Apple Inc. is attempting to boost its digital-music arsenal by bringing social networking to iTunes and by redesigning three iPods. The results are mixed.
The iPods are a big improvement from the older models with new, smart features, including some borrowed from the iPhone. The Ping social network, however, is a bit socially awkward, especially for people who are used to Facebook.
I’ve been using Ping and the revamped iPod Touch, Shuffle, and Nano for the past week. The most notable iPod changes are the addition of a front-facing camera to the Touch, which enables FaceTime video chats with other new Touches or iPhone 4s, and the Nano’s redesigned, multi-touch screen.
I was less enthusiastic about Ping, Apple’s first attempt at social networking, because it didn’t do well enough with the socializing aspect. An Apple (AAPL) spokesman says it will be making improvements to Ping, including some that will be available by the end of this week. The social-networking experience also could become richer as more people and artists join. (Only 54 artists were on Ping when this column published.)
Ping is a social network that shows you what music your friends like and what your favorite artists are doing. You also can share your own music preferences. When you create a Ping profile, you can choose 10 songs that represent your musical tastes, or the network will generate this list based on music you purchased from the iTunes Store. Ping uses the Twitter model of followers rather than friends, which means you can be followed by someone and opt not to also follow that person, and vice versa. Ping runs in iTunes on Windows and Macs and can also be accessed on iPod Touches and iPhones running Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 4.1.
There are five page views for Ping: Recent Activity (the home page); My Profile; My Reviews (of songs and albums); People (which shows your followers, people you follow or follow requests) and Featured (Apple’s spotlight on people and music).
A stream of updates from people or artists you follow takes up much of the home page. While Facebook suggests friends you might know based on whether you have friends in common, a section in Ping suggests people you might want to follow according to if they have similar musical tastes—even if they’re strangers. This feature wasn’t yet turned on when I tested Ping, but will work within a week.
Ping also suggests artists you might like. These suggestions aren’t based on your full iTunes library; rather, they’re based on songs you bought in iTunes and your activities in Ping, including artists you follow and music you “like,” similar to Facebook’s feature.
You can comment on or like anything posted on Ping by someone you follow. I enjoyed checking photos and videos posted on Ping by some of my favorite artists, including a video of U2′s Bono talking about a concert in Istanbul and a behind-the-scenes photo Shakira posted from her tour.
As a new social-network player, Apple needs to make Ping easier to use for people accustomed to the user-friendly features of Facebook. One of Ping’s biggest downsides is that it doesn’t import lists of friends from other established social networks, so you must build up a new network of people using email invitations that ask friends to join Ping.
According to an Apple spokesman, Facebook disallowed Ping from interacting with its network, which could have potentially allowed Ping users to see if their Facebook friends were on Apple’s social network. A spokeswoman for Facebook says the company is working with Apple to resolve this issue.
You may also search the network for friends and music artists to follow by typing their names into a search box.
Ping’s other socially awkward characteristics include its inability to notify you when other people comment on or like something you’ve posted or commented on.
Apple says these will appear in the Recent Activity page within a week—but not as easy-to-see notifications at the top of the page.
Ping can’t organize people you follow into groups, like “Dierks Bentley Concert Pals,” and won’t let you send anyone in Ping a message—either privately nor by posting on their wall.
The network also only uses first names of people, leaving me wondering if the John who bought “Walk Like An Egyptian” was my ex-boyfriend or a co-worker—especially since the latter uses an abstract image for his profile photo rather than a photo of himself.
The Apple spokesman said this first-name system was implemented to make Ping more personal.
As for the redesigned iPods, the Touch is remarkably thin, measuring just 0.28 inch deep. It costs $229 for an 8-gigabyte model; $299 for a 32-gigabyte; and $399 for the 64-gigabyte. This Touch now has the same sharp Retina Display screen as the iPhone 4, as well as two built-in cameras. FaceTime calls using the front-facing camera must be placed over Wi-Fi, using a dedicated FaceTime email address, since the Touch doesn’t have a phone number associated with it.
I brought my iPod Touch with me to the U.S. Open tennis tournament last weekend and used it to capture beautiful HD video footage of matches. I was impressed by the high quality audio captured in each video, enabled by a new omnidirectional microphone on the back of the iPod Touch that also captures sounds in front of the device. I accessed Ping from my iPod Touch, accepting Follow Requests and reading new posts from people and artists I follow.
The iPod Nano, which costs $149 for an 8-gigabyte model and $179 for a 16-gigabyte model, offers the most surprising redesign of the three new devices. This fifth-generation Nano is nearly half the size and weight of its predecessor. To achieve this, its hard buttons were exchanged for a smaller, square build and a multi-touch screen, which displays four icons at a time—like Artists, Genius Mixes, FM Radio and Photos.
To see other screens with more icons, swipe a finger from right to left, like on the iPhone. These icons can be rearranged, just as on the iPhone, by tapping and holding an icon until it jiggles, then moving the icon to wherever you want it.
I touched the Nano’s screen with two fingers and turned them, rotating the screen in all four directions, which comes in handy if you use the player’s built-in clip to attach it a sleeve or belt and want to look at its screen from an odd angle.
When a song plays, its album cover fills the Nano screen and looks a little like a colorful postage stamp clipped to you.
I especially liked flicking through photos on the Nano, double tapping to zoom in on images and moving the images around with one finger. The iPod Nano comes in seven colors and its battery lasts for 24 hours of music playback.
Apple’s $49 iPod Shuffle, which comes in five colors, holds 2 gigabytes and costs $10 less than its predecessor. It has hard buttons and a square shape again (the last model nixed both in favor of a smaller design). This Shuffle still offers VoiceOver announcements of song information and still has its signature clip, making it popular for running or working out.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg. Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com