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Apple's iPod refresh: What you need to know

Apple unveils a slightly tweaked lineup of iPods, but the real star is the new software that makes it easier to manage music and applications.

Apple on Wednesday unveiled a refreshed lineup of iPods, as well as new iTunes, and iPhone/iPod Touch system software at an invite-only event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco.

While there were no tablet computers, or an updated version of the Apple TV (as rumors had suggested), Apple's CEO Steve Jobs surprised everyone by anchoring the keynote, making it his first public appearance since October 2008.

Read on to get a quick overview of what was announced, and why it matters.

Price cuts and new hardware

Apple introduced an updated version of the iPod Nano that sports a built-in video camera and microphone located on the lower left-hand side. It also features a slightly larger 2.2-inch display, up from 2 inches. There is still no Wi-Fi or built-in Web browser, so users will first have to sync the videos to their computers to access and edit the files. The upgraded device also has an FM tuner, a feature iPod users have been pining for, for a very long time.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs takes to the stage once again to demo the new camera and FM tuner-equipped iPod Nanos. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The new iPod Nano will come in two versions, one 8GB ($149), and one 16GB ($179). That represents a $20 price cut on the high end. The system software also makes use of some of the added features in iTunes 9, like Genius Mixes. And it's inherited the VoiceOver control from its siblings, the iPod Shuffle and Touch.

The buttonless iPod Shuffle remains, though there are new colors, capacities and a lower entry price. The new 2GB flavor, which is available in five colors, runs $59, along with the same colors in a 4GB version that costs $79. There's also a $99, 4GB "special edition" that's made of polished stainless steel and currently available only at Apple's online and retail stores.

The low end of the iPod Touch line got price cuts, and the device got capacity bumps on the higher end. The 8GB model is now $199, down from $229. Meanwhile, the 16GB model has been shelved in favor of a 32GB version, which costs $299. At the high end, users can now get a 64GB model, which runs $399. Both the 32GB and 64GB models are packing faster internals, similar if not the same to the recently released iPhone 3GS, and are now capable of OpenGL ES 2.0 which boosts 3D performance.

The iPod Classic remains untouched in features and price, although the capacity has been bumped from 120GB to 160GB.

New software

iPhone/iPod OS 3.1

Apple announced the release Wednesday of OS 3.1, which will be a free update to both iPhone and iPod Touch owners.

With 3.1, users on both platforms can now get Genius recommendations for applications they've purchased. These show up in the App Store app, as well as in iTunes, and function in a similar fashion to Genius for music. It takes your purchase information and sends it to Apple, which will analyze it for similar purchases, and offer up recommendations. This may end up being a more precise system since there are fewer apps than music tracks.

3.1 also adds a new security feature for iPhone owners--the capability to lock down the device over the air using MobileMe. Previously, if your phone was lost or stolen, this feature would only be enabled if the user had set it that way.

iTunes 9

Apple introduced a new version of iTunes, which offers iPhone and iPod Touch users a way to better organize applications they have added to the device. Users can now drag and drop apps to multiple home screens at once, instead of doing so on the device itself.

iPhone and iPod Touch users can now rearrange apps on their home screen right in iTunes, instead of on the device itself. Apple

Another new feature in iTunes 9 that users in households are sure to enjoy is something called Home Sharing. This lets you automatically sync purchases across multiple computers within a household. This means they don't have to be redownloaded, or transferred from portable devices, which can save time if you're in a hurry.

The Genius feature and DJ feature have been mashed together to create something called Genius Mixes. The software can create multiple stations of music without the user having to pick a song for it to start from.

The software also has a new purchase-centric feature called iTunes LP, that adds a handful of digital pack-ins to purchased albums such as liner notes, photos, videos, lyrics, and links to online resources. This confirmed rumors Apple had been cooking up such a feature going back earlier this year.

In the same vein of iTunes LP, there's iTunes Extras--basically repackaged bonus features from movies and TV shows. This aims to add a little more value to rented and purchased video content, and steer customers toward Apple's store instead of some of the competition.

Other tidbits

Apple is now offering 30,000 ready-made ringtones for $1.29 a pop. These come from all four major labels, and differ from the current system, which allows you to make your own ringtone from any song you've purchased from the store for a fee of 99 cents. The new system cuts out the need to even buy the song.

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Apple has sold 30 million iPhones since the launch of the device.

More than 20 million iPod Touches have been sold.

More than 100 million iPod Nanos have been sold.

Users have downloaded 1.8 billion apps from a catalog of more than 75,000.

Apple has 100 million registered iTunes users.

Users have submitted more than 27 million music libraries to contribute to the Genius feature, totaling 54 billion songs.

iPhone developer Tapulous demonstrated an upcoming title called Riddim Ribbon that lets players race on their own music tracks. Looks quite similar to PC title Audiosurf.

EA demonstrated Madden 10 which uses virtual, onscreen controls.

Gameloft has had 20 million game downloads. The company demonstrated a new first-person shooter game called Nova that's reminiscent of Halo.

Correction: This post initially included some incorrect pricing information. The OS 3.1 update only costs money for those who had not yet upgraded to 3.0 or higher. Also, the iPod Shuffle price cut refers to the 2GB model.

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