At Apple's "It's Showtime!" special event last week, CEO Steve Jobs led off by introducing a slate of revised iPods that retain the existing model names. He also introduced, as widely expected, movies to the iTunes Store, along with a new version of iTunes to manage it all. And in an unusual move for Apple, he pre-announced a wireless set-top box - code-named iTV - scheduled to ship in the first quarter of 2007. In order, then...
New iPods -- The model with the least amount of change is the video-capable iPod, which retains the same design (available in black and white) as the previous version. However, Apple has improved battery life, claiming up to 3.5 hours of video playback, up from 2 hours, or up to 20 hours of music playback. The screen is also now 60 percent brighter. The iPod is available in a 30 GB version for $250 or an 80 GB version for $350; those prices, incidentally, are $50 cheaper than the previous models, which offered 30 GB and 60 GB capacities.
Apple's most successful music player, the iPod nano, arrived in a passel of colors: green, silver, black, blue, and pink, all of which are now anodized aluminum instead of plastic and evoke the look of the late iPod mini. The screen is 40 percent brighter than previous models, and Apple claims up to 24 hours of battery life for music playback. The iPod nano comes in a 2 GB capacity for $150, 4 GB for $200, and 8 GB for $250. However, Apple continues to be selective about its color offerings: the 2 GB model is available only in silver, and the 8 GB model is available only in black; the 4 GB model comes in silver, green, blue, and pink.
The iPod shuffle, which gives Apple a low-end answer to those competing MP3 players that haven't yet been crushed, is now available in a single 1 GB model for $80. The iPod shuffle is quite a bit smaller now - 1.62 inches (4.11 cm) wide by 1.07 inches (2.72 cm) tall - and its white exterior has been replaced with an aluminum skin with a built-in clip for attaching to clothing. It will ship in October.
(It's also worth noting that the packaging for the iPod nano and iPod shuffle is much smaller than in the past, a waste reduction move we applaud.)
The new iPod and iPod nano both have a new "instant search" feature that uses the click-wheel to cycle through letters of the alphabet to spell the start of a song or artist. Also new are games: iPod users can now download a variety of casual games from the iTunes Store for $5 each. Games currently available include Tetris, Vortex, Pac-Man, Cubis 2, Zuma, Texas Hold'em, Mini Golf, Mahjong, and Bejeweled. Although the search feature is available only on these newest iPods, the previous 5G iPod is also compatible with the games. Games cannot be played in iTunes.
iTunes 7 -- As expected in situations that involve changes to the iTunes Store, Apple also rolled out a major update to iTunes. On launch, iTunes 7 alerts you to a welcome new feature - automatic addition of album art to songs already in your library. Then iTunes updates your library, presumably just transitioning to a new database format internally, followed by a long pass to identify songs that need the new "gapless playback" assigned to them. It turns out that gapless playback is always on in iTunes 7. Songs that aren't gapless usually have a little dead air at the beginning or the end of the encoding, which remains (and if they lack that dead air, the transition between songs still usually sounds fine). Truly gapless songs have sound from the start to the end of the file, so the identification pass looks at each file to determine exactly when the audible data starts to eliminate a very slight bit of dead air that occurs when the audio decoder is starting up. You can continue working while gapless playback identification is happening, luckily, since it's quite slow.
iTunes 7 features some new navigational tools that should make it easier to work through the different types of media that have become commonplace in the program. The source pane now has different sections with all-cap headings for Library, Store, and Playlists; Devices shows up when an iPod is connected. Library includes entries for Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, Audiobooks, and Radio (in fact, iPod Games can appear there too, and all the items are optional). Store has the iTunes Store link, along with the Purchased playlist. And Playlists holds your playlists. Gone are the buttons at the top of the screen that let you, for instance, select between TV shows and music videos when the Videos source item was selected.
More striking, though somewhat less functional, are the three views: list, grouped, and Cover Flow, controlled by buttons to the left of the Search field. List view is what we've all become accustomed to. Grouped view collects songs by album and TV episodes by show, showing the artwork to the left of the group; it's not available for podcasts or radio. Cover Flow provides a new, resizable pane that displays album covers as though they were CD cases standing on a highly reflective black table. The contents of the center-most item in the fanned-out list show in a list view below, and a horizontal scroll bar lets you flip rapidly through your collection; sorting the list (by clicking a column heading) changes the items in the artwork pane, too. It's eye candy, to be sure, but we anticipate it being useful when you want to browse randomly through your music collection. In an interesting and unusual move for Apple, Cover Flow was purchased from independent developer Jonathan del Strother.
If you don't have artwork for many of your albums, never fear, because Apple now makes album art available for your music for free, even for previously ripped albums (although the selection is limited to songs in the iTunes Store catalog). If you used a utility to snag low-res album art already, you may want to delete it first by selecting multiple items, choosing File > Get Info, selecting the Artwork checkbox (but don't put anything in it), and then clicking OK. Once that's done, Control-click the selected items again and choose Get Album Artwork. (The Clear Downloaded Artwork command currently works only on artwork downloaded from Apple.)
Functionally speaking, iTunes 7 brings one extremely welcome feature, though with an unfortunate limitation. If you've wanted to synchronize music or videos between computers using your iPod in the past, you've been out of luck (although various third party utilities made this possible). iTunes 7 now synchronizes purchased content between computers, so if you download a song or TV show on one computer, plugging the iPod into another authorized computer makes it possible to copy the content to that computer. While this is a promising feature, it works only with purchased content, not with music you've ripped from your own CDs.
