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Showtime

So Apple’s September 12 ‘Showtime’ event turned out to be more interesting than I’d suspected. New iPods, new iTunes, movie sales, and a sneak peek at ‘iTV’… a TV frontend to your computer’s media collection.


iPods

OK, be honest with yourself: the iPods aren’t all that exciting. When new headphones are a bullet point in the announcement, you know the device itself can’t be too much of an upgrade.

All three models of iPod saw upgrades. 80GB at the top end, better battery life, brighter screens, new software features that won’t be backported to older iPods (as an incentive to upgrade, of course)… that’s it.

The Nanos, back in the familiar anodized aluminum bodies and bright color options of the Minis they replaced, are similarly unexciting. “Completely remastered” for sure —they’re thinner, have better battery life, brighter screens, similar software upgrades to their big brothers, and are now up to 8GB at the top end— but not all that impressive. It’s not the massive shift we saw last year in the transition from mini to nano, but you can’t do that every year. In twelve months, when they move up to 16GB in the top end, I’ll be first in line to upgrade. Having trimmed my music library down to a modest 10GB plus podcasts and photos, 8GB is just shy of ideal; so for now I’m content with what I’ve got.

Also in the anodized aluminum department… The Shuffles, now there’s something interesting. Tiny, clip-on, tiny, tiny, iPod Shuffles. Dang. If I were still a Shuffle enthusiast they’d look mighty tempting, but I’m just too married to having a display.


iTunes 7

Another year, another upgrade. Or rather, another UI. Frankly, I’m disappointed. Not because the UI is inconsistent with the rest of Mac OS X and kind of embarrassing in places, or because the new features constitute bloat (in fact, I’d say all the features are quite welcome this year), but because everything feels bolted on.

Cover flow view, although wonderfully optimized (the original CoverFlow from which it takes its name made an absolute dog of my system) is just kinda dumped into a pane. It’s novel, and it’d make a great way to go through your collection in a fullscreen party-proof jukebox mode, but is it really useful as a browser? Making it share a split view with your library listing is just lame; put it into Front Row where it really belongs.

Album art view looks quite ridiculous… a frankenstein of views. I’d always dreamed of a way of browsing albums in iTunes by their art, but I imagined something more like Delicious Library than what we got. Sure, it looks great with full albums, but if you have a lot of EPs with short track listings, a lot of singles, orphaned tracks, or if you’re just suffering from the years-old Album Sort Bug, album art view is going to make you suffer.

The other features are great.

Two way sync for iTunes-purchased music? Awesome, but please stop treating us like criminals… let us sync the rest of our music too. Fetching album art from the iTunes store? Very welcome. Decent video performance and QuickTime-style HUD controls? Wonderful. Full library backup to CD/DVD? Neat. VGA video downloads from the iTunes Store? Cool (though I’m still waiting on catalog parity between the US and the rest of the world). Gapless playback? Well… what the hell took so long? Two years ago, with the introduction of iTunes 4.5 and it’s gapless ripping feature, I said:

Here’s a better idea.

Get the computer (and the iPod) to start reading the next track before the current one finishes, and eliminate the gap altogether. This isn’t a crossfade, it isn’t a special effect, it’s what we like to call “working the way we expect it to work”. When we want zero gaps between songs, we shouldn’t have to rip entire albums as a single track, it should Just Work™.

And at the time I took a little flack from people who just didn’t experience the problem as I did, like Emma, and from people who were quick to point out that MP3 encoding mandated a certain amount of empty space on either end of the file, and there was nothing iTunes could do about that. Padding, byte rounding, whatever. We’re stuck with it.

But hey! Apparently it was solvable all along, and now iTunes and the new iPods can behave as they’re supposed to. Remarkable.



Codename: iTV

This is really quite interesting. It’s basically the video Airport Express people have been clamoring for for so long, but with a Front Rowish interface and a remote control. The prototype is tiny: roughly the size of a Mac Mini, but thinner. Essentially a thin client TV-out for your Mac or PC’s iTunes library.

Take particular note of that, though. Your Mac or your PC.

Part of me hopes there will be another model available down the track… something a tad bigger that actually looks at home in a stack of home stereo components. A big hard drive, DVR functionality, DVD drive, iPod in (and out)… an entirely self-contained Apple media center that isn’t just a gateway to the media you’ve stored elsewhere.

I suppose what I just described is a Mac Mini, but adopting stereo component dimensions would give the design team a lot of room to work in. Rather than using more expensive laptop hard disks and optical drives, as is the case in the Mac Mini, they could use full-size components. Room for two hard disks, a digital TV receiver, CableCard, etc etc.

A pipe dream, I know. For now, though, iTV is a step in the right direction. As Jobs said: it’s Apple in the living room. Interesting times ahead.