$349 (or 30GB version for $249)
Battery: music, 20 hrs.; video & games 6.5 hrs.
Utility Factor: High
Cool Factor: High
More than ever, Apple is letting the iPod stretch beyond its role as the world's best media player. With the advent of iPod Games, the option for movie downloads and a smart new iPod control panel in iTunes 7, the device is taking its first steps toward becoming a full-fledged entertainment platform.
<!-- more -->
If that sounds like a bunch of pumped-up hooey, hear me out a bit. The new iPod's on its way to becoming a true gaming platform, but it's still got quite a distance to go.
Much about the outside of the new 80-gigabyte iPod is the same as
its predecessors – it comes in white and black, the screen's the same
2.5-inch diagonal, and the body is still .55 inches.
The changes are mainly in the way you experience video, audio
and games in this latest iteration. The screen is 60 percent brighter,
video resolution is higher, there's more storage (the previous ceiling
was 60GB), and there are new earbuds.
Beyond the specs though, these subtle changes – particularly iPod Games – make the thing feel different. Sure, there were games before, mainly a Pong-like diversion called Brick, the old standard Parachute, Solitaire and the Music Quiz. But the new gaming capabilities in the iPod add a fresh dimension. I found myself getting immersed in the iPod version of Tetris in ways that the basic old game lineup couldn't match – and as a result, I spent a lot more time using the iPod.
In a way, this positions the iPod closer to Sony's PlayStation Portable ($199). Of course, game play and selection on the PSP are at a far higher level – I think it's fair to say the PSP is primarily a gaming device that does some pretty cool things with audio, video and other applications. But now the iPod is primarily an audio and video device that does some pretty cool things with games and other applications. (I should note, though, that the gaming experience using the clickwheel is quite flawed, and Apple should work to improve it. More on that later.)
Let's get down to details.
After I unpacked the iPod and hooked it up to the 20-inch G5 iMac in my office – and I'll spare you the details of that, because nothing about the process is new – I got my first look at the new iPod control panel in iTunes.
Turns out this control panel is extremely useful. After I synced over a few songs and bought a TV show (The Office season finale, $1.99) and a game (Tetris, $4.99), I found myself glancing over at the control panel to see what files were on the iPod and how much space they were claiming. Bottom line: if you were hesitating at all to download iTunes 7 – you didn't want to go through the hassle, or you just keep procrastinating – just go ahead and do it. It's the most satisfying iTunes update in a long time.
I picked Tetris as the first iPod game to test because I wanted to see how the clickwheel does under pressure. Tetris has been around a long time and it's been adapted onto lots of platforms, so it's pretty easy for me to compare the gaming experience to that of other systems.
It was fun, and addictive enough to annoy my fiancee. There were also a couple of little bugs. Once, near the end of a game of Tetris, one of the pieces fell invisibly and didn't appear until it landed. Also, if you activate Sound Check, the setting that normalizes the volume level between songs, it can cause problems with games. Game volume might start off soft during game setup and then jump suddenly once game play starts, for example. If you're going to play games, I'd recommend turning Sound Check off.
After a couple hours worth of gaming, my take is this: The clickwheel takes some getting used to, and even after you've gotten used to its quirks, it's sub-par for gaming. Because the wheel is so sensitive, a slight touch can change the position of a falling block, and turn a brilliant move into a bonehead gaffe. So the clickwheel really isn't the best controller for every game; we'll have to see whether it fares better at some of the other 8 titles, which include Vortex, PAC-MAN, Cubis 2, Zuma, Texas Hold'em, Mini Golf, Mahjong, and Bejeweled.
I might be the least qualified person on the planet to review earbuds, because my ears haven't grown much since kindergarten. They're just uncommonly small. So the effect of that is, no earbuds I've ever tried will stay in my ears unless I'm sitting still.
I'm sad to report that the redesigned iPod earbuds are no exception. Apple tells me that engineers worked hard on these, and I believe them. When they're in my ears, they sound great (and they feel decent, too). However, this small-eared reviewer had to keep jamming them back into his skull during a brisk 25-minute walk from San Francisco's Financial District to the Caltrain station at 4th and King.