Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review

Pros: Best value 20 and 40GB iPods released to date, with Apple’s best control scheme and extended (12 hour or more) battery life.

Cons: Click Wheel works a bit better than it looks, new features besides battery and Click Wheel are largely trivial, still no user-replaceable battery.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review

Little more than a year ago, the iPod ceased to be a mere consumer electronics product: it became an icon, symbolizing both the design expertise of Apple Computer and the new way that people have come to understand music. Apple’s third-generation iPod was a catalyst for this change. Soon after its April, 2003 debut in Tokyo, Japan, the world came to recognize the iPod as a device that made entire music collections incredibly portable and easy to enjoy.

Today, Apple’s fourth-generation iPods have taken another step towards global ubiquity. While not substantially different from their predecessors, they offer better battery life, value for the dollar, and a collection of small user interface improvements that are mostly of interest to current iPod owners. But importantly, the new iPods – like this review – were not designed to appeal to current iPod owners. They were mostly made for converts and first-time digital music buyers. And judged by that standard, they are an almost unmitigated success.

Apple’s Fourth-Generation iPod Boxes and Accessories (sold separately)

The iPod and iTunes, in Brief

Apple’s fourth-generation (4G) iPods are svelte hard disk-based portable digital audio players, currently available in two models: one has 20 gigabytes of storage space, enough to hold around 5,000 average-length songs ($299), while the other has 40 gigabytes of space, enough for 10,000 songs ($399). They’re capable of playing the world’s most common digital music format, MP3, as well as the most popular audio book format (Audible) and several other formats, namely Apple’s proprietary AAC (MPEG-4) and new Apple Lossless standards, plus older WAV and AIFF formats. Each iPod fits easily into a small pocket, and with included earbud-style headphones, serves as a complete replacement for both your entire CD- or cassette-based music collection, and your larger prior CD or cassette-based player.

Every iPod includes a free and fully functional piece of software called iTunes, which Apple originally developed as a digital music library management tool. Now available for PCs and Macs, iTunes is the easiest-to-use “turnkey” tool available for turning CDs into digital audio files, organizing those files, and sending them to a digital music player such as the iPod. iTunes can also convert unprotected Windows Media Audio (WMA) files into files that the iPod can play, burn CDs, and create “playlists” of your favorite music. Additionally, iTunes now includes a popular feature called the iTunes Music Store, which allows people to legally and inexpensively download music from the Internet on a per-song or per-album basis. It’s now the world’s most popular source of legal downloads.

Together, the iPod and iTunes are widely considered to be the best package available for digital music playback, organization, and legal downloading. Because of their combined strengths, and the fact that their competitors lack one or more of their significant features, they have established a momentum and broad support that should not be ignored as a factor weighing in any new purchaser’s favor. Apple has a bandwagon, and people are clamoring to jump on.

Look and Feel

Like their third-generation (3G) predecessors, the fourth-generation iPods can be described and photographed, but slightly transcend such representations when you see them in person. Roughly one half chrome-like metal and one half acrylic white plastic, an iPod shines when you see it, an effect achieved through a thin layer of clear plastic coating and plenty of polish. The front of any iPod is a study in simplicity: it includes a screen, five buttons, and a wheel, but nothing more; the top and bottom include nothing more than two ports to connect accessories, and the simplest two-position hold switch. Likewise, the back is minimalistic: it reflects your face like a mirror, with engravings of the Apple logo and the word “iPod” at center, and a small-print collection of logos and legal details at the bottom.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
Both of the new iPods look identical from the front.

iPods are also universally small by the standards of the times they were released, and the fourth-generation iPod is no exception to that rule. Though the footprints of the third- and fourth-generation iPods are the same – a deck of cards-sized 4.1 inches (10.4cm) by 2.4 inches (6.1cm), the 20 gigabyte version has shaved .05 inch (around 1mm) off its prior case size to become only .57 inches thick (1.4cm). It’s a trivial difference, especially as the unit’s weight remains at 5.6 ounces (158g) and therefore feels almost the same in your hand, but it’s still the thinnest full-sized iPod to date. The 40 gigabyte iPod made a smaller change, losing only 0.04”, and is noticeably thicker now than the 20 gigabyte version, measuring .69 inches thick (1.8cm) and retaining a weight of 6.2 ounces (176g). Again, while noticeable by direct comparison with each other, the thickness difference is virtually meaningless: both iPods seem perfectly sized and feel great in your hands, especially by comparison with other digital music players.

While the fourth-generation iPod has no truly new components, it is a unique combination of parts that have appeared in earlier successful models. Most important to the design is the Click Wheel, a flat gray donut of a control mechanism in the lower center of the iPod’s shiny face.

