Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review

Pros: Best value 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: Power Users’ Review

As the popularity of Apple Computer’s iPod portable digital music platform has increased, iLounge has made conscious efforts to understand the needs of our growing readership. We’ve learned that many of our readers are prospective or relatively new iPod owners looking to understand the iPod, its accessories, and iTunes. For that reason, our initial review of the fourth-generation (4G) iPod was focused largely on the needs of prospective and new iPod owners.

But as the iPod now has an installed base of roughly four million users, another significant group of iLounge readers are experienced iPod owners and lovers. These users already understand iPod basics, primarily want to enjoy listening to music on their iPods, and only occasionally want to update their software and hardware. Finally, a relatively small – but vocal – group of our readers are hard-core audiophiles and/or gadget fanatics whose demands for high-performance hardware lead them on a constant quest for newer and better products.

These latter two types of users come together in a group we call iPod Power Users, and we’ve created a special review just for them. This iLounge Power Users’ Review goes into much greater detail than our New Users’ Review, focuses on issues of interest to those already familiar with the iPod hardware and interface, and looks mostly at the differences between the newest iPod and the third-generation (3G) model released in May of 2003. If you still need to learn the basics about iPods, be sure to read the other review first, or instead of this one.

A Matter of Perspective

Several editorial comments are in order before the actual product review. First, as should now be apparent from both the marketing of the new iPod and Apple’s public statements to date, the 4G iPod is not a dramatic change from iPods past. While its Click Wheel is new to the full-sized iPod line, that feature has been available since February on the iPod mini. Other than that, Apple improved only one significant component of the new iPod – its battery life – and did not even bump the series to a higher storage capacity as it has done in the past. These facts have disappointed a vocal group of readers looking for revolutionary improvements, but have pleased others who now either feel secure in their prior iPod investments or were looking only for small incentives to join the iPod bandwagon or upgrade from older iPod hardware.

Our beat-up test 3G iPod is surrounded by new 20GB (left) and 40GB iPods.

Second, as we noted in a news story prior to releasing our New iPod Users’ Review, this Power Users’ Review reaches different conclusions and even a different product rating for experienced iPod users and harder-core hardware and audio fanatics. Apple’s decision to spend its 2004 budget marketing and selling only cheaper, smaller products comes at a cost, namely that the company’s core base of tech-savvy users will have less to be excited about.

To summarize our perspective, we continue to believe that Apple’s decision to think cheaper and smaller in 2004 was ultimately wise in all ways but one. In as much as the 4G iPod now offers greater value than before, is easier to use, and appeals to a greater number of potential users, we think Apple has made great choices. But there is little question that if stagnation of the iPod product line is combined with a significant product offering in 2005 from a legitimate competitor, there may be a shift in public perception of both Apple’s innovative capacity and the value of current configuration iPods. It would not be the first time such a crisis struck Apple, either. So we consider this a bittersweet second review of the fourth-generation iPod, appreciative of the new product but laced with the realization that something more will unquestionably be needed from Apple next time.

The Quick Summary

Apple’s fourth-generation iPod is currently available in two models, one with 20 gigabytes of storage space ($299), the other with 40 gigabytes ($399). Other than their storage capacities, a slight difference in thickness that favors the $299 iPod, and one additional pack-in for the $399 iPod (a Dock), the two units are identical. Neither unit includes a remote control or carrying case, and the 20GB iPod doesn’t include a Dock, breaking from prior Apple tradition for iPods of these capacities and partially explaining the lowered prices of the new models. Both new iPods now include USB 2.0 cables and version 4.6 of iTunes, which has been available for free in both Mac and PC formats since October of last year, replacing the PC MusicMatch software that was previously packed-in with 3G iPods. Additional basic details are available in our New iPod Users’ Review.

