Review: 4th Generation iPod (20 GB) First Impressions

Wednesday, 2004-08-25; 00:23:00

iPod retains simplicity while gaining useful, new features

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

After having my first generation iPod break down a few months ago, I experienced a lot of iPod withdrawal and finally decided to get a new one. The release of the fourth generation was the perfect opportunity to spend $300. While the iPod mini still seems to be in tight supply these days, Apple's newest version of the regular iPod is not -- I was opening the box for my iPod last Wednesday afternoon, after ordering it late on Sunday night (even when I had it laser engraved, free for a limited time). Having an iPod back in my hands was very comforting, and I was very pleased with all the new features.

Of course, the most evident new feature of the fourth generation iPod is the new click wheel. While the layout of the buttons and the wheel on the third generation iPod was a step back from the second and first generations, I think the click wheel is the best form of navigation yet.

Coming from a first generation iPod, it's a little hard to get used to the fact that the wheel is now solid-state rather than an actual movable wheel. And from the limited use that I've had with display models of third generation iPods, having the buttons in a line under the screen wasn't as comfortable. With the new click wheel, clicking the menu, play, back, or forward buttons is much easier, given that you have a much larger area in which to press down compared to all previous generations of iPods. Being able to keep your thumb on the scroll wheel and click at the same time is also much more natural compared to any previous generation. It's also much easier to tell when you've pressed one of the buttons, because they actually can be depressed, compared to the third generation which were merely touch-sensitive.

Other than the click wheel, nothing much has physically changed since the third generation of iPods, besides the fact that Apple claims it is one millimeter thinner. The third generation iPods were already very thin and the rounded edges made it comfortable to use, so it's a wonder that people opt for the iPod mini in terms of physical size; the regular iPod can still easily fit into a pocket. (Of course, it's obvious that many people still want physically smaller iPods, even though I previously predicted much smaller demand. Apple really had done its homework.)

In terms of software, the new iPod has a couple of very nice touches. There's, of course, the "Shuffle Songs" item that can exist in the main menu. This may not be what you expect, however -- instead of starting a new shuffle order for what's currently being played, it starts playing a random song out of ALL songs that are on your iPod. I expected it to start playing a random song in the playlist or album that I was listening to; to do that, you still need more than one click.

Another feature of the new iPod is multiple on-the-go playlists. Previously, the third generation iPod only allowed one on-the-go playlist. With the new iPod, you queue up songs in one on-the-go playlist, and then simply choose the "Save Playlist" menu item at the bottom of the playlist. Then, you confirm that you want to save the playlist, and your new on-the-go playlist shows up as a normal one when browsing. After saving your current one, you can then create a completely new on-the-go playlist.

The best thing about these on-the-go playlists is that they are automatically synched to iTunes the next time you connect your iPod to your computer. Saved on-the-go playlists usually are named "On-The-Go 1", "On-The-Go 2", and so on. Sometimes, the iPod names it "New Playlist 1" instead. However, when you sync with iTunes, the playlists always get renamed to "On-The-Go 1", "On-The-Go 2", etc. This little quirk makes it a little confusing to keep track of which on-the-go playlist is which, but renaming the playlists in iTunes after one sync solves that problem.

Another cool thing I noticed about on-the-go playlists with my 4G iPod is that you can remove songs from an on-the-go playlist as well as add songs to it. This is a new feature exclusive to fourth generation iPods, as Trent's 3G iPod was not able to perform this little trick. To remove a song from an on-the-go playlist on a 4G iPod, you simply go to the on-the-go playlist and then click and hold the center button on the song you want to remove. It may seem pretty obvious, but I kept clearing my on-the-go playlists when I accidentally added songs, instead.

One other potentially useful feature that has been added to the fourth generation deals with sensing when headphones are removed. If you're listening to your iPod and you remove the headphones from the jack on the iPod, the iPod will automatically pause your music for you. It's very useful if you need to start talking to someone -- instead of unlocking the hold button, pressing pause, and then relocking the hold button, you just have to unplug your headphones. Unfortunately, this feature only works intermittently and when it does work, it usually takes one or two seconds before pausing the music. Hopefully Apple will fix this in a forthcoming iPod software update.

Probably the most important added feature of the new iPod is its battery life, rated at 12 hours by Apple. The first day I was able to use my iPod, I tested out this claim. I had charged up my iPod fully the night before, and to make sure that I didn't accidentally access the hard drive, I exclusively used the on-the-go playlist feature that day; this would make sure not to force the iPod to unnecessarily access the hard drive. I did accidentally start a few songs out of order and I played a few games of solitaire, but on the whole I tried to conserve as much power as possible.

How did the iPod fare? I managed to go from 9:30 AM until 6:30 PM, at which point the low battery indicator came on and I was unable to use my iPod any longer. There were a few breaks where I wasn't listening to any music, but my iPod lasted about 9 hours that day on one battery charge. That's a far cry from the 12 hours that Apple claims; indeed, battery levels on other days that I have been extensively using my iPod seem to support around a 9 hour battery life for my iPod.

While I don't have a first generation iPod to test, the on-the-go playlist feature certainly does a lot to help extend battery life, and a 9 hour day of playback is certainly unusual. However, battery life still could stand to be extended, and remains the Achilles heel of the iPod.

Other new features of the fourth generation iPod are adjustable speed for audiobooks and enhanced language support. Changing the speed of audiobook playback thankfully doesn't change the pitch, but it does have some slightly strange side effects -- using the "Slower" setting creates an echoy effect in the speakers' voices in addition to slowing down their voices, and using the "Faster" setting cuts off words ever so slightly so the speakers sound kind of funny. As for language support, the iPod now supports 14 langauges out of the box. These two features aren't particularly useful to me, but I'm sure there are some users out there who will appreciate them.

For $299, the 20 GB iPod comes with everything you need for listening to it, charging it, and connecting it to a computer. The standard Apple earbud headphones and earbud covers come standard (these are NOT the in-ear headphones), a Firewire cable and USB 2.0 cable are both included (previous generations of the iPod required separate purchase of the USB 2.0 cable, but included a Firewire 6-to-4 pin adaptor which the 4th generation does not), and a separate FireWire charger is provided as well. A small manual entitled "Getting Started" is included, as is a software CD. For $399, you get an additional 20 GB of hard drive space as well as a dock for your iPod.

Bottom line? The fourth generation iPod remains an excellent MP3 player to have, especially with improved battery life and added features. On-the-go playlists ensure that you listen to exactly what you want to hear while preventing unnecessary hard drive accesses (which improves battery life). The click wheel is a much better replacement for the old touch wheel, and all the tiny little touches that Apple has made to the iPod's software are certainly welcome. If you've been waiting to buy an iPod (and aren't looking at a mini), now's the time to get it.

(For those that are concerned, my iPod does not exhibit the audio defect issue. From what I can tell, the statistic saying that 42% of 4G iPods have this problem is completely blown out of proportion -- not only do the comments from 4G iPod owners overwhelmingly say that they don't have defects, but the statistic comes from a web poll, where affected users are much more likely to respond. My advice is to go ahead and buy your new 4G iPod, and worry about the issue if your iPod actually is affected.)

-- Simone

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