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For six years, the Internet Nexus served as my technology blog, but I've since started blogging at the SuperSite Blog instead. If you're looking for the blog, please head there. --Paul

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

It's Showtime. Or it will be in April 2007 or so

Apple introduced an awful lot of product today. On the one hand, it's easy to describe today's announcements as yet another disappointment (like the WWDC, which was a disaster). After all, we didn't get the "true" video iPod everyone predicted, Disney is the only movie company supplying movies for iTunes, the iTV set-top box isn't shipping until early 2007 at the earliest (a nice bit of vaporware, that), and so on. Pick your complaint.

But you know what? I'm excited. I've wanted Apple to deliver a Media Center competitor for some time, and I'm intrigued that Apple is going the set-top box route--the one I wish Microsoft had gone--instead of trying to make a Mac mini that works well in the living room. As they used to say on the "A-Team," I love it when a plan comes together. And despite the flaws, Apple is indeed bringing a cohesive plan for home entertainment to fruition. You can almost taste it.

So here's what happened.

iTunes 7 love
My favorite jukebox just got a heck of a lot better, and its finally aping the awesome visual browsing functionality that Microsoft pioneered late last year with Windows Media Player 11 beta. Apple's implementation is actually not as good as Microsoft's in some ways (you can't group and stack views like you can in WMP11, which is an awesome feature), but give Apple credit for remaining true to form: Only Apple could have shipped the cover browser view, which looks like a pre-rendered Flash animation but is so much more dynamic than that. It's pointless, and no one will ever use it and... geeze, who cares? It's cool.

The big news, however, is that Apple added Hollywood movie download capabilities to iTunes, just as expected. Only Disney is on board so far (though the Apple press release humorously describes this single participant as "Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Touchstone Pictures and Miramax Films" in order to make it sound more impressive. Only 75 films are available for purchase right now (and none for rent, as many had predicted), which is a paltry sum. No doubt more movies and movie companies will come on board shortly. The downloaded movie quality is a mixed bag: The movies are available in middling 640 x 272 and 640 x 344 resolutions (1634 Kbps H.264) for widescreen titles, which is lower quality than the movies you can rent and purchase from services like CinemaNow and MovieLink (both of which also offer HD movies, incidentally), and about on par with's Unbox.

More problematic: These movies take a long time to download. I have a speedy 15 Mbps FIOS connection, and "Pirates of the Caribbean" took about an hour to download, hardly the type of speed one expects with an impulse buy (the shorter "Under the Tuscan Sun" took about 30 minutes to download). And you can't start watching until the dowload is complete. (Update: Apple says you can, and a number of readers say it works too. I tried with two different movies, but there you go. I'll try again.) (Update 2: Yep, it works. My bad.)

Here's the problem: Most people have cable systems with On Demand capabilities, and with such a system, movies can be rented for far less than the $9.99 to $14.99 iTunes charges to purchase a movie. And On Demand is instantaneous: There's no wait. Oh, and On Demand works with your TV. So basically, Apple has a system that is lower quality than the competition, much slower and more expensive than the On Demand services with which it will compete, and has no way to play back easily on a TV at full fidelity (yet). And you know? It doesn't matter. The quality of iTunes' movies is good enough. And I suspect Apple will do just fine selling these films.

Incidentally, Apple's movie downloads are vastly superior to Apple's TV shows, from a quality perspective. 320 x 240 is ridiculous, sorry. But wait, what's this? Here's another new feature: Going forward, all iTunes TV and video content (music videos, shorts, etc.) will be encoded at 640 x 480. Wow. Someone actually listened. So that means I can re-download my purchased videos and TV shows at the new resolution at no extra cost, right Steve? Right? Hello??


Apple has added gapless playback support (finally) to support songs that are connected between tracks. This will be big with Pink Floyd fans, obviously, but it's also a neat feature for concert recordings.

iTunes 7 has also been nicely restyled, with a very attractive new look and feel to accommodate the new functionality. There are some missteps--video podcasts can't be viewed in the new visual display modes, for example--but overall, iTunes is looking good. I'm ecstatic that my favorite player has gotten better and mostly caught up to the innovative features in Windows Media Player.

Grade: A

"New" iPod, just like the old iPod
Apple's fifth-generation iPod (sometimes called iPod with video) has been somewhat updated with more capacity, much better battery life for videos, brighter screens, and lower prices. That's all awesome, really it is. Really. I'm so frickin' excited about...


Sorry about that. But as anyone's who's tried to watch a movie on an iPod will tell you, the device's tiny screen will lead to a nice neck cramp on a flight. It's just not optimal. But you know what? OK, it's fine. The movie stuff is really about the iTV thing anyway, right? So let's get back on track.

