Product Review: Fourth-generation iPods

Featuring controls borrowed from the iPod mini, a simplified menu interface, and a reduced price tag, the latest generation of iPods are a fitting evolution to Apple Computer's stunningly popular line of digital-audio players.

On the Outside

As always, the iPod is still a white-fronted, stainless-steel-backed device that's roughly the size of a deck of cards. The addition of an iPod mini-like gray Click Wheel replacing the touch-sensitive buttons is the biggest change you'll find in this generation of iPod. The row of buttons located above the Touch Wheel on the previous model seemed like a good idea on paper, but they were too easy to hit by accident. To skip songs, play, pause, and navigate the new iPod's menus, you now physically depress the edge of the iPod's Scroll Wheel at one of the four compass points, each of which is labeled with that button's function.

The iPod's Click Wheel interface works just as well as it does in the iPod mini. iPod users who skipped over the button-equipped models will find using the Click Wheel almost identical to using the ring of buttons placed around the Scroll Wheel in early iPod models.

If you've been frustrated by the battery life of previous iPods, you'll be pleased by the longer battery life introduced in this upgrade. Combined with better power-saving features, Apple claims these iPods will last 12 hours, versus eight hours for the previous generation. We fully charged the new iPod and played it back on a continuous-play shuffle of several thousand rock songs; in our first test, we managed to eke out about 11 hours of battery life, while our second test hit the 12-hour mark.

Interface Changes

A new iPod brings a new version of the iPod software, with Version 3.0 offering several changes. Most noticeable is the rearrangement of the iPod's menus: Browse has become Music; a new Shuffle Songs command has appeared; and Playlists has been turned off by default. (You can still customize the Main Menu by choosing Settings: Main Menu.) The Shuffle Songs command will please compulsive shufflers, but renaming Browse to Music doesn't seem to make much sense, especially since there's now an Audiobooks entry in the Music menu.

Despite the misnamed Music menu, fans of spoken-word audio content will find a lot to like about these new iPods. The Music: Audiobooks command provides you with a list of all your Audiobooks, saving you two more menu clicks. And under Settings: Audiobooks, you can choose to shift the speed at which your books are played without shifting their pitches. The effect is seamless, and if you've ever been stuck with an audiobook with a particularly slow or fast reader, you'll know what a godsend it is.

The previous generation of iPods introduced the ability for iPod users to make On-The-Go playlists while they were out and about with their iPods. The new iPods take that feature one better, by letting you save those playlists and create more, so you can have multiple on-the-go playlists. Unfortunately, if you're using the iPod's manual mode rather than syncing your iPod automatically with your computer, these playlists are wiped out when you plug the iPod back in to your Mac or PC.

It's also unfortunately that the iPod still doesn't support iTunes' method of filtering out artists who appear only in compilations from the artist list. For users with a lot of compilations on their iPod, those artists can really bog down browsing.

Playlist's Buying Advice

What you're demanding from your music player will determine whether this iPod update will satisfy you. If your digital music collection remains relatively small and you don't need half-a-day's worth of battery life, you're probably better off with an iPod mini. But if it takes 30 days to play your music collection from end to end, you'd like to use the iPod's extra space for file storage, you need extra battery life, or you're a big fan of audiobooks, you'll love this new generation of iPod just as much its predecessors.

Summary

Pros: Clickable scroll wheel, long battery life, improved audiobook support.

Cons: On-The-Go Playlists aren't saved in manual mode.

Best Current Price: US$379.00

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Jason Snell

PC World

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