IPod Buying Guide

In September, Apple performed the now-yearly ritual of updating its iPod lineup in anticipation of the upcoming holiday season. Why? Apple sold 22.7 million iPods in the previous holiday quarter, compared with 21.2 million iPods in the two quarters that followed-combined. In other words, now's the time that people love to buy Apple's digital music players.

Are your loved ones starting to leave magazine ads, scissor-clipped photos, and crayon-scrawled images of this year's crop of iPods in obvious places around the house? Are you looking to join the fun or upgrade your older iPod? If so, we're here to help you sort out which iPod is the right one for you or that special holiday someone.

iPod shuffle

The iPod shuffle has always been about economy and ultimate portability and that's never been more true than it is today. Available in 2GB ( Macworld rated 3 out of 5 mice ) and 4GB ( Macworld rated 3 out of 5 mice ) capacities for $59 (Get best current price) and $79 (Get best current price), respectively, the third-generation (3G) iPod shuffle is a little larger and twice as thick as a piece of Dentyne gum. That 2GB and 4GB capacity buys you 500 and 1000 four-minute 128kbps AAC songs-more than enough music to get you through the most vigorous workout. It's available in a brushed aluminum finish in silver, black, blue, green, and pink.

Because it weighs next to nothing, clips to clothing, and is so tiny that it won't get in the way, the gym is one of the most appropriate places for this diminutive iPod. Another is in your kid's holiday stocking. Because the shuffle has no moving parts to damage and costs little more than a console video game, it's a kid-appropriate gift. If it's lost, stolen, or goes through the wash, you'll have a measure of regret, but a measure commensurate only with the shuffle's size and price-not much-bigger-bucks iPod touch regret.

A downside for some people is the shuffle's lack of on-iPod controls. This iPod requires you to navigate and change the volume on the device by pushing buttons on the controller integrated into the right earbud cord. For those who typically press Play and get on with things, this isn't an issue. For others who want to more freely navigate through the iPod's music library, it can be a chore. Worse yet, if you lose or damage the included headset, Apple asks $29 for a replacement. Thankfully, the 3G iPod shuffle supports third-party headphone adapters such as Belkin's $20 Headphone Adapter With Remote For iPod Shuffle. (Get best current price.) With such an adapter you can use any headphones you like with the shuffle-a significant advantage given that many people don't care for the fit and sound of the included earbuds.

Best for: Athletes (and wanna-be athletes); kids; those who like to press play and go about their business; anyone seeking a spare, kick-around iPod.

Not for: People looking for easy navigation of their music library; those wanting to carry lots of music; or individuals desiring an iPod on which to watch videos.

iPod nano

Of the "traditional" iPods, the fifth-generation iPod nano is the most feature-laden. Offered in nine colors (silver, black, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, [Product] Red, and pink) and in 8GB ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) and 16GB ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) capacities for $149 (Get best current price) and $179 (Get best current price), respectively, it does a lot of different things.

It plays all audio types supported by iTunes (AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless, and Audible), records audio via a built-in microphone and, optionally, through a headset mic; plays H.264 and MPEG-4 video files (video you provide as well as videos purchased and rented from the iTunes Store); records standard-definition H.264 video with a built-in video camera; plays and buffers FM radio; and includes a pedometer that counts your steps. It also holds contacts, calendars, and notes that you've synced via iTunes; supports games written specifically for traditional iPods (not the iPhone or iPod touch); includes Spoken Menus and VoiceOver for announcing menus and song, artist, and playlist information; displays music in Cover Flow view; and displays pictures in slideshows. Oh yeah, and it offers video output to an attached TV via Apple's optional $49 component or composite AV cables; includes a stopwatch and alarm feature; supports Genius playlist creation on the iPod; lets you search the contents of the iPod with a select and click scheme; and includes a Shake-to-Shuffle feature that lets you shuffle songs by shaking the iPod vigorously. Whew.

Moderately affordable and feature-packed though the nano is, it's not the be-all-and-end-all media player. By today's standards, its capacity is a little limited, particularly if you're considering syncing a lot of movies, TV shows, and video podcasts to the iPod. The 8GB nano can hold up to 2000 4-minute 128kbps AAC songs while the 16GB model doubles that capacity to 4000. The former can store up to eight hours of video and the latter, 16 hours. Not bad, but if you have a large media collection, it'll hardly hold everything you own.

At 2.2-inches (measured diagonally), its screen is a tiny bit larger than the screen of the previous iPod nano, but still, watching hours of video on such a small screen may be too much for some people (particularly if that video has subtitles). There's a real advantage to having a video camera with you at all times, but the video the iPod nano captures isn't remarkably good-the iPhone 3GS and pocket camcorders do a better job.

Also worth noting is that with a built-in video camera, the iPod nano may be subject to regulation at your gym, rec center, or public pool. Some of these facilities do not allow iPhones and similar small, camera-bearing devices to be used in a locker room or public area because of privacy issues. If you're purchasing an iPod nano largely as a workout companion, check the rules at your preferred exercise center.

Despite these real and potential shortcomings, the iPod nano packs a ton of performance in a small package.

Best for: Those seeking a full-featured and reasonably affordable iPod; the visually impaired or blind who would benefit from its Spoken Menus and VoiceOver features.

