent of a 128 GB iPod touch would spell the end of this product line once and for all. It's only a matter of time.

iPod touch

Who it's good for: Virtually anyone

Who should avoid it: Those who are uncomfortable with touch screens or need more storage

My rating: 4/5

Apple originally had big plans for the late 2009 iPod touch: It was going to include the same video camera capabilities as the iPod nano. But a production issue prevented that from happening, and what we're left with is a weird iPod touch model that is half-way between last year's version and what would have happened this year. But that's OK. Assuming you don't care about the video camera--and honestly, the quality is lackluster at best anyway--this year's iPod touch is the best yet. And if it weren't for its lack of voluminous storage, it might arguably be the best iPod ever. It's that close.

So what do we get this year? Virtually everything you know and love about the 2nd generation (2G) iPod touch carries over to the late 2009 models: The same form factor, screen, touch interface, and buttons. What has changed, however, is the processor and graphics processor, at least for the "real" late 2009 iPod touches, which comes in 32 GB ($299) and 64 GB ($399) versions. (In a disappointing trend of late, aimed at "proving" that its products are not overpriced, Apple is selling a previous generation 8 GB iPod touch for $199. Do not get this model, as it does not feature the faster processing capabilities of the new versions.)

The new processing capabilities are carried over from the iPhone 3GS, which was launched earlier this year. They provide, among other things, faster application boot time and general performance improvements and, in the future, a new generation of 3D video games that will not work properly (or at all) on older iPod touch devices.

As the iPod touch moves up the food chain from a storage standpoint, it will eventually replace the iPod classic completely. And the application availability on the iPhone is simply superb, giving users a chance to enjoy the amazing iPhone Apps Store without paying an expensive monthly wireless access fee. As Apple notes, the iPod touch is an excellent iPod, pocket computer, and portable game player. It really is a legitimate triple threat. And it's a wonderful, wonderful device. Even without that camera.

Final thoughts

The late 2009 iPod lineup is perhaps the most addled yet, but I expect to see things smoothed out over time with a truly new video camera-equipped iPod touch in early 2010 and the eventual discontinuation of the iPod shuffle and classic products. Regardless, Apple has a mature and capable product that is a wonder of our time, especially for those companies foolish enough to try and compete with them. While the Zune platform in some ways exceeds what Apple has accomplished with its iPod/iTunes/iPhone ecosystem, no one can touch the Cupertino company from a broad perspective. Sure, it's all about lock-in. But what a wonderful way to go.

The iPod touch and iPod nano are highly recommended. I don't recommend the iPod shuffle at all. And the iPod classic is a fine old-school player for those with massive music collections only.

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