Opening the Box

Since new users will likely be impressed just by the compartmentalized origami art design of iPod boxes, we originally opted not to dwell on the changes Apple made to the newest iPod’s packaging. Once the outer sleeve is removed, the black box is similar enough inside, folding open into two compartments filled with goodies. But rather than the zen-like third-generation box experience, where someone or something even took the time to wind the FireWire cord around a sculpted interior Dock circle, the inside of the 4G iPod box shifts further towards the iPod mini’s model: a couple of cables are twist-tied and tossed into an empty space with packaged earphones, away from the 40GB unit’s Dock It’s one of several signs that Apple is moving away from the high-concept, luxury item marketing that accompanied iPods before the introduction of the iPod mini.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
Cables are now tossed into a collective accessories area on the left side of the 4G iPod’s box.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
The new iPod packaging contrasts with older iPod and accessory boxes, which we preferred.

The most conspicuous sign is actually the external art on the box, which now abandons photography in favor of a pop-art approach. Three of the surfaces (pink, green, and orange) are largely artistic renderings of the iPod, two incorporating the silhouette characters found in Apple’s most recent advertisements. The fourth is a flat blue background with white lettering to indicate the iPod name and storage capacity, with blue-gray lettering that denotes Mac and PC compatibility.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
Top to bottom, Apple’s newest to oldest iPod packaging.

While the new exterior definitely ties the iPod brand together under a consistent set of images, we feel that it is a step in the wrong direction for the more expensive iPod models: the clean photos on white-and-black backgrounds of other iPod boxes make the products look like they’re worth a bit of extra cash, but the new boxes make the iPods look cheaper and even toy-like, though admittedly pop iconic. The problem with pop icons is that few survive for longer than a couple of years, and despite the initial novelty, the silhouette theme is beginning to wear on us like the Budweiser frogs. Apple’s prior photographic packaging style, which matches the rest of the company’s product lines, looked set to defy that sort of fleeting longevity. We keep our fingers crossed that the company will move away from the silhouettes, especially in packaging, in the near future.

External Changes

In all ways but three, the fourth-generation iPod externally resembles its older third-generation brother. They both use acrylic white and clear plastic front shells, and mirror-polished metal rear shells, feature headphone ports and hold switches at top and a proprietary Dock Connector port at the bottom.

The old and new iPods differ externally only in controls and screens. The new iPod discards the four touch-sensitive “back,” “menu,” “play/pause/power” and “forward” buttons that appeared above the 3G iPod’s Scroll Wheel, each of which was formerly illuminated by a red backlight, as well as the touch-sensitive center “okay” button, which was not. While sleek and ingenious, these touch-sensitive controls were more than occasionally viewed by users as over or under sensitive, and not conducive to use inside of certain protective accessory cases.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
Apple’s iPod mini Click Wheel has been carried over to the 4G iPods.

Apple developed the Click Wheel as a smaller control system for the smaller iPod mini, which had less room on its face for four separate buttons, the Scroll Wheel, and the center “okay” button. As with the mini’s Click Wheel, the 4G iPod’s Click Wheel does entirely away with capacitance-based touch sensitivity for the buttons, replacing each button with a moving part that actually clicks in your choice of one, two or three ways when you depress them. One is the physical sound of the button clicking, a sound that cannot be turned off. Another comes from the iPod’s tiny built-in speaker, which also appeared in the 3G iPod. And, new to the 4G iPod, you can turn on the “clicker” sound in your headphones, either alone or at the same time as the speaker makes the sound. The clicker sound interrupts your music to the extent you search through menus while listening, and while presumably useful to visually impaired iPod users, is not a desirable addition for most users. The latter two sounds can be switched off independently or together in the 4G iPod’s firmware, and we will note that we only wish we could turn off all three; gone are the days of whisper-quiet iPod use at night in bed.

From a purely visual standpoint, the Click Wheel with white lettering is a mixed addition to the 3G iPod’s front. Some people will prefer the enhanced iconization of the iPod design from afar – it now can be summarized as a white rounded rectangle with a 1.625” inch box of a grayscale screen and a 1.625”-inch diameter gray circle of a controller beneath – but there is already debate over whether the implementation of the Wheel is as classy as it was in the 3G iPod, regardless of whether the old design was more cluttered.

