Apple's iPod harvest: hands-on with new Shuffle, Nano, Touch

As predicted last week in the Boing Boing agricultural almanac, Apple this week releases three new varieties of iPods for the fall crop.

All three bear improvements over earlier generations of this familiar fruit, but some of the new additions—and in some cases, what's missing—may surprise you. Following are snapshots of the new iPod Shuffle, iPod Nano, and iPod Touch, with taste-test notes.

You can find them all in your local farmers markets soon, or order them now at the online Apple store.

Above, the reverse face of the 4th-generation iPod Touch ($229 for 8GB, $299 for 32GB, or $399 for 64GB). It's thinner and lighter than ever, with a much slimmer profile than iPhone: 0.28 inch (7.2 mm) thick, and 3.56 ounces (101 grams).

It's also the highest-resolution iPod yet, with a 960×640 backlit LCD display and 326 pixels per inch, and includes some of the new features introduced with the iPhone 4's launch, such as FaceTime video calls made possible with a front-facing camera and a rear-facing HD camera.

In tests performed over the past few days with the device, video capture performance seemed on par with the high expectations set by the iPhone 4.

For still snapshots, the camera is solid, but falls just a bit shy of the very high bar set by iPhone 4. The rear-facing camera on iPod Touch can shoot video at 720p, with maximum resolution of 1280×720. For still photos, maximum rez is 960×720 (720p at 4:3 ratio). Unlike iPhone 4, the Touch doesn't allow you to to tap-focus on specific spots in the photo you're about to take, because its camera is fixed-focus. Tapping allows you to tweak exposure and white balance, but that's all. And, alas, no flash.

On the upside, the Touch now includes that same A4 processor that makes the iPhone 4 so zippy: as a result, speed and responsiveness are similarly delightful.

Above, the 4th-generation iPod Shuffle, now navigable by clickwheel or voice controls. It's the cheapest music player in the Apple lineup at only $49 for 2GB, and seems like a solid deal if a bare-bones music player is all you need.

Below, the new sixth-generation Nano (8 GB for $149, 16GB for $179, available in seven different case colors). That little display's pretty crazy, about an inch and a half in both directions, give or take a smidge. The screen seems visually identical to the crispness and resolution of iPhone 4's "retina display."

Just three buttons: up/down for volume, and on/off. Everything else is multitouch. You navigate the menu, and songs or photos within, by swiping and tapping. Flick your fingers one way or the other to shift orientation, and various tap gestures allow you to go deeper into options, or back your way out.

Took me a little getting used to on first use before I felt like I knew my way around with the new UI, but that display and lack of button cruft sure feel nice. You'd think something this small would be frustrating to use for touchscreen input, and two fingers at a time might sound impossible—but I didn't find that to be the case. A big change, but the result is an intuitive UI, and music you can literally wear on your sleeve, like the punk rock pins with band logos we used to wear in high school (with help from a little clip on the back, same as the Shuffle).

A device this tiny isn't going to be used as a primary photo display device—but sharing baby photos at the gym, or quick references to visual tokens while you're out and about? Sure.
The notion of storing and showing photos on the Nano becomes more plausible with the new high-res display. But the lack of ability to zoom in or expand "landscape"/widescreen format photos is a bit of a bummer.

No video in this iteration: video playing has been removed from this new generation of Nano. But who really watches video on a wristwatch-sized display? I use a Nano at the gym a lot, and I don't think I'll mourn this feature. The Nano is a music device at heart, and performs solidly.

The radio tuner on the Nano works great: reception was what I'd expect from, say, my car radio, and the tuner interface mimics a conventional radio dial (mine's always set to KCRW, as shown in the snapshot below). Photos, music, radio, podcasts, pedometer and run history for running/jogging: All this in a device small and lightweight enough to wear on your wrist, as a neck pendant, or clip on your t-shirt. It weighs less than a single ounce: just .74 ounce/21.1 grams.

Below: At left, the new iPod Touch next to a third-generation iPhone. At right, the new Touch next to an iPhone 4. The Touch really is quite slim, and has a more tapered silhouette, compared to the iPhone 4's more rectilinear form.

Below: A Boing Boing Video episode (Markets of Britain, by Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper) on the Touch. Video playback performance is as solid on the new iPhone 4, and I can imagine spending many spare moments YouTube surfing while in transit. No surprises there: it's a powerful little multimedia device, with a number of evolutionary advances over its predecessor.

Three rows of screengrabs below: Music, Ping, then FaceTime on the new iPod Touch. With FaceTime, others call you using your email address, instead of a phone number, since the Touch is not a phone.

Ping, Apple's new social networking service for music, is one of two socially-minded additions to the Touch this time around: Game Center, for social gaming, is the other. More on those in future Boing Boing posts.

All photos shot on iPhone 4, by Xeni Jardin; screen captures from iPod Touch.)