Friday, October 27, 2006

iPod Evolution

The Apple iPod burst onto the scene in October of 2001 and quickly became the most popular portable music player on the market. The general trend has been toward smaller form factors and higher capacities, though some important new features have been added over the years, including video playback. While other players may beat the iPod on features, nothing has yet topped the iPod's interface, ease of use, and integration with iTunes. And the iPod accessory market makes many of the features not included in the device itself available to those who want them.

In honor of the iPod's 5th birthday, here's a look at PC Magazine's reviews of the popular and often controversial music player over the past several years. Since the full-size iPod was the first and remains the most recognizable, we'll stick to those models, though don't forget to check out our reviews of the now-discontinued mini, the increasingly popular nano, and the shuffle. Also stay tuned for my upcoming review of the latest version of the iPod shuffle.

2006: Apple iPod (80GB) - 5.5 Generation
Despite the hype, the current iPod actually didn't add much to the previous generation, though the capacity increased (30GB and 80GB models are available) and prices dropped a bit. The most notable improvements are to video battery life and screen brightness. Two interesting new features are a search function and the ability to play full-fledged video games available at the iTunes Music Store (also available to the 5G iPod via a firmware update). Purchased music can also now be transferred back to a PC directly within iTunes. In addition, the device supports gapless audio playback.

2005: Apple iPod 30GB with video - 5th Generation
Apple played catch-up with its fifth-gen iPod by giving it video playback capabilities, which were already offered on players like the Archos gmini 402 and Cowon iAudio X5. The 5G iPod came in 30GB and 60GB capacities, and the screen grew to 2.5 inches (diagonal) and 320 by 240 pixel resolution to better accommodate video. The 30GB iPod was also significantly slimmer than previous models. Another interesting yet quiet introduction was an audio recording feature. Unfortunately, no company introduced a compatible adapter until nearly 9 months after the 5G iPod came out. As hard drive costs fell so too did the iPod's price tag; you could get a 30GB iPod for the same price as the previous 20GB model. I measured about 16.5 hours for audio playback and nearly 2.5 hours for video playback, which were acceptable at the time.

2005: Apple iPod 20GB with color screen - 4.5 Generation
With the "4.5" generation iPod, Apple basically got rid of the iPod Photo and gave the regular fourth-gen iPod (including the U2 edition) a color screen. The 40GB went the way of the dodo, so this iteration was available only in 20GB and 60GB versions. The battery lasted around 16 hours on my rundown test, beating Apple's 15-hour rating. Apple made a significant improvement when it added the ability to view photos on the iPod that were transferred from a camera via a third-party camera connector. This new model didn't come with a dock or AV cable, however, which marked the beginning of Apple's strategy of not including accessories that the company could charge extra for later. This was also around the time several other players began offering capabilities like video playback.

2004: Apple iPod Photo
The iPod Photo was the first iPod with a color screen, letting you look at photos on the device's built-in 2-inch LCD screen or on a TV screen via an included AV cable. It was available in 40GB and 60GB models, and battery life went up again to around 15 hours for music. And thanks to the color screen, you could now view album art on the screen. One minor annoyance is that you could only sync photos from a single computer. Another complaint was that although you could use a camera connector to transfer photos directly from a camera to the iPod's hard drive, you couldn't view those images on the iPod's screen without first transferring them back to your computer and then transferring them via iTunes.

2004: Apple iPod – 4th Generation
Apple's fourth-generation iPod's most notable feature was its click wheel; clickable areas located on the touch-sensitive scroll wheel itself replaced the four control buttons across the top—an idea picked up from the successful iPod mini. The player came in 20GB and 40GB versions. Apple also moved further away from FireWire support by making the device charge via USB and not FireWire. The battery life improved to around 12 hours. By this time, Apple had reached about 75 percent market share and the iPod accessory really started to take off. A special version of the 20GB model was also created; it was black and red and bore the signatures of the band U2 on the back, dubbed the iPod U2 Edition.

2004: Apple iPod 40GB - 3rd Generation
The third-generation of iPods saw the proliferation of capacities, having been offered in 15 and 30GB models, and then 20GB and 40GB versions. But the most radical redesign was of the scroll wheel: The buttons came off the sides and were realigned (and made touch-sensitive) above the wheel, ultimately making one-handed navigation a bit more difficult. On top of that, the device supported syncing via both USB and FireWire, though it would only charge via FireWire. The battery life seemed to take a bit of a dip, though. This is also the model that first had the proprietary dock connector, which replaced the standard FireWire port along the top.

Apple iPod - 2nd Generation
Going further back in time, the second-generation iPod's only real change was the introduction of a touch-sensitive scroll wheel. It was also available in 10GB and 20GB capacities.

2002: Apple iPod 10GB - 1.5 Generation
The follow-up to the original saw the introduction of a 10GB hard drive, a Contacts feature, and some equalization settings. Battery life remained the same, as did the price of the 5GB model, while the 10GB iPod pushed the price envelope at a whopping $499—making it significantly more expensive than rival products from Creative and Archos. Of course, that didn't seem to faze consumers much.

2001: Apple iPod – 1st Generation
The year was 2001. The original iPod's mechanical scroll wheel actually moved with your finger, and it weighed about 6.5 ounces. It connected to your Mac (a Windows version wasn't available until the following year) via a standard FireWire cable, but you could only sync your music with a single computer. The battery lasted for about 10 hours, and the hard drive held 5GB worth of tunes, all for a hefty price of $399.

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