Let's see. The 30 GB model has been updated to get 14 hours of battery life (3.5 hours for video) and has been reduced to $249. (By comparison the 2005 model got 14 hours of battery life as well, but only 15 seconds for video. Just kidding on that last bit: Apple claimed 2 hours, but it was definitely less than that.) The new 80 GB model (replacing the previous 60 GB model) gets up to 20 hours of battery life (5.5 hours for video) and costs $349. (The 2005 model was rated at 20 hours as well.)

The brighter screen sounds wonderful, but I'll need to see it first to decide.

Instant Searching should help people with huge libraries, and Quick Scrolling will help people figure out where they are while scrolling quickly through a long list of songs, albums, artists, genres, or whatever. Both features look like sold additions.

Apple has added downloadable games to the iPod arsenal (my understanding is that they work on all 5G iPods, including last year's models). The games are all of the casual variety, and include a bunch of titles I enjoy via the Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade service (Zuma, Pac-Man, Bejeweled, etc.). And they're priced right at $4.99 each. But the iPod doesn't strike me as a great game platform, mostly because of the click-wheel. I guess we'll see.

Grade: B

"New" iPod nano ... Now without that nasty white color
As expected, Apple updated the iPod nano with a new aluminum body that comes in a variety of colors (sometimes, see below) and capacities of 2 GB ($149), 4 GB ($199), and 8 GB ($249). (And yes, these prices are all reasonable for a change. Question: Will the new body types be as scratch-tastic as the previous models?) They are slightly smaller and lighter than the previous models.

The new nanos get 24 hours of battery life (vs. 14 in the previous version) and brighter screens. Score!

Here's the weird part. While Apple is offering the nano in five different colors--silver, pink, green, blue, and black (but not, ahem, white)--each version is not available in each color. The 2 GB version can be had only in silver. The 4 GB version can be had in silver, pink, green or blue. And the 8 GB version is available only in black. (Heck, it makes sense to restrict buyers of the most expensive version, eh?)

The new iPod nanos pick up the Instant Searching and Quick Scrolling features from the 5G iPod as well.

Naturally, the new iPod nano design requires yet another generation of accessories. Boo! Hiss!

As with the iPod, no one with a previous generation nano will want or need the new ones. But it's an attractive device with a nice range of storage sizes.

Grade: B

New iPod shuffle ... And yes, it's really new
Apple's new iPod shuffle looks impressive. I say "looks" because we won't see it until October (and think November, according to Apple's online store). But whatever. We should be used to delayed gratification from Cupertino at this point. And the iPod shuffle 2G looks to be worth the wait.

Billed as the "world's smallest digital music player," the new iPod shuffle is about half the size of the original shuffle and is square-shaped, not rectangular. It's got an all-aluminum enclosure, a built-in clip for wearing it wherever you go, and comes in just one size: 1 GB. Best of all, it's just $79, which is a great price for this kind of device. (And it even comes with an iPod shuffle dock.)

Overall, this looks awesome.

Grade: A

iTV: Vaporware ... from Apple?
Clearly, Apple is feeling a lot of pressure to deliver on its complete digital media vision, so the company took the rare (and almost unprecedented) step of pre-announcing a product it won't ship until early 2007 at the earliest. (My guess: April 2007.) Whether this little bit of FUD will be enough to retard Media Center sales this holiday season is unclear, but many people--myself included have been waiting for Apple to introduce a set-top box that can connect with PC-based digital media. The iTV is it.

Like most Apple products, the iTV (not its final name) is a Spartan affair with virtually no buttons or other gadgetry on the front, sides, or tops of the box (like a flat Mac mini, really). It connects to your TV, and to your Mac or PC via a wired or wireless network. The interface is straight out of Front Row, which I'm more than OK with. It will stream content such as music, photos, videos (movies and TV shows), and podcasts from a Mac or Windows-based PC. It appears to use the same underwhelming small remote that Apple first shipped with iPods and FrontRow-equipped Macs.

The price is a quite reasonable $299, about the same cost as a Media Center Extender or Xbox 360, both of which also feature similar streaming media features. And it does HDMI in addition to the more pedestrian RCA-type video and audio out.

Overall, the iTV looks solid but it's lacking one key feature: DVR. It's literally a dull terminal, albeit one with a gorgeous UI. That doesn't mean that Apple can't add DVR capabilities to Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) of course. And you know what? I hope they do. Anyway, so far, so good. It's not the uber-box some people expected, but I'll be first in line to get one.

Grade: B+

Steve Jobs update
Apple says Steve Jobs is healthy, and while I guess I believe that, he still looks gaunt to me. In the good news department, Jobs seemed to handle the entire "Showtime" keynote without any issues.

Final thoughts
If Apple's goal was to get people excited, today's event was mostly successful. No, we didn't get a video iPod. And there's no DVR solution in sight. But the sorta-new iPods are all solid updates. iTunes 7 is awesome. The movie service is competitive. And the iTV gives us hope for the near future. Overall, Apple's good if not excellent, and if you care about this digital media stuff at all, you'll want to take a closer look.
[ Posted at 8:58 PM | Permalink ]


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