Originally introduced in the iPod mini, the Click Wheel is a brilliant innovation that literally removes the need for any other controls or buttons, integrating the iPod’s classic five buttons into small tactile North, South, West, East, and Center points on a wheel, then using the entire flat surface of the wheel as a touch-sensitive “scrolling” surface to roll up or down through menus, adjust volume, or skip to a different part of a song. As with prior iPods, the new iPod’s hold switch is present solely to disable accidental access to the controls, and features like “power on” are integrated wisely into existing buttons. Just press the play button to turn the iPod on, or hold it in to turn it off.

We generally believe that the Click Wheel is the best control device Apple has created yet, though button depressions make physical clicking sounds that aren’t as silent as the 3G iPod’s whisper-quiet controls. Additionally, the large gray Click Wheel surface is flush with the 4G iPod’s glossy face and is also somewhat sticker-like, each design decision detracting mildly from the perfectly classy, rounded-off acrylic surface Apple pioneered on the 3G version. The slight recession of the wheels in both the 3G iPod and iPod mini just worked better. But most people won’t mind.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
Apple’s switch from black to blue screens may disappoint some users.

Apple’s second major component is a six-line, four-grayscale screen, which features a bright backlight and easy to read lettering. It is identical in size to the prior iPods’ screens, save the smaller ones used in iPod minis. In prior iPod generations, a white backlight with black text was used, but recent model 3G iPods have intermittently used bluish lights that also give the text a blue cast. Our test iPods included purplish blue backlights, a development which will please some users but not others, as the blue lights more closely resemble earlier “cool” iPod photos and advertisements, but in actuality slightly reduce the sharper white-on-black contrast of earlier screens, and in our opinion look a bit cheaper. There are also no lights to illuminate the new iPods’ buttons in the dark, unlike the 3G iPods.

Finally, the iPod includes two now standard accessory ports: the custom headphone jack on the iPod’s top permits use of any pair of headphones, but also includes a small collection of data and power pins that integrate with numerous “top mounting” iPod accessories, ranging from remote controls to FM transmitters to microphones. More importantly, a Dock Connector port on the iPod’s bottom connects with a huge collection of “Dock-mounting” accessories ranging from car and home power chargers to digital camera photo readers.

In all ways, the fourth-generation iPod is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and for new users, that’s generally a good thing. Because of its use of the prior-generation’s ports, it is fully compatible with all existing third-generation iPod electronic accessories – of which there are now many – and on an aesthetic level, it preserves the white and metal look that Apple has rendered iconic. The only thing it lacks is full compatibility with the wide variety of third-party cases that have already been developed; cases like the Contour Showcase fit, though less attractively than before. But if history is any indicator, new cases will start to be released within a month, and this won’t be an issue.

User Interface and Controls

We could talk about the iPod’s user interface forever, but suffice to say for new users’ purposes that it offers three things: the easiest interface of any hard disk-based digital audio player, highly readable fonts, and incredibly simple controls. It has not changed substantially from prior generation iPods, features almost no graphics, and makes text choices easy to navigate through with the Click Wheel and five buttons. Music is always only three or four button clicks away.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
Side-by-Side, the new 20 (left) and 40 gigabyte iPods.

As with previous generations, when an audio track plays, a battery charge meter appears in the upper right hand corner with a “play” or “pause” icon in the left, the details of the currently playing track in the center, and a timeline indicating your current location in the track at the bottom. Pressing the Click Wheel’s central button flips you through simple options from volume control to skipping forward or backward through the track, to rating the track, to changing the playback speed of the track (solely in the case of audio books). Moving to the previous song, next song, pausing or going back to the menu of songs are accomplished through the other four buttons.

Simply put, the Click Wheel makes possible one-handed navigation through a library of up to 10,000 songs, and the menu system is surprisingly responsive given the vast size of the collection it can store. Together, the combination is easy enough for a grandmother or young child to figure out and use. We feel confident that virtually any new user will find the newest iPod’s user interface and control scheme downright intuitive, especially by comparison with competing products.

Key Additions: Battery and Firmware

Besides the Click Wheel and smaller physical changes, little has changed from the third-generation iPod to the fourth, particularly on the inside. But there’s one very serious positive change: additional battery life. iPods use rechargeable batteries that are not user-replaceable, and last for six to eight hours of playback and approximately 18 to 24 months depending on the way they’re used.

Even though most people won’t play music for more than eight continuous hours at a time, the iPod’s “short” battery life was previously perceived as a drawback of Apple’s small enclosure design.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
The 40 gigabyte iPod in its Dock (included).

