Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

The New iPod: Ready for Battle?

Next month marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most successful products of the digital era, Apple Computer‘s iPod music player. Since 2001, potential iPod-killers have come and gone like autumn foliage. Apple claims an astonishing 76% market share in the U.S. for the iPod and an equally amazing 88% share of the U.S. legal music download market for its companion iTunes online store. Over 60 million iPods and 1.5 billion songs have been sold.

The Cover Flow feature in the new iTunes
The Cover Flow feature in the new iTunes

Still, this autumn, the iPod could face its greatest challenge. Microsoft, after failing for years to combat the iconic gadget, will launch a new assault Nov. 14 with a player called Zune. Unlike past Microsoft music efforts, the Zune will be sold by Microsoft itself, and, like the iPod, it will be tightly integrated with companion software and an online music store.

Not only that, but this week, RealNetworks‘ Rhapsody music service, the best of the iTunes competitors, will announce its own player, jointly developed with SanDisk, which is the second-place player maker, albeit a distant second.

So, this holiday season Apple has made some of the biggest changes to the iPod and iTunes in years. It has redesigned the iPod Nano and Shuffle, cut prices and/or raised capacities on all models, introduced a new iPod search feature, added color games and movie playback to the full-sized iPod, and more. Plus, it has given the iTunes software its biggest overhaul ever, making the software both simpler and more fun to use.

Oh, and it has started selling downloadable feature films, which can be played on computers, iPods, and, soon, via a forthcoming new device, on TV sets.

We’ve been testing the new iPods and iTunes for several weeks, as well as the new movie download service. Our review of the hardware and software follows here. See the accompanying article for our take on the movie downloads.

Our verdict: the new iPods are more versatile and less costly than ever, but the new iTunes software is an even bigger improvement, although it has one big downside — its coolest new feature is so graphically demanding that it doesn’t work right on some older computers.

For the main iPod, the biggest changes are in capacity, price, battery life and software. The base version, which holds 30 gigabytes, is now $249, a $50 price cut presumably intended to put pressure on Microsoft. The higher-end model, at $349, is also $50 less than last year’s version, even though it holds 80 gigabytes, up from 60 gigabytes last year. Battery life for video playback has been greatly improved, to 3.5 hours on the base model, up from just two hours on last year’s model. The bigger model has 6.5 hours of video playback time, up from 4 hours. (Battery life for music is unchanged.)

The iPod’s screen is also now 60% brighter. But what’s now on the screen is even more interesting: There’s now a search feature that lets you find items alphabetically, by using the scroll wheel to select letters. In our tests, it worked well. And, in addition to viewing full-length movies on the full-sized iPod, you can now play classic color games, such as Tetris, Pac-Man, Bejeweled, Poker and Mahjong. Apple sells these games via iTunes for $4.99 each.

In our tests, playing even very familiar games with a scroll wheel instead of a mouse or joystick took some adjustment. But, eventually, we got the hang of it, and the color and detail of the games on the iPod’s screen was impressive.

The iPod Nano also has the new search feature, but it can’t play the movies or games. It has been given a new aluminum skin, like the old iPod Mini had. This has two advantages: It resists the scratches that affected the first Nano models last year, and it allows for a range of bright colors. It’s even a teeny bit thinner and lighter than the amazingly small original Nano. We liked the new Nano and found it worked well.

Clockwise from the left: the 4GB iPod nano, iPod, and iPod shuffle.
Clockwise from the left: the 4GB iPod nano, iPod, and iPod shuffle.

The Nano still comes in three versions, but the capacities for each have been doubled while the prices remain the same. The base $149 Nano now holds 2 gigabytes and comes in silver only. The middle $199 Nano now holds 4 gigabytes and comes in four colors, including a hot pink. And the $249 top-of-the-line Nano now holds 8 gigabytes and is black only.

Even greater changes have been made in Apple’s iTunes software, the biggest overhaul since it came out in 2001. ITunes is one of the world’s most popular software programs, much more popular than the iPod itself. That’s because many people use iTunes, which is free, to manage and download music on their Windows and Macintosh computers, even if they don’t own iPods.

But iTunes had been growing long in the tooth. It didn’t do as good a job with video as with music, and was visually boring. So the new iTunes 7, which is still nearly identical on Windows and Macintosh, has lots of new stuff.

The coolest new feature is called Cover Flow, an optional way of viewing your music library. In Cover Flow, the top half of your screen is filled with an array of all your album covers, and as you scroll through your songs with the mouse or keyboard — or, as songs play — the album cover for each appears in the center of the array. Sometimes, if you’re skipping around in a large library, the covers flip by at high speed, finally settling on the one you’re playing.

In a way, it’s just a parlor trick, and it sounds like it’s no big deal. But we loved it, because it reminded us of flipping through a box of old vinyl albums or watching an old jukebox in a diner. It actually helped remind us of albums we’d forgotten about.

If you don’t have the album covers for all your songs, iTunes 7 will fetch them online free, so Cover Flow can work. Cover Flow also works with video clips, displaying either the official art supplied by iTunes, for purchased videos, or just a still from the video for other clips.

Unfortunately, Cover Flow puts such heavy demand on computer graphics systems that it doesn’t work properly or at all on some machines, especially older or more limited Windows computers. While it worked fine on our Macs and on our Dell and Hewlett-Packard Windows desktops, it failed on Katie’s Toshiba laptop and in a virtual Windows machine running under the Parallels software on a MacBook Pro laptop.

Apple has released a revision of iTunes 7 to address Cover Flow issues and some other problems, but the revision didn’t do the trick on our problem machines.

Beyond Cover Flow, iTunes 7 sports numerous other new features. It can now detect when albums were meant to be played without gaps between songs, as on many classical albums and a few rock albums, such as the Beatles’ Abbey Road. In fact, it will go through your library, find all such albums, and eliminate the gaps. This “gapless playback” feature also extends to the new iPods.

This latest iTunes also sports separate libraries for music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks and games. And, when you attach an iPod, it offers a much cleaner and more comprehensive tabbed interface for managing the synchronization of music, videos, photos, and other content.

And, finally, you can use your iPod to move content from one computer to another, although this feature only works with content you purchased from Apple.

It’s impossible to know if Apple can sustain its remarkably high market shares in the face of new competition, but it is going into the battle with better products at better prices.

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