The fourth-generation iPod isn't significantly smaller than its predecessor, nor is it clad in flashy colors, as rumors would have it. Apple, however, has made marked evolutionary improvements to the iconic digital audio player. The adoption of the intuitive Click Wheel (as seen on the Mini), the vastly improved battery life, and a few key firmware enhancements are simply the icing on the cake. The real news here is the iPod's lower price: $299 and $399 for the 20GB and 40GB versions, respectively. Do these ingredients add up to a perfect iPod? The third-generation iPod received major accolades for its sleek form factor and feather-touch backlit buttons. But sporting the same glossy white face, reflective silver backside, and a light-gray Click Wheel, the new model is the iPod at its most minimal. The latest version, available now in 20GB and 40GB capacities, improves upon an already impressive design.
The newest iPod is slightly thinner than its predecessor, measuring 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.57 inches and weighing 5.6 ounces. But the most noticeable new attribute is the Click Wheel, which adorns the megapopular . Gone are the four buttons located just beneath the display, which--as most users of the last iPod would agree--were hard to identify, inconsistent to the touch, and often difficult to access with one hand. Instead, they are now ingeniously integrated into the touch-sensitive wheel and reminiscent of the original user-friendly iPod. The new design allows your thumb to stay put rather than having to stretch upward, and you get tactile feedback with each press of a button. Though this iPod has more movable parts, it provides better user satisfaction. Fans of the previous iPod's pretty orange lights will have to do without them in this version, as the Click Wheel doesn't light up when activated. If there is a potential design issue, it's that the Click Wheel doesn't seamlessly blend in with the body. We noticed a tiny millimeter-size gap at the bottom of the Click Wheel on two of our review units--not a major concern, although tiny granules could get lodged underneath.
This iPod's Click Wheel features the same accelerated scrolling as the previous model's, so we were able to whip through several thousand tunes in mere seconds and maneuver with precision between individual songs. The unlabeled multifunctional button in the middle of the Click Wheel typically acts as the Select control.
The crisp, bluish-white-backlit display remains the same, measuring 2 inches diagonally with a resolution of 160x128 pixels. Likewise, the headphone and remote jacks, the Hold switch, and the dock connector haven't been modified.
One noticeable item missing from the now entry-level 20GB package is the dock. Although not a deal breaker, the dock is still a convenient element in the iPod experience. Obviously a cost-cutting measure by Apple, the dock is now available as a $39 accessory. However, the 40GB version ships with one.
Two other items that have been accessorized are the remote control, which now sells as the iPod Remote and Earphones and the carrying case, each of which are available for $39. While these items have been eliminated from the 20GB version, the iPod now includes a USB 2.0 cable, with which those using USB 2.0 now have the ability to sync and power the iPod. Otherwise, the rest of the package ships with the same accessories: earbud headphones, an AC adapter, and a FireWire cable. The iPod's playback features are all accessible and programmable from the customizable main menu, which now includes the popular Shuffle Songs option. Apple has also swapped out the Browse option for the simpler Music option. You can browse by song, artist, album, genre, playlist, composer, and now Audible audiobooks. Users who love the iPod menu's clicking sound can now hear them through their headphones.
And the On The Go function--one of our favorite recent additions--now enables you to create multiple playlists even when the iPod isn't attached to a computer. Furthermore, the software update allows you to delete songs from playlists.
The smart-playlist function lets you rate a song on a scale of 1 to 5 while it's playing; higher-rated songs come up more frequently during shuffle. Mac and Windows users can also rate songs from within iTunes. The software includes access to the , which sells downloads for 99 cents per tune and $9.99 per album. One more great playlist feature: You can set playlist updates from iTunes--a nice combination of convenience and control.
One of the primary reasons for the iPod's success is its seamless integration with iTunes. Once you connect the device to your computer, iTunes starts up and can automatically sync the iPod with your music collection. The player supports MP3, AAC, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and AA files, the last of which currently has 5,000 titles that can be purchased directly from the iTunes Music Store. In addition, iPod Software 3.0 allows you to adjust playback speed of Audible files without affecting the pitch, though you can't do the same with other audio files. This is a useful feature for those who want more control over spoken-word content. Unchanged is iTunes' ability to resample songs to a certain bit rate, apply volume leveling (a.k.a. normalization), and digitally enhance songs while transferring them.
As with other versions, this iPod will mount as a FireWire hard drive so that you can store personal data in addition to audio files. For those interested in expanding its features, the iPod is compatible with the Belkin and media reader. The voice recorder adds a microphone and a 16mm speaker for capturing WAV and AIFF files, which then transfer automatically to your Mac or PC during syncing. The media reader turns the iPod into a digital photo wallet. The module lets you pull images from your digicam's CompactFlash, SmartMedia, SD/MMC, or Memory Stick media to make more room for new photos without having to upload the previous batch to a computer.
Three more treats remain untouched: an alarm clock that can beep or play the song of your choice through a home stereo; games (in the form of Brick, Parachute, and Solitaire); and the ability to play tunes from the iPod's hard drive while it's connected to your computer (so that you can delete your music collection from your computer's drive to free up space).
While the updated list of features impressed us, we're still waiting for useful innovations such as a built-in MP3 encoder or, better yet, a wireless component to tie in with the recently announced . Perhaps the biggest performance claim by Apple is the improved battery life of up to 12 hours. That's 50 percent--or 4 hours--longer than the previous iPod's. CNET Labs was able to hit nearly 14 hours in its standardized drain procedure. This is a major improvement, thanks to the combination of a larger-capacity battery, upgraded internal electronics, and more efficient power-saving features in the software. Apple wouldn't get specific, but the new iPods boast entirely new chipsets, which is why third-generation models can't utilize the fourth-generation firmware. According to Apple's Web site, the battery charges in about 4 hours (about 80 minutes longer than the last iPod), and after 2 hours, the cell will be at 80 percent. An Apple spokesperson clarified this, saying that recharge time is only 3 hours when using FireWire, though the process over USB will take longer. Our tests split the difference, with a full FireWire charge taking 3.5 hours to complete.
New chipset and all, the iPod's sound quality remains great. Apple won't release the signal-to-noise ratio, but the player sounds quite clean to our ears, and it's better through the dock's line-out jack, which bypasses the device's volume circuitry. It's also more than loud enough, even through our test headphones, outputting 30mW per channel.
Although slightly slower than the previous generation's transfer rate of 6.9MB per second, the new iPod's numbers came in at a brisk 5.2MB per second over FireWire (equivalent to about one song each second) from Macs and Windows machines. At this point, we attribute the slower transfer speed to the iPod's new chipset.