Previously, the four buttons and Scroll Wheel were recessed a millimeter under the iPod’s clear acrylic coating surface, a subtle but truly classic design touch. Now, the entire matte gray Click Wheel is flush with the 4G iPod’s surface, and in our first few moments with one 20GB unit in the sunlight, its contrast with the iPod’s glossy clear coat was sticker-like enough that we thought it might be a protective shipping shield for the actual controller underneath. Indoors, this difference is far less obvious, but it’s still slightly noticeable. The iPod mini, made mostly as its front casing is from matte aluminum rather than glossy white plastic, didn’t show as much of a difference. And its Click Wheel was also ever so slightly recessed.

These minor issues aside, the Click Wheel is unquestionably a superior controller than the 3G iPod’s separate buttons, and even the 1G and 2G iPod’s closer but not integrated rounded buttons. As with the iPod mini, we found the Click Wheels on our tested iPods to be perfectly responsive, less sensitive to accidental finger motions, and downright ingenious in innovation. The single circular surface provides touch sensitivity for scrolling and tactile sensitivity for clicking. As advertised, it renders the iPod fully capable of being used solely with the single hand that holds it, and proves entirely intuitive within minutes of first use. No one will miss the prior generation’s wholly touch-sensitive controls, save those people who identify with the aural or aesthetic issues raised above.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
Apple has changed the backlighting of the new iPod (right); it now glows purplish-blue in the dark, and under some lights.

The new iPods’ screens are another matter. For months, iPod fans have speculated that Apple would replace the series’ black-and-white (four-grayscale) screen with a full-color display, perhaps matching the integrated digital music and photo players introduced recently by competitors. Following the lead of Nintendo, which waited almost nine years to fulfill fan demands for color screen technology in its Game Boys – instead releasing only different colored external casings – Apple has made only the most token color shift in the new iPod – and not one that everyone will like.

Prior-generation iPods featured a stunning high contrast white backlight, which combined with large black lettering to provide the digital music industry’s best-looking grayscale display. When the iPod mini came out, light periwinkle blue lit screens trickled in to the iPod’s gene pool, and some later-model 3G iPod users began to report that their units featured blue screens, as well. It was unclear whether fluorescent and incandescent overhead lighting had anything to do with the perceived color shifts, but there seemed to be something to the reports. Since iPod advertising had occasionally depicted a blue glow coming from the iPod’s screen, many users were actually happy about this change, and iPod modification shops even began to meet “me too” demand by selling iPod backlight color shifters in blue and other colors.

From the test units we’ve received and reports that we’ve read from readers, it appears that most if not all of the 4G iPods now ship with blue backlit screens, which is to say that in perfect darkness you’ll see blue-ish text and a blue-ish tint to the backlight. But the color’s not exactly blue, and certainly not the low-contrast blue of Creative’s Zen screens; rather, it’s closer to light purple. When the backlight is off, text appears just as black as it did before, and the screen appears just as grey as before. Turn it on in dark, or under the right sort of light, and the screen becomes light purple, with black text a dark purple. Under fluorescent blubs, the color looks closer to very light purple, almost white. We don’t think that new users are going to care, and frankly, it barely affects use of the iPod at all. But for visually impaired users who previously selected the iPod for its “far better than Creative Zen or Dell DJ” screen, it’s a small step down in contrast under certain circumstances. For the rest of us, it feels like a small step down in class.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
In order of thickness, the 4G 20GB iPod, the 3G 15GB iPod, and the 4G 40GB iPod.

A third and final difference in one of the new iPods’ exteriors is the size. Though the new 20GB and 40GB iPods have the same exact footprints as their 3G brethren, each iPod is fractionally thinner than its predecessor, and thus the 20GB model is history’s thinnest full-sized iPod. When we say “fractionally,” the 20GB iPod has slimmed off 0.05”, so little that you mightn’t notice if you weren’t told, especially given that both iPods remain at the same weights as their 3G predecessors. The 40GB iPod 4G makes a similarly minor thickness change from its 30GB and 40GB iPod 3G models – from .73 inches to .69 inches, or 0.04”. Placement of each new unit’s headphone port, hold switch, and Dock Connector ports have not changed at all, and prior electronic accessories remain generally compatible with the new hardware, though there may be small issues to consider. We’ll discuss that point more in another section.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
In different order, the 3G 15GB iPod (left) looks very similar to the 4G 20GB iPod (center).

