iPod buying guide

Christopher Breen
24 November, 2010
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Signs of the holiday season: Shiny wrapping paper, trees propped in convenient corners, decorations from decades-past adoring shop windows, and, of course, recently released iPods on offer. In a tradition as predictable as the holiday season itself, we turn once again to the season’s most pressing question: Which iPod (or iPhone or iPad) is right for you or the object of your affection?

It depends a lot on the money you have to spend and what you’d like that iPod to do. Do you want an iPod that plays music only – no video? You have exactly two choices (and only one of them has a display). Need an iPod that stores a large chunk of a massive iTunes library? Apple offers one perfect iPod. How about an iPod that’s equally at home playing games and sending email as it is playing music, podcasts, and movies? You have up to three choices (depending on how particular you are about the device actually bearing the “iPod” name). To help make those choices more clear, let’s look at this year’s lineup of Apple’s portable media players.

iPod shuffle

It’s not often that Apple asks for a do-over, but it did when it introduced the $69 fourth-generation (4G) iPod shuffle. The previous year’s 3G iPod shuffle was notorious for its complete lack of buttons – the diminutive music player was operated entirely from a small headphone controller. Although Apple doesn’t cite sales figures for specific iPod models, we’re fairly confident that the 3G iPod shuffle was anything but a hit. And so back to the drawing board went Apple.

As it turns out, someone left the plans for the 2G iPod shuffle on that drawing board and rather than shift them aside, Apple’s designers went to work incorporating the best parts of those plans with the most compelling feature of the 3G iPod shuffle – VoiceOver. Today’s iPod shuffle looks very similar to the 2G shuffle but, unlike that earlier iPod model, if you care to you can navigate the device by holding down a VoiceOver button (or pressing the controller on the optional $39 Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic). Doing so causes the iPod to announce the name and artist of the currently playing track. Press and hold the VoiceOver or headphone controller button and the iPod lists all of its playlists.

The nearly square 4G iPod shuffle is offered in a single 2GB capacity. You can fit approximately 500 4-minute songs encoded as 128-kbps AAC in that 2GB of flash storage. It’s available in five colours – silver, blue, green, orange, and pink. Like shuffles before it, this one bears a clip, allowing you to securely attach the thing to your clothing, backpack, or purse. And, like the 2G iPod shuffle, it has no display but rather, on its face, Volume Up, Volume Down, Next/Fast-forward, Previous/Rewind, and Play/Pause buttons.

The mission of the iPod shuffle remains the same. It’s Apple’s least expensive iPod and holds over a day’s-worth of music (again, with music encoded as 128-kbps AAC), making it a solid choice as a workout companion or a careless kid’s first iPod. Although navigable through VoiceOver, there are far easier iPods to operate. And, of course, no display means no videos or extra features that require a display (contacts and calendars, for example).

Best for: Athletes (and wannabe athletes); kids; those who like to press play and go about their business; anyone seeking a spare, kick-around iPod.

Not for: People looking for easy navigation of their music library; those wanting to carry lots of music; individuals desiring an iPod on which to watch videos.

iPod nano

In years past, Apple put its greatest iPod effort into its most popular “traditional” model, the iPod nano. It did so by changing its shape and adding new features in the hope of attracting customers looking for a cool (and reasonably affordable) new iPod. In 2010 it certainly changed the nano’s shape, but, in a turnaround of tradition, Apple removed features rather than added them. Specifically, 2009’s Click Wheel fifth-generation (5G) iPod nano could play videos; sported a low-resolution video camera; and could display contacts, calendars, and notes. 2010’s 6G iPod nano has a smaller screen; a touch interface rather than Click Wheel; can’t shoot or display video of any kind; and dispenses entirely with contacts, calendars, and notes. It does, however, include an FM radio capable of buffering 15 minutes of audio, just as did the 5G iPod nano, and it can display still images you sync to it. The iPod nano is now very much a music player and little else.