That shouldn’t be a problem any more. According to Apple, the new iPod is capable of twelve hours of continuous playback under optimal conditions – a 50% increase over the ratings of the 3G iPod and iPod mini. And our initial tests suggest that Apple’s estimates are on target, perhaps even on the conservative side. Though the average person won’t use the iPod under entirely optimal conditions, we think that it’s safe to say that nine to ten hours of typical playback can be expected before a recharge is necessary. We will post further details on our tests in our Power Users’ Review, but we’ll note for now that the extra battery life alone makes this the iPod we would recommend to heavy-duty accessory users.

As with the iPod mini, Apple estimates that a full battery recharge will require four hours, with the first two hours serving to “quick charge” the iPod to 80% capacity and the remaining two hours gently “trickle charging” the remaining 20%. Like their power consumption estimates, we also found these numbers to be accurate in our testing.

At this point in time, our only issue with the battery is that it’s not user-removable or replaceable. Though Apple will replace your battery for you, you will pay $60 to $100 for that service, assuming that it fails outside of your warranty period. On the bright side, the company generally provides excellent in-warranty service, and the chance that you’ll need to replace the battery before the two-year mark is quite small. We don’t consider this a major issue, but it’s an issue nonetheless.

The only other changes to the iPod are truly minor tweaks to the iPod’s operating system – ones new users are highly unlikely to notice. Chief among them are enhanced menu customization, such that you can make it easier to reach or search your songs with fewer button presses, the ability to dynamically create and save multiple playlists full of songs using only your iPod’s controls, and finally, the previously noted ability to make two adjustments (“faster” or “slower”) to the playback speed of audio books. There’s also a main menu option for shuffled (randomized) song playback, and Eastern European users will discover that their song, artist and album information (of virtually any language of origin) is displayed properly on the screen. A final small but nice addition: the iPod automatically pauses when you detach the headphones.

What Else is in the Box

The iPod is only one part of a larger package: it arrives in a distinctively-designed box with several accessories. Each iPod’s box is like origami art, folding open into compartments that each reveal the packed-in items. New users are often surprised (and generally delighted) by the process of unpacking their first iPods, and the newest iPod follows that tradition.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
The new iPod boxes use imagery from recent ads, and don’t include remote controls or carrying cases, as the 3G versions of these iPods did.

Both of the fourth-generation iPods currently on the market include the same accessories, but for one item. Apple’s distinctive white packed-in earbud-style headphones deliver above average but not spectacular audio quality given that they’re “free,” with a good dynamic range, pretty good clarity, and stronger emphasis on treble response than bass. The earphones come with two sets of black foam covers, and the cable is a fraction of an inch longer than what we received with our iPod mini – perhaps not an intentional difference as much as one explainable by manufacturing tolerance.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
While Apple isn’t quite as conscious of the packaging of the individual items as they used to be, you now get everything in the box you’ll need, even for PC use.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
Apple’s USB 2.0 cable (left) is a new addition to the iPod box, complementing the FireWire cable.

Each iPod box also includes two cables – one FireWire, one USB 2.0 – plus a distinctive white plastic AC adapter cube, which connects to the iPod using the FireWire cable. These cables enable you to transfer music files from your computer to your iPod, and also to charge the iPod whenever it’s plugged in to your computer.

While a seemingly minor addition to the package, the USB 2.0 cable used to be a separate $19 expense for PC users, and it’s great that Apple’s eliminated that single (but generally mandatory) additional purchase. The company has also given the 4G iPod the ability to recharge its battery through a computer using the USB 2.0 cable, another nice bonus. (Both the packed-in cable and USB 2.0 recharging were previously included with the iPod mini, but not the 3G iPod, which was released 10 months earlier.)

Not surprisingly, both iPods include documentation and a single installation CD (iPod 3.0.1 CD) appropriate for both PC and Mac users. Installation of all the software necessary to use the software took under 10 minutes on both our test PC and Mac computers, and the CD included both electronic versions of the iPod manual and a complete, easy-to-read tutorial on using both the iPod and its included iTunes music library management software. We feel comfortable saying that the tutorial will be more than adequate to get even novice users acquainted with both products.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: New iPod Users’ Review
One CD and a collection of booklets accompany the new iPod.

As a final note, 40 gigabyte iPods also include one other item: a Dock. The Dock is an otherwise optional accessory that enables the iPod to “stand up” on a gentle incline with its screen facing you, and features two ports in the back, one a line out for clean stereo audio feeds, and the other a standard female Dock Connector port. It comfortably fits all third- and fourth-generation iPods released to date.

You place the iPod in the Dock, connect the Dock to your computer with the FireWire or USB cable, or to your stereo system with a stereo 3.5” mini jack cable, and that’s it.