Firmware/Operating System and General Specifications

The aforementioned external differences in the new iPod are without question the most noticeable: with the exception of extended battery life, which we’ll discuss in the next section, we could easily characterize Apple’s remaining changes as minor from a Power User’s perspective. Described as version 3.0 of the iPod’s system software – suggesting an improvement over version 2.2 of the 3G iPod’s software, 1.1 of the iPod mini’s, and 1.4 of the original first- and second-generation iPods – the new OS looks and functions so much like its predecessors on the surface that, text differences aside, most people wouldn’t know the difference.

But Power Users would know, and maybe even care. The full list of changes, therefore, is as follows.

Customize Main Menu: Rather than initially presenting you with a modestly confusing melange of options, the new main menu is slightly simpler: “Music,” “Extras,” “Settings,” “Shuffle Songs,” and “Backlight” are the only options initially displayed, and “Now Playing” appears when a song is played or paused. “Music” takes you into the former “Browse” menu, and adds Playlists and Audiobooks to that list. As with the 3G iPod, you can use Settings to tweak what you want on the main menu, and the only real changes there are the addition of song shuffling to the main menu and the renaming of “Browse” to “Music.” Unfortunately, Apple didn’t include two menu features our readers asked about: the ability to place a specific playlist on the main menu, or display songs by year.

Shuffle Songs with One Click: Press the “Shuffle Songs” button in the main menu, and the iPod will launch into a randomized playback of your entire library, minus the audiobooks. This turns out to be a really nice simplification of what used to take three button presses and a default “shuffle” choice in your settings menu, but it could have been better. A few users have already complained that Apple’s initial web description of the feature overstated its capabilities, and unless you use the old three click technique, you can’t shuffle playback of a selected subset of your collection, or exclude files from the master list of songs. So look out, iTrip users: you may be hearing high-pitched channel tuning noises mixed in with your music.

Create and Save Multiple On-The-Go Playlists, and Delete Songs from On-The-Go Playlists: The title says it all; you can do all of these things, and quite easily at that, though it’s still a better idea to build your playlists with iTunes if you’re planning to select lots of tracks (but not all) from a given artist.

Deleting’s not as easy as adding.

Select Reading Playback Speed for Audiobooks: In a move likely to boost the spirits of bookworms but kill the dreams of DJs, Apple decided to let users change the playback speed of audio books from “Normal” to “Faster” (+25%) or “Slow” (-25%), nothing in-between, and not for use with music. You now set a default speed in the Settings menu, and can change speeds during playback with a third center button press (volume > timeline > rating > speed).

We downloaded two of Audible’s audiobook format files for test purposes, both from the 9/11 Commission, one with the male voice of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the other with the female voice of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, just to see whether there was distortion of either type of voice. There was, but it wasn’t pitch-related, and though mildly awkward, it wasn’t offensive. It turns out that the speed adjusting technique plays some interesting tricks with the audio, shortening or eliminating pauses and using slightly mechanical sounding methods to stretch or shorten words. There’s a good chance that the 9/11 Commission hearings on “Slow” will prove to be someone’s perfect cure for insomnia.

Hear the Clicker User Interface Sound through Headphones: If you didn’t know before, the chirping and clicking sounds of the third-generation iPod come from a small built-in speaker that can’t be used for music playback. In the 4G iPod, you can choose to hear the clicking sound through your speaker, your headphones, both, or neither, adjustable in the settings menu. The sounds go silent in the Now Playing screen, but reappear when you back out of that screen to play in the iPod’s menus.

Additional Language Support: Support for a new collection of mostly Eastern European song, album and artist names is now included. If you love Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Turkish or Ukrainian music, the iPod’s finally ready to display your songs without messing up their names. Only problem: the menus still only display in the thirteen languages that used to be supported.

Pause on Unplug: Unplug the headphones and the iPod will pause automatically. It’s a nice feature, and works well unless you’re using a Y-shaped headphone jack splitter. Like the iPod mini, the 4G iPod now turns on automatically when you plug the headphones in, too, but doesn’t start to play.

