How Apple can save the iPod

Commentary: In the modern age of streaming music, the MP3 player that can't stream is irrelevant. If Apple wants to keep the iPod around, it needs to get with the times.

Xiomara Blanco Associate Editor / Reviews - Tablets and monitors
Xiomara Blanco is an associate editor for CNET Reviews. She's a Bay Area native with a knack for tech that makes life easier and more enjoyable. So, don't expect her to review printers anytime soon.
Xiomara Blanco
5 min read
Josh Miller/CNET
Watch this: Why you should buy an MP3 player

It's 2016. Why would you ever need a straight-up MP3 player?

The iPod Touch I can see. You can use it just like you would an iPhone -- pair it with your wireless Bluetooth headphones and use apps like Spotify or Pandora to stream music. To be fair, the iPod Touch is basically the iPhone stripped of its cellular abilities. But it's the inclusion of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and third-party apps on the Touch that makes all the difference.

The addition of those features could help the iPod Shuffle and Nano (the Nano has Bluetooth but no Wi-Fi) evolve from mere MP3 players to an iPhone's best friend, one that helps free up its storage space for more cat photos, avoid data plan overage fees (from streaming the "Hamilton" soundtrack on repeat) and preserve its battery life (from streaming the "Hamilton" soundtrack on repeat).

That's right. Don't foolishly expect it to ever replace your phone. In today's world an MP3 player is a simple supplement, an accessory for uninterrupted listening of music or podcasts during a commute, workout or leisure time.

But Apple is still selling its iPods, which -- aside from a recent color refresh last year -- are otherwise unchanged from their 2012 versions. And in this this modern age of streaming music, the MP3 player that can't stream is irrelevant. Assuming Apple wants the iPod Nano and Shuffle to stick around, it needs to step up its game and get with the times.

Having spent some more time with both iPods in the past few weeks, here's how I think they can be improved.

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The iPod Nano can't stream Apple Music songs.

Josh Miller/CNET

Add Wi-Fi, kill iTunes

Attaching a cable and syncing your music collection from your computer feels completely prehistoric. Adding Wi-Fi to even entry-level iPods would be a huge step forward. I could see syncing playlists to the iPod from an iPhone, as you can with the Apple Watch. Doing so -- using cloud-based Apple Music playlists -- would allow most users to bid goodbye to iTunes, which is far and away the most painful legacy of Apple's old-school music infrastructure.

Add Apple Music compatibility

And speaking of Apple Music -- it'd be great if Apple's subscription music service actually worked with its music players. If you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you can listen to the millions of songs in Apple's library, and even download playlists for offline listening. Not so with the Nano and Shuffle: those players can only play music synced from your computer's hard drive via iTunes.

Paired with the Wi-Fi feature I'm advocating above, Apple should continue to focus on the rising popularity of streaming music by integrating Apple Music. You can find Spotify, Apple's biggest rival in the streaming music wars, on fitness trackers, media streaming sticks and TVs. Apple has catching up to do if it wants to be bigger than Spotify. Apple shoved iTunes down our throats for 15 years, so it's weird that it hasn't done the same with Apple Music.

The case for Bluetooth

If you don't have a pair of Bluetooth headphones, let me tell you, they're great. I don't mean in terms of audio quality -- they'll do for normals like me, but audiophiles are more particular -- just in terms of convenience.

The rumor is that Apple is going to cut the headphone jack and make the iPhone 7 Bluetooth-only. That's extreme, but I'm kinda sympathetic. Have you ever accidentally walked away from your desk while your wired headphones were connected to your computer? What about earbuds being traumatically ripped out after your phone unexpectedly drops? It hurts both your ears and ego. This is no good. Bluetooth headphones provide a freeing feeling, like finally getting your braces off or going commando. I highly recommend it. Bluetooth headphones, not going commando. But, you know, you do you.

The current Nano already offers Bluetooth (as does the Apple Watch), but a theoretical next-gen Shuffle deserves the feature, too.


The iPod Shuffle's design hasn't changed in a few years.

Josh Miller/CNET

Gimme Siri

The iPod Shuffle already issues the user some voice prompts, but it can't understand what you're saying. That feels so out of date from the company that helped pioneer voice recognition. The iPods should have some voice command features, especially the Shuffle. Without a screen, navigating it can feel more like morse code, and there's no way to quickly listen to a specific song, artist or album. It's tedious and inconvenient. Saying, "Hey Siri, play running playlist," or "Hey Siri, play Channel Orange" would be so much easier.

Waterproof me

Speaking of the Shuffle, its irresistibly cheap price makes it a useful accessory for anyone who just wants to listen to music when working out, but what happens when you forget it in your pocket and it goes through the wash? You're screwed. Building some durability into a gadget you're more likely to lose than break is a nice bone to throw anyone willing to put up with carrying around an extra device.

A waterproof Shuffle could be cool for runners and athletes, too. I can see the commercial now; Serena Williams is kicking ass on the tennis court, unapologetically dripping sweat onto the Shuffle securely clipped onto the sleeve of her shirt --- while listening to Current Apple Music Exclusive. The wireless Beats buds in her ear abruptly stop playing music. She wakes up on the beach. It was all a dream. She laughs it off, grabs her iPod Shuffle and aforementioned headphones, hits play, then dives into the clear blue water of whatever beautiful beach they shoot those Corona commercials at.

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Refreshing the iPod line with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth would go a long way.

Josh Miller/CNET

Fix it up or kill it off

MP3s are out and streaming music is in. Paying $120, £120 or AU$144 per year ($10, £10 or AU$12 per month) for access to more music than you can probably listen to in your lifetime is a deal for many, even if it means not owning the music.

But there are those times when you want music, but you don't want the bulk of your phone -- runners, gym rats and beach bums know exactly what I mean. The MP3 player needn't be a doomed, outdated device, and if Apple can catch up the iPod with the times, it can become something worth putting away your phone for. Can Apple do the impossible and save the iPod from obsolescence? Probably not.

I'd still like to see it try though.