Not for: People who want to carry a large media library with them or desire a roomy screen on which to watch videos.

iPod classic

The single remaining iPod that houses a hard drive rather than flash memory, the iPod classic continues to be all about capacity. Available in black and silver, the $249 160GB iPod classic ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) (Get best current price) can hold up to 40,000 4-minute 128kbps AAC songs or 200 hours of video. Its 2.5-inch (diagonal) display is more comfortable to watch than the nano's longer 2.2-inch display. But Apple has put very little effort into this iPod in the last couple of years-likely because when 128GB flash memory becomes affordable, we'll see an end to this hard-drive bearing iPod.

It includes all of the features of the iPod released in 2006 and little more. Among those features present on the latest iPod nano not included with the iPod classic are video camera, microphone, FM radio, pedometer, Shake-to-Shuffle, and an accelerometer. Otherwise its feature set is on a par with the iPod nano.

Best for: People who want to take all (or a large portion) of their iTunes media library with them.

Not for: Those for whom capacity isn't as important as an iPod nano or iPod touch's feature set; the visually impaired and blind, who would find it very difficult to navigate this iPod's interface.

iPod touch

Apple's latest marketing campaign paints the iPod touch as a great iPod, a great pocket computer, and a great portable game player. And, indeed, it is all these things. But you could also less elegantly describe it as "an iPhone without the phone, messaging, microphone, compass, camera, cellular network, and GPS features."

The iPod touch comes in three capacities-8GB ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), 32GB ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), and 64GB ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice )-priced respectively at $199 (Get best current price), $299 (Get best current price), and $399 (Get best current price). These models, in ascending order, hold 1750 songs or 10 hours video, 7000 songs or 40 hours video, and 14,000 songs or 80 hours video. While the iPod touch may not pack the capacity of the iPod classic, a 64GB iPod touch that can hold 40 two-hour movies is nothing to sneeze at.

One of the things that makes the touch such a great iPod is the 3.5-inch (diagonal) touchscreen display. Because of its bright and fairly large display, this is the iPod you'll want to take to bed with you when you're in the mood for a late-night movie. Unlike with the nano and, perhaps, the classic, this is an iPod you can stare at throughout a double-feature without squinting for hours afterwards.

The 8GB model is the previous iteration of the iPod touch. As such, it doesn't have the faster processor and graphics chip found in the 32GB and 64GB iPod touches. It also lacks these iPods' Voice Control and VoiceOver features. (Voice Control is managed through the microphone/controller found on the cord of the right earbud. The 8GB iPod touch's headset lacks this controller.)

All iPod touches support the creation of Genius playlists and Shake-to-Shuffle, operate as Internet appliances (for Web browsing, e-mail, YouTube, MobileMe syncing, and weather and stocks updates over Wi-Fi only), include a tinny internal speaker, and let you purchase and download media from the iTunes Store and apps from the App Store.

Access to these stores is one of the primary attractions of the iPod touch. With iTunes Store access you can acquire media on the go (provided the place you go has Wi-Fi). This is highly convenient when you're sitting in an airport between flights and wish to download an album, TV episode, or movie for the next leg of your journey (go after that movie only if you're sure you're connected to a very fast Wi-Fi network). Just as convenient is grabbing a free or low-cost game from the App Store that helps you while away the hours in Coach.

Best for: Those who want to enjoy most of the advantages of add-on applications, the iTunes Store, Wi-Fi access to the Internet (and all that comes with it), and portable video, but don't need a phone.

Not for: Those looking for an exercise-only iPod-it's a little bulky and, with its glass screen, you don't want to drop it on a locker room's tile floor or the jogging trail.

iPhone

If the iPod touch is a great iPod, pocket computer, and portable game player, the iPhone is all those things plus as good a mobile phone as that phone's carrier and reception allows. And that's largely what the iPhone as phone boils down to-the quality of the service. For those who get great reception from AT&T in the areas in which they travel, the iPhone is a solid choice. If AT&T's service is flaky or non-existent, you or the person you give the iPhone to will be unhappy.

As a holiday gift, the iPhone remains problematic. Unlike an iPod, the 8GB 3G ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), or 16GB ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) or 32GB ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) 3GS iPhone is the gift that keeps on giving in the form of at least 24-months worth of service charges (including a mandatory $30-a-month data plan). Unless you're so generous that you're willing to pick up this tab, be absolutely certain that your gift will be welcomed. Be doubly certain if that person has an existing mobile phone contract that, when terminated, imposes additional fees.

Best for: Those who have good AT&T coverage; who desire a very cool mobile phone; and can afford the two-year commitment.

Not for: People who are largely after the iPhone's media capabilities and happy with their current mobile phone and service.

The last word

As with many purchasing decisions, this one can be boiled down to budget and need. In tough financial times, if you seek a simple music player only, the iPod shuffle is ideal. If you're after big features in a small, reasonably affordable package, it's the iPod nano. If you desire to pack as much of your iTunes media in your pocket as possible-expense be darned-the iPod classic is the classic choice. If you're after a very good iPod, great portable video player, and versatile pocket computer, and can afford at least $199, the iPod touch is right for you. And if you or a loved one needs a new mobile phone, that mobile phone will be used in an area well-served by AT&T, and you'd like that mobile phone to perform the iPod touch's hatful of tricks (and more), join the ranks of the many satisfied iPhone owners.

Senior editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, fifth edition, The iPhone Pocket Guide, fourth edition, and the upcoming The iPod touch Pocket Guide.

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