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David Phelan: New iPods, so what?


The new iPods have been touted as the most radical change in products yet, yet there’s a sense of Apple looking backwards, too, removing features added last year or returning to earlier designs.

So the new shuffle has buttons again. The shuffle is the tiniest, cheapest player and it means you can own an iPod for under £40. The new one is like an even diddier version of the one seen two years ago. Last year’s model took the buttons off the player and put the controls in the headphone lead instead. Great, unless you had your own favourite cans you wanted to use. The super-light shuffle is ideal for jogging, but the supplied headphones suited running not so much.

So the new one has click-wheel controls again. It’s pretty cool, though if you had the 4GB capacity edition before, you’ll have to edit your content now – it’s only available in a 2GB version.

More interesting is the fifth-generation nano. Apart from the disappointing, universally nicknamed “fat nano” two years ago, the flash-memory iPod nano range has gone from strength to strength. Last year’s iteration had a larger screen and a built-in video camera. Now, though, in what might be seen as a backward step, the screen has shrunk and the camera disappeared. Mind you, the new square screen is a 1.5-inch diameter, so it’s too small for comfortable video viewing, which is lucky because video playback has gone, too.

The key point is that the buttons have gone from the nano (nano’s loss is shuffle’s gain) and been replaced with a miniature touchscreen interface. In fact, if you can afford the price jump, this is the real deal for joggers as it comes with a built-in clip and is barely more than half the weight of last year’s nano, easily wearable.

Plus, it has a few simple applications, including a pedometer and Nike+ training program as well as an FM radio which will make it a good running companion. And it has 24-hour battery life, though you really ought to stop running before that.

Its operation is highly delightful and similar to the iPhone thanks to the icon layout and a speedy, responsive touchscreen. Even though the screen is small, this is a multi-touch screen. So if you clip the nano upside down, a two-fingered twist will spin the contents of the display. It’s so light and fun to use you really don’t miss the video camera. Though, please note, if you really want the earlier version, it’s available in the refurbished section of the Apple site at frankly bargain prices. The new one costs £129 (8GB) or £159 (16GB).

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As for the camera, Apple’s view is that if you’re going to shoot video, you should choose HD recording and a bigger screen on which you can actually, you know, see it. By a lucky coincidence, the company has a product to suit – a new iPod touch with an HD video camera.

As with the iPhone 4, it means you can shoot and edit video on your portable and upload it to YouTube, say. You need to be in a wi-fi area for this – the touch has wi-fi built in. You can also take advantage of the front-facing camera and set up a FaceTime call. FaceTime, you’ll know, is the video calling over wi-fi feature which came with the iPhone 4. I’d say it’s unquestionably the best video calling application available on a mobile gadget. It looks great and is exceptionally easy to set-up. You can call from iPod touch to iPhone 4 and vice versa. Apple hasn’t revealed how many iPhone 4 users have actually made FaceTime calls so far, mind.

The new iPod touch also features the spectacularly impressive high-resolution 3.5-inch screen and speedy processor of the iPhone 4. It comes with the latest version of software, version 4.1, available to iPhone users too, downloadable from this evening. It’ll also bring Game Centre – a way to play games against remote players via wi-fi. The hardware looks near-identical to last year’s until you turn it side-on: the new iPod touch is noticeably thinner.

So should you buy any of them? All these products are definitely improvements on last year, unless you like shooting or watching movies on your nano, in which case grab one of last year’s pronto.

The new touch is the real standout. If you have a mobile phone and are envious of the iPhone’s hundreds of thousands of games, electronic books and other apps, this is an easy way to make up for it. Video editing is particularly good thanks to the excellent iMovie app and FaceTime calls will be cheaper than on your mobile (they’re free).

Of course, Apple’s trademark values (wowee styling, intuitive controls, solidly executed features) are across the range, but the essential upgrade is the touch.