As Apple has refreshed the second-generation iPod shuffle for the fourth time in two years, it’s worth mentioning that we’ve once again updated our November, 2006 second-generation shuffle review, with a couple of new photos and new details, all mentioned below. And it’s also worth discussing a topic that’s been of some confusion to iPod owners and vendors over the past couple of years, as the iPod shuffle and iPod classic have seen new models introduced without explanation as to what “generation” they belong to.
Every new iPod release inspires a new round of “which generation?” talk, and in the absence of any explicit cues from Apple, people have been left to draw their own assumptions about whether or not a given iPod release constitutes a new generation. Several years ago, a debate within iLounge led us to contact Apple and ask Steve Jobs whether the company’s renaming of the iPod photo to “iPod” was enough to make that device the “fifth-generation iPod.” His response was to stick with the “fourth-generation” moniker, and subsequently, the official “fifth-generation iPod” wound up being the “iPod (with video).” Jobs referred to this generational confusion in 2007 when introducing the iPod classic, which otherwise would have been called the “sixth-generation iPod.”
Over time, it’s become apparent that Apple only considers a device a generational sequel when it makes a big change in body shape—not when it swaps internal components. Thus, even though the fourth-generation iPod came in black-and-white- or color-screened variations, each with different features, the different models looked pretty much the same, and thus were called the same generation. The thinner, bigger-screened, video-capable iPod that followed was a separate product. And the iPod nano? Even though the first- and second-generation versions shared a virtually identical interface, their bodies changed, which made them different generations. Make sense?
That brings us to the iPod shuffle. We noticed some months ago that a few vendors, mostly in Asia, were referring to the then-current model as the “third-generation shuffle,” because it represented a color change over the “second-generation shuffle” introduced in late 2006. However, using color as a touchstone didn’t make sense, as Apple had actually rolled out new colors twice at that point for the new model, starting in early 2007, with a refresh in late 2007. Following color-shifting logic, this would have made the late 2007 model the “fourth-generation shuffle,” and the late 2008 model the “fifth-generation shuffle,” based on new colors alone; never mind the release of a 2GB model. But, other than earbud and color changes, today’s 1GB shuffle is the same as the one introduced two years ago. Because of improvements to other iPod models, the shuffle now has the highest static noise level of any iPod, the weakest battery life, and the slowest iTunes synchronization speeds by a fairly substantial margin. Yes, it’s still the second-generation iPod shuffle.
What about the iPod classic? The just-introduced model is not the “second-generation iPod classic,” despite several legitimate changes that were made to the hardware this time out, and detailed in our comprehensive review. Jobs blew through the product’s introduction in less than a minute on stage in San Francisco, mentioning only one change to the prior device—capacity—before moving on to other models. As it turns out, of course, battery, headphone port, and Genius features were added as well. But Apple is referring to the new model solely as the iPod classic 120GB to distinguish it from prior models, unlike the “iPod touch 2nd generation” and “iPod nano 4th generation (video)” names it has given the other new models. In other words, it’s the equivalent of the “enhanced fifth-generation iPod” that came in 30GB and 80GB capacities before the iPod classic was introduced, or a half-generation up the evolutionary scale—the “sixth-and-a-half-generation iPod,” perhaps.
Sure, it would be a lot easier if Apple just named its iPods “iPod nano 1,” “iPod nano 2,” and so on, but instead, the big print on the boxes always just says “iPod nano,” so most people have come to use various distinctions (“the fat one” or “the first red one” or “last year’s one”) to differentiate them. If you care about accessory compatibility or just want to be correct in citing iPod family history, the actual naming conventions do matter, so hopefully the information above will help you to avoid making mistakes in the future.