As far as we can tell, iTunes 7 in no way improves the situation of a family that wants to have a single music archive that's shared by multiple computers. Built-in sharing works poorly because only one computer can make playlists, rate songs, and so on, and maintaining a shared music folder on a centralized server works acceptably, but each computer must add new music manually. The one new feature here is that iTunes now supports multiple libraries like iPhoto does; hold down the Option key when launching iTunes to create or switch between libraries. The only real utility we can see to this feature, though, is having a relatively small library on a laptop for traveling, but having another library that points at a shared storage folder when you're at home.
In a nice touch, iTunes now provides a tabbed iPod summary page that summarizes all the information about your iPod, including name, free space, serial number, contents, and so on. (Click the Capacity bar to toggle between viewing space used and number of items.) Plus, iTunes now handles iPod software updates, eliminating the awkward iPod Updater utility and the need to download updates for iPod models you don't own.
iTunes Store -- As expected, Steve Jobs's "One more thing..." announcement was indeed the addition of movies to the iTunes Store (note that Apple dropped "Music" from the name). Jobs announced that the iTunes Store now carries 75 films from Disney, Pixar, Touchstone, and Miramax, all of which are owned by Disney. He also promised that Apple would be adding movies every week, although the real question is whether Apple will be able to negotiate agreements with other movie studios. For now, the movies are available only in the United States, with international distribution anticipated for 2007.
In terms of pricing, most older movies are $10, with new releases priced at $13 for pre-orders and the first week of distribution, after which they'll jump to $15. Prices are comparable to the new Amazon Unbox Video service announced last week. Amazon Unbox Video has a larger selection from studios other than those Disney owns, but it's a moot point for Mac users, since Amazon's service uses Windows Media Player's digital rights management, which isn't compatible with Macs or iPods.
The movies are encoded in what Apple calls "near DVD quality" and have Dolby surround audio, although we'll leave it to others to wrangle about just how good that really is and whether Apple made the right tradeoffs of quality versus download size. Download time will be slow, for sure, though the details will depend on variables other than just size. TV shows are now encoded at 640 by 480 pixels, up from 320 by 240.
Videos require QuickTime 7.1.3, also released last week, which includes a number of security fixes for maliciously crafted movies that could cause crashes. It's available for Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later, and is a 48 MB download from Apple's Web site or via Software Update.
These full-length movie purchases have the same limitations as video shorts, music videos, and other visual content: unlike iTunes Store audio purchases, they cannot be burned to disc in a playable format. With music and the online store, burning to an audio CD format was the one way out of the digital rights management world of Apple's FairPlay technology. With video, you can make backups of the files - something that's extremely tedious with DVDs - but you can't play the files anywhere but within iTunes for Mac OS X and Windows and on an iPod. (iTunes 7 now prompts you to back up purchased content after it downloads; the warning can be disabled. Also, a new Back Up to Disc command can be found under the File menu.)
Movies also appear to arrive without extras. For instance, "The Incredibles" has a variety of features and shorts on the DVD that's sold in stores. Those extras aren't noted in any fashion at Apple's store. Amazon.com sells the full-screen 2-disc set for $18 and free domestic shipping; Apple charges $13 (for the first week, then $15), but you appear to get only the movie. Further, the DVD version has English, French, and Spanish subtitles and audio, plus audio commentary (two separate ones). That's a potentially significant difference between the DVD and the download version for some people.
iTV Sneak Peek -- Playing with the "one more thing" myth, Jobs paused after introducing the addition of movies to the iTunes Store, said, "One last thing..." and introduced the iTV, a wireless set-top box scheduled to ship sometime in the first quarter of 2007 for $300. The iTV, whose name Jobs said would be changing, is aimed at playing all those videos you watch not just on your computer or iPod, but also on that big flat-screen TV you bought after reading Clark Humphrey's "Take Control of Digital TV." You can certainly hook up a Mac to the TV, but it's inelegant, particularly with all the cabling that's necessary. In essence, the iTV seems to be a super-duper AirPort Express, at least in terms of media sharing and playback.
The iTV looks like a flattened Mac mini, with wired and wireless networking, USB 2.0, HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface), component video, analog audio, and optical audio interfaces. Its software interface is highly reminiscent of Front Row, providing access to movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos and driven via an Apple Remote. The HDMI interface is crucial, since it allows high-resolution digital video data to pass through to the TV in an encrypted form. The movie studios have used HDMI to prevent identical copies of their movies from being pushed out digitally from DVD players. But the use of HDMI also means that only certain approved digital video playing devices can use those high resolutions.
Although no discussion of hard drives or optical drives happened during the keynote, the iTV may need some form of cache storage to support playing video from "selected" Internet sites - and we'd love to hear what "selected" means beyond "it can play QuickTime movie trailers from Apple's site." We'd like to see a YouTube channel, for instance. The lack of a DVD drive is particularly disappointing, because it means that a separate Mac, PC, or DVD player will be needed for DVDs that you might want to view in the same environment. In our view, the iTV should act like a sophisticated media adapter, and thus it would be nice to wire more inputs into it, so only its output would be fed to your TV and stereo system.
Questions we expect to be answered in the coming months are whether the iTV can pool video and audio from all computers on a local network, or whether limits apply based on iTunes Store authorization and the irritating restriction on how many different users can connect to a copy of iTunes to share music in a given 24-hour period. Also available for discussion is how multiple iTVs would be managed in a home - we expect they'd be addressable by name, just like the AirPort Express and its music streaming feature.