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Very little changed for this year's iPod lineup

Apple's announcement for its recent event said "Let's talk iPhone," and that's what the main focus of its event turned out to be. The iPod lineup did receive some (very) modest updates at the same time, but they were "blink and you'll miss it" moments.

So what's new for the iPod line in 2011?

iPod touch: Now available in white. Otherwise, it's 100 percent identical to the 2010 model. Seriously, after comparing the tech specs page from this year versus 2010, not one thing has changed. The 8 GB model got a US$30 price drop, but that's the only other change from last year. The iPod touch has not been updated with an A5 processor, and that's the first time the lineup hasn't been updated with a CPU on par with that in the iPhone. The camera hasn't been changed either; it's still the same incredibly poor camera from last year. Multiple rumors that the iPod touch would receive a 3G antenna upgrade also turned out to be untrue; no one was less surprised about that one than us.

Ars Technica has questioned why the iPod touch hasn't been updated with the A5 processor when Apple went out of its way to laud iOS devices' potential as handheld gaming units during the latest event. Their analysis suggests that trends both in the overall handheld gaming market and among Apple's own sales figures are falling behind the iPhone and iPad, but I suspect there's a simpler motivator.

The A5 is reportedly very complex to build, and it's my suspicion that Apple withheld the A5 processor from the iPod touch simply because its production channels couldn't crank the chip out fast enough to support sales for the iPad 2, iPhone 4S, and an upgraded iPod touch simultaneously. A5 production has been keeping pace with demand for the iPad 2, but throwing the iPhone 4S into the mix will likely strain chip production to its limits. Trying to satisfy demand for an A5-powered iPod touch may well have proven impossible, and it might have simultaneously dragged down production numbers for the more profitable iPad 2 and iPhone 4S.

Production of the A6 processor for 2012's iPads and iPhones has reportedly already begun at TSMC, and the foundry's ability to produce that processor in bulk will likely determine the iPod touch's fate. If TSMC can produce the A6 fast enough to satisfy demand for all iOS devices, the iPod touch may see a substantial upgrade next year. Otherwise, it may only move to the A5 processor once the iPad 3 comes out featuring an A6 chip, thereby alleviating strain on A5 production. Either way, unless suppliers can step up their game production-wise, it seems clear the iPod touch will lag behind its more profitable brethren for some time to come.

iPod nano: Only one change -- the "new" iPod nano has a Nike+ sensor built-in, so you no longer need to plug in a dongle receiver to sync it with a shoe sensor. Other than that small change and a price drop, the iPod nano is identical to the 2010 model, spec for spec. The other new features Apple described at its event, like a slightly revamped UI and additional clock faces, are not exclusive to this year's iPod nano, and they can be added to 2010 models via a software update.

Apple has lowered the price of the iPod nano into the range where it's almost disposable, and with no compelling updates to the nano's hardware this year it appears the company's main focus has switched to full-powered iOS devices.

iPod shuffle: No changes. It's the same shuffle from 2010; even the price is the same. Other than the price and relative indestructibility of its construction, there's really nothing the shuffle offers that the nano doesn't do better. Our source suggested the shuffle would be discontinued (he was quite wrong, so he's "fired" as our source for future info), and we suspect Apple will only keep it in the lineup until it's no longer profitable or until it can drive prices on the nano downward enough to replace it.

iPod classic: No changes. Just as in 2010, the iPod classic wasn't even mentioned at the recent event, and quite frankly we're surprised this model is still being sold. The iPod classic has seen no significant external changes since 2007, and no internal changes at all since 2009. The $249 price also remains unchanged from the debut of the 160 GB model over two years ago. Other than the ability to haul around absurd amounts of music and other media, the iPod classic brings very little to the table, and the fact that it still sells for the same price it did two years ago makes it hard to recommend buying one today.

Apple's iPod events used to be the company's yearly "wow" moment. The iPod nano was awe-inspiring in 2005, but the current touchscreen model seems somewhat bland, even disposable, only six years later. The iPod touch has always been an also-ran to the iPhone; it shows now more than ever, with internal components that are now more than a year behind what the iPhone 4S will offer. The iPod shuffle and iPod classic remain outliers in the iPod line, apparently profitable enough for Apple to keep them around, but nowhere near to being on Apple's list of high-priority products.

Although it was the product that all but defined Apple during the early- to mid-2000s, the iPod is obviously no longer a priority for the company. iPod sales have been in decline for years, and it's almost certain that decline will continue. Apple's focus has shifted to the iPhone and iPad, and we can expect that to be the case for the next few years at least.

The iPod will likely stick around for years to come, but its days of driving yearly innovation in the portable music player market are pretty much over. That mantle has fallen to its more capable and more expensive brethren.

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