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How About an iPod Pro?

In my latest article for The Loop Magazine, I muse about the possibilities of an iPod pro, a version of Apple’s media player designed for discerning listeners. Check it out here.

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Where Are the iPod (classic) Games?

001.png Reading Simon Jary’s delightfully snark-filled 10 reasons Apple will and won’t kill the iPod – is the iPod really doomed? on Macworld UK this morning, I was reminded that the iPod classic had, for a while, games. They were pretty simplistic, but they worked. I recall buying a couple of them, and they got lost somewhere between one old Mac and my current computer. (I recently wrote my own Is the iPod Dead? article…)

Apple still lists iPod games on their website. This is surprising because Apple removed all mention of these games from the iTunes Store back in September 2011. Check out the iTunes Store; even in the little link on the bottom of the page, there’s nothing about games for click wheel iPods.

Apple has an FAQ about iPod Click Wheel Games on their website, but “This article has been archived and is no longer updated by Apple.”

Apple also still mentions that the iPod classic holds 40,000 songs. This was the case for 4-minute songs at 128 kbps – the older, DRM-laden format that the iTunes Store sold – but now, with iTunes Plus files, at 256 kbps, it holds a mere 20,000 4-minute tracks. However, the company does have a footnote about that:

Song capacity is based on 4 minutes per song and 128-Kbps AAC encoding; in 256-Kbps AAC format, song capacity is up to 20,000 songs; actual capacity varies by encoding method and bit rate.

I don’t really miss these games. But it’s surprising that Apple still mentions them on the iPod classic page on their website. Apple doesn’t always keep support documents up to date, but the marketing copy generally doesn’t discuss features that have been removed from products.

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Is the iPod Finally Dead?

Apple reported its earnings for the fourth quarter of 2013 yesterday, and made a boatload of money, sold gazillions of iPhones and iPads, and even had a strong increase in Mac sales. But one of the most striking parts of their report was a sharp drop in iPod sales: down 52% over the previous year, with revenues from the iPod down 54%. As Macworld points out, the iPod only represents 2% of Apple’s income now.

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Remember back in the heyday of the iPod, when it was driving Apple’s growth? That little portable music player set Apple on the road to the post-PC era, and allowed the company to break away from being a (mostly) computer-only company. With a variety of different models, Apple had a product line that was the envy of other tech companies, who were never able to catch up.

So is the iPod dead? I don’t think so; it’s simply morphed into other devices. At the time of this writing, Apple still has 15 of the top 24 places on Amazon’s list of best selling MP3 players. But the smartphone has essentially killed off the portable music player. People will still buy iPods to use in the gym, when running, cycling or other sporting activities, but as more people have smartphones, there is less need for iPods.

The only exception is the market for people with large music libraries. Apple’s iPod classic still has the largest capacity – 160 GB – but even that is getting tight for big music fans. Three months ago, I suggested that Apple make an iPod pro for the high-end audio market; I still think that’s a good idea.

But the iPod as a concept has been replaced by a device that can do so much more. As smartphones continue their growth, the iPod will continue its decline. Nevertheless, don’t expect Apple to stop selling iPods any time soon; with nearly 20 million sold each year, it’s still a profitable part of Apple’s product line, and one that probably doesn’t cost very much to maintain. Apple hasn’t made any serious updates to the iPod line since September 2012, when the company last updated the iPod nano to a new form factor. (Updates to the iPod touch don’t really count, because they just leverage technology developed for the iPhone.)

We may see the occasional update to the iPod in the coming years, but it clearly looks like the iPod product line is in its last iteration. Unless Apple makes an iPod pro…

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iWant: An iPod Pro

Let’s face it: the iPod is dying. Apple still sells the iPod classic – with 160 GB storage on a hard disk – the iPod nano, the iPod shuffle, and the iPod touch, but the iPod family, overall, is on its last legs. Look at these numbers, showing iPod sales over the past few years (source: Macworld):

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Apple’s still selling more than 12 million units a year, but that’s down from 19 million just two years ago. Compare that to iPhone units (source: Macworld):

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Apple is selling more than 37 million iPhones a quarter; the iPad sells more units than the iPod as well.

So, with this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a hard-drive based iPod (because of the storage capacity), with the ability to play high-resolution files, and with a digital optical output. This would allow users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, and have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate this when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to have more capacity than the current iPod classic: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), a 250 GB hard disk would hold about 200 albums. If you stuck with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 500 albums, which would be fine for most users. (Or, they could go to 512 GB of flash storage… Costly, but this is for a market that might be willing to pay for it.)

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an excellent DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Apple could use a similar quality DAC, and still come in at, say, $300 or so, with a goodly amount of storage.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that could stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

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iOS 7 is Coming: Back Up Your iOS Device

With iOS 7 due for release today, it’s time to do something that you should do often: back up your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Whenever you install a new operating system, whether on a computer or a mobile device, there is a risk of problems which could cause data loss.

It’s easy to back up an iOS device, and it’s just as easy to restore that backup if something goes wrong. Connect your iOS device to your computer, and launch iTunes, if it doesn’t launch automatically. Click on the device, or click on the Devices button in iTunes, then choose that device. On the Summary screen, you’ll see the following:

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Click on This Computer, then click on Back Up Now. If you generally back up your iOS device to iCloud, switch it to This Computer for now. An iCloud backup is great to have if you’re on the road and need to restore an iOS device, but a local backup is much quicker. The backup won’t take long, and you’ll be safe in case of any problems when you update to iOS 7.

If you don’t sync and back up your iOS device regularly, try and remember to do so in the future; it protects you against losing data, but also your settings and home screens. It’s a quick, painless process, so don’t forget to do it often.