Available in 8GB ($199) and 16GB ($229) capacities and in seven colours (silver, grey, blue, green, orange, pink and Product Red) the 6G iPod nano is, in some ways, more like a display-bearing iPod shuffle than a successor to the 5G iPod nano. It earns this comparison due to its small size and lack of hardware play controls – you play and navigate through it via on-screen touch controls or with an optional headset that features an inline controller. And for some people – those who want a lightweight, more navigable, higher-capacity iPod for their workouts, for example – that’s perfect. It’s also a cute little thing. If you need (or wish to give) an iPod that’s the latest (if not necessarily the greatest) nano Apple makes, and you don’t care about video, it’s a reasonable choice.

Best for: Exercising iPod owners; older kids who can be trusted to not lose it; public transport commuters; anyone who wants to carry a reasonable amount of music in a stylish package.

Not for: Individuals desiring an iPod on which to watch videos or keep contacts, calendars, and notes; those who find a touch interface isn’t appropriate for every purpose.

iPod classic

When Steve Jobs announced 2010’s new iPods, he claimed Apple had updated every iPod model – and yet failed to mention the iPod classic once. This tells you something about how much life the classic has left in it. Although Apple continues to sell it, it’s nowhere on the company’s list of priorities. That said, the $329 160GB iPod classic, available in silver or black in a single 160GB capacity, remains the iPod to own if you want to carry a lot of music, videos, audiobooks, and podcasts with you. It’s also the only hard-drive-based iPod left.

This iPod will carry 40,000 4-minute songs encoded as 128-kbps AAC, which works out to a little more than 111 days of continuous music. Additionally, it can play videos and show images on its 2.5in colour display and hold contacts, calendars, and notes. Nothing new, nothing particularly flashy, just a whole lot of room to store all or the bulk of your media library.

Best for: People who want to take all (or a large portion) of their iTunes media libraries with them.

Not for: Those for whom capacity isn’t as important as an iPod touch’s feature set; the visually impaired and blind, who would find it very difficult to navigate this iPod’s interface.

iPod touch

Each year the iPod touch creeps closer to iPhone feature parity. The fourth-generation (4G) iPod touch has come closest of all with its inclusion of front- and rear-facing cameras, FaceTime support, HD video recording, support for the mobile version of Apple’s iMovie, an A4 processor, a Retina display, and a built-in microphone.

While the 4G iPod touch’s and iPhone 4’s features are similar, they’re not the same. Of course, the iPod touch doesn’t support the iPhone’s phone features – voice calling and text and media messaging. It also lacks the iPhone’s GPS circuitry and can’t transfer data over an EDGE or 3G network. And while, like the iPhone 4, it has a rear-facing camera and a Retina display, the iPod touch’s rear-facing camera is much lower resolution (0.7 megapixels versus the iPhone’s 5 megapixels) and the Retina display is not nearly as readable off-angle as that of the iPhone’s display. At the same time, it also doesn’t require a two-year commitment with monthly charges.

The iPod touch comes in three capacities – 8GB, 32GB, and 64GB – priced respectively at $289, $378, and $499. These models, in ascending order, hold 1750 128-kbps AAC-encoded songs or 10 hours of video, 7000 songs or 40 hours of video, and 14,000 songs or 80 hours of video. While the iPod touch may not match the capacity of the iPod classic, a 64GB iPod touch that can hold 40 two-hour movies is nothing to sneeze at. (And don’t forget that the iPhone 4 tops out at 32GB of storage.)

One of the things that makes the touch such a great iPod is the 3.5in (diagonal) touchscreen display. Because of its bright and fairly large display, this is the iPod you’ll want to take to bed with you when you’re in the mood for a late-night movie. Unlike with the iPod classic, this is an iPod you can stare at throughout a double-feature without squinting for hours afterwards.

All iPod touches support the creation of Genius playlists and Shake-to-Shuffle, operate as internet appliances (for web browsing, email, YouTube, MobileMe syncing, and weather and stocks updates over Wi-Fi), include a built-in speaker good enough for FaceTime and game sounds, and let you purchase and download media from the iTunes Store, apps from the App Store, and e-books from Apple’s iBookstore.

