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How Apple's newest iPods prove (and disprove) that it learns from design mistakes

When Apple released the third-generation iPod shuffle in 2009, I saw it as a perfect example of the design hubris that many Apple detractors point to. From a usability perspective, there really wasn't anything wrong with the second-generation iPod shuffle -- it had a minimal number of buttons, true, but their functions were fairly obvious. In a textbook example of the emphasis of form over function, Apple's third-generation iPod shuffle removed all of the controls from the device itself and moved them to the headphones' inline remote. Not only was the remote far more complex to use than the old shuffle's simple buttons, it also meant that, if you wanted to use third-party headphones, you'd either have to give up all control over the iPod or shell out more money for an inline remote adapter. The third-gen iPod shuffle got savaged in reviews, and it deserved it.

Apple's fourth-generation iPod shuffle mercifully brought the buttons back. Apple even lists "buttons" as a feature on its page for the iPod shuffle. In a rare departure from typical Apple design, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle is much larger than the third-gen; it's not that Apple can't make a music player the size of your thumbnail, but it seems like Apple realized that it shouldn't. So, the return of buttons to the iPod shuffle proves that Apple doesn't always emphasize form over function. Right?

Unfortunately, although the iPod shuffle proves that Apple is perfectly capable of learning from its design missteps, the new iPod nano and iPod touch both feature design compromises that are almost as boneheaded as the buttonless third-gen iPod shuffle. Click "Read More" to see the way these new iPods, nice as they are in some respects, are in other ways an example of a "one step forward, two steps back" design.
The new iPod touch finally got the rear-facing camera many people were expecting in 2009. When the 2009 iPod touch debuted without the widely-expected camera, many people were left scratching their heads and trying to figure out why the diminutive iPod nano got a camera while Apple's flagship touchscreen iPod didn't. The chief argument back then was that the iPod touch was simply too thin to include a decent camera like its thicker, more expensive brother, the iPhone.

However, the 2010 iPod touch somehow manages to be 1.2 millimeters thinner than the 2009 model while still introducing a rear-facing camera with the ability to shoot video at 720p. So, Apple hasn't been forced to compromise the functionality of the iPod touch in order to satisfy its inexplicable desire to make the devices thinner and thinner each year, ... or has it?

If you take a look at the tech specs for the new iPod touch, you might notice that the camera only takes still photos at a resolution of 960 x 720. Basic number crunching shows this to be a camera resolution of 0.7 megapixels -- far lower than the iPhone 4's 5 megapixels, and lower even than the original iPhone's terrible 2 megapixel camera. Granted, megapixels aren't everything; I think my iPhone 4's 5 megapixel camera takes superior photos compared to my wife's 10 megapixel (but cheapish) Fuji point-and-shoot. But still, it seems to me that being 2.1 millimeters thinner than the iPhone 4 doesn't justify having a camera that takes still photos with such low resolution that you might as well not even bother with them. Apple can point to its new iPod touch and say, "There, now it has a camera," but anyone with a lick of sense will point right back and say, "Yeah, but that camera sucks."

What about the iPod nano? Just like the third-gen iPod shuffle, the sixth-generation iPod nano has sacrificed many features a previous model possessed in order to squeeze into a smaller form factor and go with a buttonless design. The new iPod nano has a multitouch screen, and while I'll admit the new UI looks intriguing, look at what the nano's lost to get it down to that iPod shuffle-like form factor:

1. No video playback (introduced in 2007 with third generation)
2. 136 fewer vertical pixels compared to fifth generation - reducing the screen resolution by 36% (though ppi is higher)
3. No voice recording (introduced in 2008 with fourth generation)
4. No camera (introduced in 2009 with fifth generation)
5. Much smaller screen: 1.54 inches diagonal in sixth gen compared to 2.2 inches in fifth gen

For the same price as last year's iPod nano, you get a much smaller device with a new multitouch-based UI, but you also lose many of the features the old model had. That's form over function all the way, and it's just as bad, in its way, as Apple getting rid of FireWire on its MacBooks. It's the same principle at work: once you intro a feature, you'd better have a very good reason for taking that feature away in a subsequent model, ... and "Gee, look how small it is now!" doesn't cut it every time.

The new iPod shuffle proves Apple is able to emphasize function over form. Here's hoping the 2011 iPod touch's camera and the 2011 iPod nano continue that trend, because particularly in the nano's case, form has prevailed over function this year.

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iPod

When Apple released the third-generation iPod shuffle in 2009, I saw it as a perfect example of the design hubris that many Apple...