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In Praise of the iPod Classic

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As we approach the now-familiar annual Apple new product announcement for the autumn, and await a new iPhone, it’s worth wondering what the fate of the iPod classic will be. Largely ignored in these days of touch screens and apps, the old stalwart hard-drive-filled iPod classic is, like the proverbial bunny, still ticking. It’s a great device, with lots of capacity.

I last wrote about the iPod classic about two years ago, wondering if Apple would kill off the iPod classic and shuffle. At the time, I examined Amazon.com’s list of best-selling MP3 players, and found that the iPod classic was number six in the list. As I write this article, the iPod classic is in seventh and eighteenth positions (for the two different-colored models); not bad for a device that Apple doesn’t advertise, and that is rarely mentioned in the tech press.

The rest of that best-seller list is interesting. Out of the top twenty devices, Apple has 15 of its music players present, compared with 14 two years ago. Apple is no longer number one, however; the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ 4 GB MP3 Player takes the crown. This is a low-priced device that is arguably better than the iPod shuffle, which only comes in at number 23.

Back in 2011, I said the following:

The iPod classic is the only hard-drive-based music player that Apple sells. While this is fragile (I ruined an iPod classic by dropping it once; the hard drive died), it also offers larger capacity than flash memory. However, if Apple can get the price of flash memory down enough to offer similar capacities in an iPod touch, the classic’s only trump card gets beaten. Personally, I like the classic because I have a huge library – much more than it can hold. But if Apple can sell me an iPod touch with the same capacity, 160 GB, or even more, at a comparable price, I’d go for it in a second. The iPod touch is far more versatile, yet far more expensive. The current 64 GB iPod touch lists at $400, compared to $359 for 160 GB on the iPod classic; that’s nearly three times as much capacity. I can’t see Apple offering more than 160 GB on a touch, but if they were to offer a 128 GB model for around the price of the classic, that would tempt a lot of users with big libraries. But it’s still not enough.

Some of the figures there need updating. While the iPod touch 64 GB is still $400, the iPod classic is only $249, a drop of $100 in two years, making it a bargain-priced device for the voracious listener. That’s only $20 more than the previous-version 16 GB iPod touch, which Apple still sells, and $50 less than the current iPod touch 32 GB.

To be honest, I haven’t used my iPod classic, or my iPod shuffle, for that matter, in a long time. Since I carry my iPhone with me all the time, I use that for music, especially since I got Bluetooth headphones and can listen without getting tangled in wires. But the iPod classic remains on my desk, a reminder of times past. I’m thinking of putting it in my car, which has a 1/8” jack for a portable music player. Why not have that much choice of music in a car?

Will Apple kill off the iPod classic? This time, I think they may. But in exchange, I hope they offer us an iPod touch, and even an iPhone, with 128 GB. I don’t know if I’d pay the price for that much storage in an iPhone – my current model is 32 GB, and I’m pining for 64 GB – but it would be nice to know it’s there if you have a very large music library and want to take a lot of music with you.

But the iPod classic remains the only direct descendant of the first iPod (in form factor, and technology). It’ll be a shame to see it go.

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Apple’s New 16 GB iPod Touch: Who’s It For?

ScreenSnapz003Apple has introduced a stripped-down version of the 5th generation iPod touch (that’s the latest model) for $229. This new iPod only has one storage option – 16 GB – and has no back-facing camera. With limited storage and limited photo/video options, who is this new iPod for?

It’s an odd hybrid: it runs apps, plays music and videos, but you can’t shoot photos or videos (not easily, unless you plan to film yourself). And the storage is fine for a limited music collection, but it’s not very useful for adding videos.

However, this might be the perfect iPod touch for a very large demographic: your children. The iPod touch is a great device for games, and there are thousands of games for kids. If you have an iOS device, you’ve probably found that your kids want to bogart your iPhone or iPod touch, but at the current price for the 5th generation iPod touch, you may have hesitated about buying one. Given that the 32 GB model is $299, the saving of $70 for this device is a nice chunk of change. You get the same processor and display, but you don’t get a choice of colors. But, above all, you get a cheaper version of the iPod touch that is fine for playing games.

If it’s music you want, then the 7th generation iPod nano is what you want. It’s smaller, lighter, and has the same amount of storage – 16 GB. But it doesn’t have any camera, and doesn’t run apps. But if all you want is music, there’s no need to spend more than the $149 this model costs.

I’ve been a fan of the iPod nano over the years, and I very much like the newest model. Not only is it small and light, but it has Bluetooth. I’ve become enamored of wireless headphones for listening to music when I’m out on my daily walks, and if I didn’t have an iPhone, I’d buy the nano for music on the go. It’s got enough storage for me to add music I like to listen to when I walk, and is small and unobtrusive.

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New Lockscreen Music Controls in iOS 6.1

Apple has released iOS 6.1, the latest update to the operating system for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. A minor change has been made to the lockscreen music controls – these are visible if your iOS device is locked, and you double-press the home button. Instead of displaying the time in a huge font, and the name of what you’re listening to below the slider, these small texts are above the fold, and the time is missing (it’s visible in the toolbar already, so it doesn’t need to be so big).

This lets you see more of your lockscreen wallpaper, which is, I guess, useful, but I’d much rather see more playback controls there: perhaps the shuffle and repeat buttons that you get in the Music app itself, or even the Genius button. Since I do use the lockscreen controls often when listening to music, it would be nice for those controls to provide the same access to features as the Music app. It would also be nice to be able to view lyrics from the lockscreen.

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