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Underwhelmed by iPod announcements

Matt Rosoff offers some instant reactions to the music-related news and enhancements to the iPod and iTunes.

I'm following Tuesday morning's Apple event, and while HD TV and NBC's return to iTunes are nice, this blog's about music. So here are some instant reactions to the music-related news:

Genius playlists. Select a song, click this feature, and you'll get a playlist from your collection of similar songs, plus iTunes recommendations. This sounds like a promising way to solve the fatigue that a lot of users develop with their own collections after a few months, as well as the jarring transitions that sometimes pop up during a random shuffle session. Of course, so much depends on how well it works--will the algorithm adhere toward the same artists and genres? Will it be reliant on metadata such as composer and year, or can it analyze actual audio characteristics like tempo and key? The latter would be amazingly cool. I'll check it out later Tuesday and post more details then.

Bright colors and a nice oval shape characterize the new line of iPod Nanos. James Martin/CNET Networks

New iPods. The super-thin Nano looks amazingly cool and will probably do well this holiday. And a new 120GB Classic for $249 matches what Microsoft announcedfor the Zune on Monday. Only it's an iPod, which means it looks way cooler, has a scroll wheel, is far more know the drill. They've put the cover flow and accelerometer from the iPhone in, meaning the Nano will know when you turn it on its side. You can shake it up and it'll shuffle songs. New bright colors, and more recyclable than ever before. (Wow--is it smart to introduce a new product by talking about how you'll have to throw it away someday?) This is all fine and dandy if you don't have an MP3 player already, but I'm not seeing any exciting new features that will make existing iPod owners run out and upgrade.

The iPod Touch is also getting a makeover, super-thin with an integrated speaker, has the App Store (games!) and Genius and Nike+ features built-in. This is really becoming a hybrid entertainment device--more like a PSP than a mere MP3 player. Still, I've always thought this product fits into a weird niche between the iPhone and old-fashioned iPods or other MP3 players. I guess it's for people who want cutting-edge technology (touch screen!) but aren't ready to part with their current phone. BlackBerry fans, maybe. They seem to be targeting it at gamers, but with an entry price of $229 I'm not sure that will work--that's $100 more than the cheapest Nintendo DS Lite, about $60 more than the cheapest Sony PSP, and--heck--$20 more than an Xbox 360 Arcade. Then again, it is the market-leading MP3 player as well as a game device.

That's it? OK, that's it.

Harrumph. I'm happy to hammer Microsoft when it screws up, as it did with some earlier Zunes, but I have to say that this week's Zune announcement was a lot more exciting than the iPod announcement. The hardware's nowhere near as cool--Apple's a great hardware and design company--but I'll be darned if the new Zunes don't do more when it comes to music. They're not all-in-one devices like the Touch is becoming, and Microsoft certainly doesn't have anything that can touch the iPhone, but on a pure MP3 player basis, the Zune's finally looking competitive.

That said, Apple's probably done enough with the new designs to keep the iPod Nano flying off store shelves this holiday. And Zune's got a bad reputation to overcome.