Charge via USB 2.0 Connection: Like the iPod mini, if your computer has a USB 2.0 port, you can now recharge the 4G iPod by using Apple’s packed-in USB 2.0 cable. Third-generation iPods were limited to charging with the FireWire cable.

Still awake after that list? If so, you’re probably hoping to find something else added, but chances are that it hasn’t been. The equalizers are the same. The games are the same. Voice recording and digital photo downloading are the same (in other words, only if you have the right accessories). Pretty much everything else from the fonts to the playback of songs is the same. Except, of course, for the new iPod’s ability to keep playing, and playing, and playing.

Battery Life: Claims and Tests

As we’ve previously mentioned, the new iPod’s most substantial improvement is enhanced battery life: allegedly without changing components, Apple has managed to increase the iPod’s playback time from an estimated maximum of eight to an estimated maximum of twelve hours. iLounge’s prior tests of the 3G iPod suggested that eight was a stretch, if only a little one, though under unrealistically controlled circumstances. And our exhaustive battery test of the iPod mini made it apparent that though initial battery performance could fall as much as 33% behind the eventual settling point reached after five to ten discharge-recharge cycles, Apple’s eight-hour estimate for that product was conservative: under the right circumstances, ten- or more hours of playback were actually achievable.

Our results of the 4G iPod’s battery testing followed the same pattern: under our standard testing conditions, our very first test of the 4G iPod’s battery yielded exactly 8 hours and 30 minutes of playback time – almost 30% below Apple’s rated performance, just like the iPod mini. But followup testing showed dramatic gains: the 4G iPod went for 13 hours and 21 minutes in another test. And interestingly, we found that the battery meter was far more accurate than before: its “50%” and “10%” indications were right on the mark, though pleasantly, the iPod didn’t die at “0%,” and rather kept on playing for around 30 additional minutes.

Without question, the enhanced battery life is the fourth-generation iPod’s biggest selling point. In addition to offering the playback time that users were demanding for transcontinental flights and other extreme situations, the 4G iPod now offers even better capacity to handle accessories that drain power. The only small caveat of these findings is that, as always, your actual battery life will depend entirely on how you use your iPod. Our tests, like those used by most other organizations, assume minimal backlight usage, no equalizers turned on, randomized music playback of different bitrates and lengths, and little user interaction. We think that the average user will see nine to ten hours of solid playback time if they don’t keep screwing around with the iPod’s hard drive.

A larger issue is a pet peeve of many current iPod users, namely that the battery is not user-removable or replaceable. Apple’s battery replacement service will set users back $60 to $100 if they’re out of warranty, and though the battery will last anywhere from 18 to 24 months, it may well begin to show degraded performance near the end of that life cycle. For many reasons, we continue to feel strongly that biannual battery replacement services should not be part of Apple’s business plan. They alienate current users, scare away potential users, and as with laptops could be far more profitable for Apple as optional battery packs that are installed and detached at will.

Audio Quality

Though only a few iLounge users requested audiophile-grade tests of the new iPod’s audio hardware, we wanted to oblige them to the extent possible, and therefore sat down with our test iPods and two reference sets of earphones: our Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros and a pair of slightly less impressive (but substantially less expensive) Etymotic ER-4Ps. We used Apple’s new Lossless Audio codec to encode a collection of varied tracks, which we then sent to our test 3G iPod and 4G iPods.

The combination of high bitrate audio, monitor-class earphones and several iPods had one desired effect, and one undesired effect: it gave us a nearly perfect window on our iPods’ audio output, but also revealed a serious and previously undetected flaw in the audio output of our first new 40GB iPod. When connected to the UE-10 Pros, the iPod’s headphone jack displayed audible interference from the unit’s hard disk accesses and some other electrical component. Since each of the Lossless tracks needed to be loaded separately from the iPod’s hard disk, each time we switched tracks, we could hear a hard drive whine and then light static at the beginning of each song. We switched headphones, and the same problem was there. But we weren’t prepared for what happened next.

Review: Apple 4G iPod: Power Users’ Review
We found an issue in our 40GB iPods (right), but not our 20GB unit (left).

When we switched iPods – from one 40GB to our second 40GB – the same problem was in both units. We were shocked.