Apple Event Announcements: A Very Mixed Bag

With the caveat that this is a “first draft” and that my opinions may change over time, here are my reactions to the products announced at the Apple September 1 Event. [Spoiler alert: Although I found several worthy gems among the announcements, my overall reaction was negative.]

iPod shuffle: I have never liked the iPod shuffle. The inability to scroll the device’s content was a deal-breaker for me. VoiceOver is not a sufficient alternative. When Apple went even further, and eliminated buttons from last year’s shuffle, the device became dead to me. Giving the new shuffle a click wheel is a return to sanity (especially welcome considering what Apple did to the new nano). But it still has no screen and no scrolling. I remain unenthusiastic. At just $49, however, the price is attractive.

iPod nano: I’m not sure what to make of the new iPod nano. I see no automatic virtue to making the nano smaller and smaller. As far as I’m concerned, the new nano is now too small. I’ll reserve final judgement until I actually get to play with one, but it looks too tiny for my clunky fingers to easily navigate the touchscreen.

More to the point, I prefer a nano with a click wheel. To me, this is what most distinguished the nano from an iPod touch. The wheel lets you easily pause or skip songs while the device is in your pocket; you don’t need to actually see the screen. I know there are iPhone apps like FluxTunes that allow for “sight-free music control,” but you still need to launch these apps and make sure they are active; the click-wheel does it better. And now it’s gone.

The new nano also lost the video camera from last year’s model. This is no great loss from my perspective. I never saw the camera as a selling point, despite how it was touted in Apple’s marketing. I guess Apple came around to my way of thinking. It also appears that iPod games are gone.

As for the new user interface, it has a touchscreen, like the iOS, but otherwise seems not be an iOS variation. You certainly can’t run separate apps. I suspect it will not be given an iOS moniker and will remain outside the iOS family of devices.

iPod touch: The new iPod touch pretty much delivers what was predicted by the rumors. And nothing more. But that’s okay. The new features are definitely noteworthy. The biggest ones are the cameras: a front facing camera (which will work with FaceTime) and a rear-facing camera (for HD video but not still photos). [Correction: The rear camera can apparently take (inferior) still photos, as reported by iLounge.] The rear camera, I suppose, can be viewed as the alternative for those who miss the video camera in last year’s nano. Together with a Retina Display, the iPod touch is a more compelling choice than ever — even if the price is still a bit steep.

Apple TV: The new Apple TV is yet another mixed bag.

The smaller size is attractive and the $99 price is almost certain to spark an increase in sales. I was especially pleased to see how you can use the new AirPlay feature to stream music and video directly from an iOS device to the Apple TV (although I assume this will work only with selected content, such as from iPod and Video apps). Having Netflix access is another big plus.

On the other hand, although not a surprise, my biggest disappointment is the lack of internal storage. Despite what Steve said about Apple TV users not caring about — nor even wanting — this storage, it’s not true for me. The number one use of my Apple TV is to store and play my Mac content (music, movies, and photos).

Yes, I can stream content via iTunes from a Mac to the new Apple TV (which I can also do with my current model). But I much prefer having the content right on the device. With local storage, I don’t have to worry about network connection hassles or whether iTunes is currently open on my Mac or anything else. My content is just there; immediately and reliably. This is a big loss, and possibly a deal-breaker for me.

I had hoped to see Apple introduce some cloud-based service where you could store purchased content. This would not eliminate the need for a network connection, but would at least eliminate the need to have iTunes running on your Mac. It might have also allowed you to purchase content directly from an Apple TV (for storage in your personal cloud space) rather than be restricted to renting. But this was not to be (unless you count MobileMe streaming).

The new 99¢ rental fee for TV shows is definite plus — especially for watching selected episodes of a series. I believe it’s cheaper than any other commercial-free rental option. As a bonus, you now have 48 hours after starting to watch a show to finish it, rather than the former 24 hours. Still, if you plan to rent an entire season of a show, it could wind up costing you almost as much buying the series on DVD.

I’m not sure where all of this leaves my old Apple TV. Will I still be able to purchase movies from it? Will it support the new 99¢ TV rentals? Or what exactly? [I haven’t even launched my Apple TV today to see what’s up; I’ll check it out later.]

iTunes 10: The major new feature in iTunes 10 is Ping — a “social network for music.” I don’t know. I see some advantages to it, especially in terms of following artists. But I don’t need another social network to worry about. I already have my hands full with Facebook and Twitter. And iTunes certainly doesn’t need yet another entirely new feature to add to what is already a bloated application.

The revised AirPlay (formerly AirTunes) offers more promise. I especially welcome that “AirPlay now works without AirPort Express, using speakers, receivers and stereo systems from companies including Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, Denon and iHome, so you can enjoy your entire iTunes music library wirelessly from any room in the house with no extra gear required.”

iOS 4.1 and 4.2: As promised by Steve at the last event, iOS 4.1, due out next week, should fix an assortment of bugs: most notably the proximity sensor bug and the slowness on the iPhone 3G.

However, the new iOS also includes an unexpected and previously unannounced feature: High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos. If it works as advertised, it will automatically do what you would otherwise need multiple different exposures of the same scene plus skill in Photoshop to accomplish. Very cool. This will give my iPhone 4 yet another edge over my point-and-shoot Canon.

Game Center makes its formal debut in iOS 4.1. I’m sure this is welcome news for some. It means almost nothing to me, as I do no network game playing.

Unfortunately, iOS 4.1 will not yet work with the iPad. We’ll have to wait for iOS 4.2 for that — due in November. When it does arrive, iOS 4.2 will add what may well prove to be the most significant announcement of today’s event: wireless printing via a Print Center app. This had been #1 on my iOS wish list. Steve was vague about how it would work — other than saying it will. We’ll have to wait and see. Assuming it delivers on its promise, it instantly makes the iPad a more compelling productivity device.

What didn’t happen. I don’t judge an Apple event based on what rumors were or were not fulfilled. It’s unfair to expect Apple to live up to every pie-in-the-sky dream that some blogger thinks might be true. However, there is one rumor that I will mention — because I had recently written about it.

I had hoped (almost expected) to see the new Apple TV running a version of iOS. I speculated that this would be the first move in an eventual transition to some iOS (and possibly touchscreen) option in all Apple hardware, even Macs. This transition may still be down the road (in that regard, it’s worth noting that the new Apple TV uses the same A4 chip found in the iPhone). However, it did not happen today. I was clearly wrong in my prediction here. The Apple TV interface remains about the same.

We also didn’t hear any word about what will happen on September 30, when the iPhone 4 Case Program ends.

The iPod Classic remains in the Apple Store, but was not updated in any way.

Bottom line. The new line-up of products offer some attractive new features. They will garner the usual positive attention and I expect Apple sales to continue their ascent. However, my overriding reaction to today’s announcements was negative. Not because the new good features weren’t good enough. And not because Apple did not deliver on some rumor. But because too much of what was new (an iPod nano without a wheel; an Apple TV without storage; iTunes with more bloat) was more of a minus than a plus — at least for me.

There’s always next time. The good news is, in Apple’s world, the next time is never very far away.