Editorial: Today’s iPod lineup, and you

Today, the iPod family changed again: with lower prices, better values, and enhanced support for radio-like podcasts, Apple’s current lineup is stronger than ever before. And we’re not just saying that as iPod fans and current owners – today’s changes truly take strong stabs at competing devices in the price ranges of certain iPods, and spell trouble for even the best iPod shuffle and full-sized iPod competitors.

The Big Picture

iPod shuffle (512MB/1GB) – $99-129 – Screenless Music Playback in Chewing Gum Pack Size
iPod mini (4/6GB) – $199-249 – B&W-Screened Music, Text, Games, and More in Cell Phone Size
iPod (20GB/60GB) – $299-$399 – Color-Screened Music, Photos, Text, Games and More, White/Chrome Body
U2 iPod (20GB) – $329 – Color-Screened Music, Photos, Text, Games and More, Black/Chrome Body

iPod shuffle

Understanding the appeal of the iPod shuffle isn’t as easy as summing up its raw features and comparing it against similar devices. More than anything, it’s a stripped-down, starter iPod for people who have heard about better iPods but can’t or won’t spend the money on them. But it can also be a second, temporary alternative for owners of full-sized iPods.

There was nothing wrong with the 512MB (120 song) iPod shuffle’s $99 entry price: it continues to have its desired effect, attracting reluctant people to consider an iPod purchase, and winning repeat business from current iPod users. But the 1GB, $149 iPod shuffle made a lot less sense. For only $50 more, you could get a 4GB iPod mini with a screen, four times the storage space, and plenty of other features. And since it’s twice as hard to find the song you’re looking for on a 1GB shuffle, spending the extra cash or skipping the 1GB shuffle altogether seemed smart.

Now the 1GB iPod shuffle sells for $20 less – $129 total – and makes sense as an impulse upgrade from the 512MB model. If you’re looking for something cheap and simple, you now have two choices, both at better prices than sharp new flash players from companies such as Sony. But will sales of the iPod mini suffer as a consequence?

iPod mini

Nothing directly changed in the iPod mini family today: Apple still sells a 4GB $199 model (1000 songs) and a 6GB $249 model (1500 songs). Both versions have black-and-white screens, and can’t display photographs or album art. But they’re substantially better products than the iPod shuffle for people with “average-sized” music collections (100 or fewer CDs), and are often the best single iPod an athlete can own.

One indirect change to the iPod mini is a result of the 1GB iPod shuffle’s price: it’s hard to imagine that people will walk into a store with plans to spend $129 and instead wind up spending $199 on the superior iPod mini. However, it’s easy to imagine that someone who plans to spend $249 on an iPod mini will look favorably at a full-sized, 20GB iPod for only $50 more, especially given their considerable differences in functionality. Consequently, it will be very interesting to watch how the iPod mini does over the next six months.

(As an aside, we think that it’s highly likely that the next iPod mini will include a color screen, making room for a black and white screened, flash-based evolution of the iPod shuffle. We don’t think the iPod mini change will happen for some time, though, as it remains very popular, particularly in its 4GB capacity.)

The Old iPod: Dead

The biggest news of the day took place in the full-sized iPod lineup: for the first time since its release in 2001, the black-and-white screened device formerly known as “iPod” is officially dead. In February, we saw the discontinuation of Apple’s 40GB model, and its remaining 20GB model passed into history today. We’ll pause for a moment of silent prayer so that we can all reflect on that, but before you shed a tear for Apple, bear this in mind: what will Apple’s competitors do now with all of their black-and-white, $300-350 devices? If the gold standard iPod is a color-screened music and photo player, how can even the best old-fashioned competitor hope to compete?

The New iPod: AKA iPod photo

There’s a new iPod in town: Apple has renamed the color-screened “iPod photo” to just “iPod,” and introduced a 20GB model priced at exactly the same level ($299) as 2004-2005’s black and white version. This renamed and repriced iPod photo is technically the fifth iPod – even if people are still expecting something bigger and better from Apple later this year to appear under the “fifth-generation” name.

On one hand, Apple’s decision to axe the old iPod today was sort of a surprise – the 20GB black and white iPod has been popular for a long time, as hinted by a recent reader survey showing that more iLounge readers own 20GB iPods than any other model. But it wasn’t a complete shock: for months, Apple quietly telegraphed the move by downplaying the “photo” moniker of its color-screened iPods, then killed off higher-capacity black-and-white iPods in favor of cheaper iPod photos.

Today, the $299 iPod is a better value than ever before: the same 20GB storage capacity, but now with a color screen, the ability to display photographs and album art, and much-improved battery life. You lose two things: the FireWire data cable Apple used to pack in for free, and the gawdy silhouette box art. We’re quite content with the packed-in USB 2.0 data cable and AC adaptor, and thrilled to see the silhouettes go. Apple gets our gold star – for whatever it’s worth – on this one.

At $399, the 60GB iPod is similarly an even better value than it was last week at $449, let alone last holiday season when it sold for $599 as the super premium iPod photo. Even though we haven’t filled ours yet, and concede that it’s neither as slim nor as cheap as its younger 20GB and 30GB siblings, we remain very enamored with this highest-capacity iPod.

The New U2 iPod

Apple’s public iPod partnership with the rock band U2 began last October with the introduction of a black-and-red bodied, black-and-white screened iPod ($349), and continues today with a color-screened, virtually identical bodied successor ($329). This new U2 iPod still has 20GB of storage capacity, and like the 20GB standard iPod no longer includes a FireWire cable, but benefits from additional battery life and the assets of a color screen. It also includes the same U2 poster and $50-off iTunes coupon included with the prior U2 iPod, and now comes in a smaller package.

The simple fact that a second U2 iPod has emerged was a surprise to almost everyone: we frankly expected that the Apple-U2 partnership would be over by now, with U2 replaced by another noteworthy band that possesses similar staying power. Has the always hip Apple finally started to settle down? Are all of its potentially worthy partners holding out for more money? Or is the next generation of Special Edition iPods going to target the iPod mini, instead? We’ll have to wait and find out.

Discontinued iPods and The Future

Though most of the attention at the launch of a new iPod is focused on new product introductions, something else is always going on in the background: discontinuations. Black-and-white full-sized iPods are now “out,” with the 20GB standard and U2 models disappearing last from Apple’s lineup. Similarly, the 30GB iPod photo has disappeared at the $349 price point.

Because of today’s price drops, and for only the second time in recent history, no iPod-branded product is selling for more than $399. The last time this happened – July, 2004 – Apple waited until October to introduce new premium ($499-$599) iPod photos, just in time for the holidays. Will this pattern repeat itself? We have every reason to believe that it will, but this time, with substantially different iPod designs.

So if you’re looking for a musical iPod today, good news: you have plenty of options on the low and high ends of the current iPod family, and discounts on older iPods are already beginning. But if you’re holding out for substantial new features, you may have to wait a bit longer. Apple’s clearly focused on price competition – winning over reluctant potential buyers – at this point in time, and the real fireworks on functionality will start at some later point in 2005.

Links to Additional iLounge information

News Story: iTunes 4.9 released, with integrated podcast directory and downloading
iPod 101: The Complete Guide to iTunes 4.9, with Podcasts

News Story: Apple releases iPod Software Updater 6-26-2005

News Story: Apple’s revised iPod lineup
News Story: Apple cuts 1GB iPod shuffle price
News Story: New iPods now available in stores; photos inside
Photo Gallery: Unpacking the new color U2 iPod

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