Apple’s Fall Upgrades

September 9 was another day of Steve Jobs preaching to the faithful as the Applemiester introduced the company’s latest versions of iPod Touch, iPod Nano and the iTunes software.

The place was San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center, where Jobs also welcomed television network NBC back to the iTunes fold.

The fourth-generation iPod Nano still resembles the original mini-player, with the display screen taking up the upper half of the unit while the click-wheel resides on the bottom. However, turn it on its side and you can see the new player is slightly oval in shape. At less than one quarter of an inch thick and available in nine different colors, Apple says the new Nano is the “thinnest iPod ever.”

Perhaps one of the niftier features on the new Nano isn’t a menu selection or a choice on the click wheel. Instead, it’s a shuffle feature activated by shaking the player. Can life be any easier?

Apple is selling the new Nano in two configurations – 8GB storage for $149 and 16GB for $199.
While Apple hawks the new Nano as the thinnest ever, it’s also promoting the upgraded iPod Touch as “the funnest iPod ever.”

With a touch screen displaying video right side up no matter which edge is facing downward, the iPod Touch is often described as an iPhone without the phone. Launched just over a year ago, the new unit is a second-generation Touch and comes with plenty of bells and whistles. One of which is the built-in speaker, thus making Touch the only iPod that doesn’t need earbuds or external speakers to rock.

But music isn’t the only content that goes well with Touch. Like the original unit, the 2G Touch also plays videos and displays pictures. Like its big brother iPhone, Touch runs games and applications downloaded from iTunes and Apple’s App Store, with the latter accessible via the player’s new WiFi feature.

The new iPod Touch is available in three storage sizes – 8GB for $229, 16GB for $299 and 32GB for $399.
“IPod Touch is the funnest iPod we’ve ever created,” Jobs said. “Users can listen to millions of songs, watch thousands of Hollywood movies, and now, thanks to the App Store, download and play hundreds of great games on their iPod Touch.”

The original iPod, which Apple calls “iPod classic,” was also mentioned during Jobs’ latest show-and-tell. However, this time the news was the player would now be offered in only one size – 120GB – and one price – $249. As the classic is the only member of the iPod family to still use a hard drive instead of flash memory for storage, Apple watchers were wondering if the classic model is entering its swan song, with Macworld calling the one-size, one-price change “the iPod classic’s final act.”

Upgraded iPods weren’t the only stars of the day, as Apple announced changes to its venerable media-managing iTunes software.

The most notable addition to the upgraded iTunes software – iTunes 8 – is the Genius feature, which builds playlists based on whatever song you choose. Pick a song, click on the “genius” button and iTunes fills up the Genius playlist with songs that go with your original selection.

Apple says iTunes 8 accomplishes this by sending information about your music library (only if you grant permission) to the iTunes store. Apple then takes the information, compares it against information generated by millions of iTunes users and then runs a few proprietary algorithms on it.

Overall, we found Genius runs pretty much as described, providing pretty decent mixes based on the songs we picked. However, Sheryl Crow followed by Nine Inch Nails wasn’t the smoothest segue we ever heard.

Although Genius is limited to the songs in your iTunes library, it also recommends songs you do not have as being compatible with your original choice. Of course, those recommendations are available for purchase at the iTunes store, making the Genius feature a marketing tool as well as a playlist builder.

But Apple’s Genius isn’t limited to iTunes. New versions of iPod Touch, Nano Classic as well as iPhone can create Genius playlists on the fly, thus making the units a little smarter than before.

Amid all the sizzle at the latest Apple lovefest, Steve Jobs also introduced a little steak by welcoming the NBC television network back into the iTunes family.

NBC left iTunes last year over a pricing disagreement. Apple said the network wanted to charge double the wholesale price for downloads, a whopping $4.99 each. The network, however, said it only wanted to sell programs at different prices.
This time it looks like iTunes won the pricing battle, as NBC shows will be priced the same as other TV offerings on iTunes. High-definition shows, a new addition for iTunes, are priced at $2.99 each, and regular TV shows are $1.99 each.
But NBC did gain at least one concession.

NBC Universal’s president for digital distribution, Jean-Briac Perrette, said Apple will allow the network to bundle programs and full seasons of series into packages where NBC will set the price. Perrette told the press that NBC is “thrilled to be back on iTunes,” but also mentioned that the network has other avenues for selling its wares.

And how did all these upgrades, announcements and additions go over with investors?

Not too well, apparently. On the day of the event, Apple shares dropped 3.9 percent, or $6.13, to finish at $151.79 in afternoon trading.