Access to these stores is one of the primary attractions of the iPod touch. With iTunes Store access, you can acquire media on the go (provided the place you go has Wi-Fi). This is highly convenient when you’re sitting in an airport between flights and wish to download an album, TV episode, or movie – if you’re sure you’re connected to a very fast Wi-Fi network – for the next leg of your journey. Just as convenient is grabbing a free or low-cost game from the App Store that helps you play away the hours in economy. And if you need something to read, the iBookstore and the iPod touch’s Retina display make it easy to do.

Best for: Those who want to enjoy most of the advantages of add-on applications, the iTunes Store, the iBookstore, Wi-Fi access to the internet (and all that comes with it), an always-with-you still and video camera, FaceTime, and portable video, but don’t need a phone.

Not for: Those looking for an exercise-only iPod – it’s a little bulky and, with its glass screen, you don’t want to drop it on a changing room’s tile floor or the jogging track. People seeking the best retina display and rear-facing camera Apple offers in a portable device.

The other guys

Although this a buying guide for iPods, it’s possible you or your lucky gift-recipient-to-be might want another Apple device that can also act as an iPod – specifically, an iPhone or iPad. So in the interest of no device left behind, here’s a look at your other Apple options.

iPhone 4. In the context of an iPod shoppers guide, this is one of the rare times when you get to discuss the iPhone while downplaying its phone functionality – what it brings to the table as an iPod. And the answer to that lies very much in areas where the iPod touch either entirely or inadequately fails to deliver.

Again, the iPhone 4 – available in 16GB and 32GB capacities, for $859 and $999 outright, respectively, but cheaper on a plan – has a better rear-facing camera and Retina display than the touch. Its EDGE and 3G connectivity mean not only that you can make calls from anywhere you can get coverage in this fine country, but also access the internet. GPS circuitry lets you know where you are at all times (and the Compass app tells you which direction you’re facing, although maybe not which way the wind is blowing). And it has a far better speaker than the touch.

That means that, as a media player, you have the opportunity to access streaming media (from Last.fm for example) even when out of reach of an accessible Wi-Fi network. It also expands your wireless options for downloading music, podcasts, books, and apps from Apple’s emporiums.

But, depending on whether you opt for outright purchase or get the phone on a plan, the iPhone is either pretty expensive, or a tricky holiday gift – as you’ll leave the receiver with a 24 month contract. In the latter case, we recommend discussion about the best option for both parties (especially considering some telcos offer iPhones for nothing up front).

iPad. Unsympathetic though we may be to the notion that the iPad is just a big iPod touch, there’s no getting around the fact that, like the iPod touch, the iPad is another great way to enjoy music and video in a portable package. It’s made more so thanks to its large 9.7in, 1024-by-768-pixel touchscreen, decent internal speaker, and, on some models, the option to use a 3G network.

The iPad is available in two models – the iPad with Wi-Fi and the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G. Each comes in three capacities – 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. The Wi-Fi-only models cost $629, $729, and $829, respectively. The Wi-Fi + 3G models are $799, $928, and $1049 for the same capacities. All major telcos offer pre-paid 3G options for the iPad from as little as $10-$20 per month.

The iPad’s large display means the best video viewing experience on a portable iOS device. Whether you’re watching video stored on the iPad or streamed via an application such as YouTube, you get a picture that you needn’t squint to see, and one large enough that you and a friend can watch together. (Yes, the speaker is good and loud enough that you usually don’t need headphones or an external speaker for such casual viewing.)

It’s also a quite fine e-book reader. Sweetening the pot is the number of free e-books available through Apple’s iBookstore and from Project Gutenberg. And because the iBooks app supports PDF files, you can load your iPad with such files for work and pleasure. And, of course, there are the countless apps you can get from Apple’s App Store.

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