Apple owns a large chunk of the portable MP3 player market, and as such it's taken a rather predictable course with the fourth generation of its hard-drive based player. There's nothing really revolutionary with the iPod this time around, although Apple has finally started doing something about the unit's battery life. It's far too early to say if they've done enough to mitigate user's concerns over the tendency of iPod batteries to lose large chunks of capacity over a relatively short period of time -- that's something we'll find out in six months or so once the first units have been properly battered and bruised. Based on our testing, however, at least those who wanted more playback life from their pocket music centres should be well satisfied.
The design of the iPod has only really slowly evolved, and the fourth generation doesn't really make any bold new moves to change the existing design format. The new iPod is slightly slimmer at 10.4 by 6.1 by 1.57 cm and 158gm, but it's only really if you've spent extensive time using an older iPod that you'll notice that. Borrowed from the iPod Mini's design is the click wheel, which allows users to navigate by tactile feedback, as the wheel itself clicks in four directions. We're a bit torn on whether this is a good or bad design decision -- on the Mini, with a smaller wheel, it certainly made some sense, but on a larger unit it almost feels to us as though it's adding an unwanted level of complexity to an otherwise seamless design.
Speaking of seamless design, the one thing that Apple didn't take from the iPod Mini was the variety of colour schemes. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any colour non-Mini iPod you like -- as long as it's white. One thing Apple did do was raise the price difference between the lowest-capacity iPod and the iPod mini -- whereas previously the 15GB iPod was only AU$50 more than the 4GB Ipod Mini, there's now a clear AU$100 between the 20GB unit and the 4GB one.
Apple offers the fourth-generation iPod in two sizes at the time of writing -- a 20GB and 40GB model, priced at AU$499 and AU$649 respectively. The iPod connects via USB 2.0 or Firewire to Macs (naturally) and Windows PCs via Apple's excellent iTunes application, supplied on CD in the box of the Windows 20GB version we tested with. Aside from the extra storage space, the 40GB model also comes with a dock; 20GB users can either use the supplied cables or splurge an extra AU$75 to include this. As always, the iPod is compatible with MP3 and AAC files, as well as having the capacity to act as a data transfer device and very simple contacts/calendar device.
Setting up the iPod on a test Windows PC, we hit only a few niggles on the way. It's necessary to register your iPod by typing in a tiny code sequence on the back of the unit; those with poorer eyesight may find this a annoying task. You've also got to register with an e-mail address, although for the privacy minded you should note that it doesn't use this for verification, so if you want to register as email@example.com, there's nothing stopping you. With 20GB of storage to fill, it's going to take some time to fill the iPod; our 9.6GB of test files took a little under 20 minutes to shuffle onto the iPod. Mind you, that's 7.2 days worth of music, according to iTunes; the full 40GB could therefore approach over a fortnight's worth of music, at least in theory.
The iPod integrates with Apple's iTunes music store -- or at least that's what we've heard. Here in Australia, there's still no announcement of even the pending possibility of a locallly available iTunes music store.
New to this generation of iPods is the ability to quickly set up shuffling of all of your tracks; from the main menu you can simply select a "Shuffle Songs" option, and it'll start playing back in random order whatever it finds on the device. While you can still set up custom playlists on the go, it's nice to be able to quickly listen to a random assortment of tracks at a click of a button.
The big question with the fourth-generation iPod was undoubtedly going to be the battery life; both how long it could play for, and how long the battery retains its "charge" before losing capacity. We can't entirely answer the second question -- doing so would involve months of testing to see how the battery life fares over time, although it's worth noting that Apple must be paying some attention to the overall battery life issue; there's an extensive faq on Apple's local Web site that covers the lifecycle of Lithium-Ion batteries of the type that the iPod uses.
To test battery life in hours, we set our sample iPod a challenge. We charged it overnight, and then at 7:30am one frosty winter morning, set it playing using the supplied white bud earphones at a moderate volume level. Earlier iPods were rated for up to eight hours playback; Apple reckons the latest model is good for up to 12. At 3:30pm that afternoon, the iPod was still going strong, and we were starting to work out how much listening torture we'd put ourselves in for -- if only we'd loaded music we liked more.
The battery charge meter was wavering towards the empty side at 5:30 when we left the office, and by that stage we were thoughroughly sick of listening to the quite frankly awful music we'd mistakenly put onto the iPod. Still, in the name of science, and our readers, we kept on listening.
We somewhat expected it to die on the stroke of 7:29pm, just for the sake of irony, and were pleasantly surprised when it made it past the 7:30pm mark with no problems at all. At 8pm, we were we going somewhat spare from boredom. At 8:30pm we were wondering if Apple had somehow mistakenly sent us an iPod powered by a revolutionary perpetual motion machine.
Finally, and exhaustingly, at 9:32pm, the iPod belted out its last tune, a stunning fourteen hours and two minutes after it had first begun. It's pretty rare to see a product exceed manufacturer specifications, and the new-generation iPods certainly delivered that. If they can double that up with batteries that actually retain that kind of charge level over time, then it'll make the iPod a remarkable unit indeed.
Apple warrants the iPod and its battery for a period of 12 months; for an additional fee of AU$99 you can extend that to two years, although the fine print notes that they'll only replace the battery in the second year if it falls beneath 50 percent of its original capacity. After that period (or if you elect not to take the second year's warranty) a replacement battery will cost you AU$99 -- plus losing the iPod for a period while a new battery is fitted.