Other than Brett Favre mulling his future, the late summer ritual of the past decade has been Apple's (AAPL) release of its latest iPods. In nine years it has sold 275 million of the gadgets worldwide and reordered the music industry around its axis. At the end of a busy year in which the company launched the iPad and significantly redesigned the iPhone, the new iPod Touch, Nano, and Shuffle are all improved and redesigned. More impressively, they represent our own evolution as consumers. Whereas the first-generation iPods catered to graduates of Sony (SNE) Discmen, the newest iterations have been developed for sophisticated users who view iPhone technology and design as a right, not a privilege.
Of the three new models, the iPod Nano ($149, 8 gigabytes; $179, 16GB) has undergone the most significant overhaul. Apple doesn't break down sales by model, but it has historically described the Nano as the most popular iPod. While the original models relied on hard drives to store music, the Nano, which made its debut in 2005, was an early user of flash memory chips, making it smaller and lighter than the iPod Mini.
Over the years it's only gotten smaller: Once about the size of a Chiclets box, the new Nano is, at less than 2.5 square inches, about as big as a book of matches. Apple has eschewed the wheel in favor of an iPhone-esque 1.54-inch touch-sensitive screen with diminutive onscreen buttons that are remarkably easy to manipulate. Album art looks surprisingly clear on the tiny screen, though cover text can be hard to read. Tapping the "playlists" button brings up a selection of iTunes music queues, while swiping your finger across the display from left to right will take you to different options such as FM radio, the photo viewer, and a pedometer that tracks your run. With two fingers you can rotate the display image to suit the player's position.
Unlike its last three iterations, the new Nano doesn't play video. Although Apple rarely reduces its products' capabilities, it did so in this instance with good reason. The Nano's screen size was unsuitable for watching iTunes TV shows. This is a music-only gadget.
TV is where the iPod Touch ($229, 8GB; $299, 32GB; $399, 64GB)—the device you buy if you want an iPhone but don't want to pay a monthly wireless phone contract—comes in. Apple has significantly improved its hardware, bringing it more closely in line with the iPhone 4: It has the same high-quality Retina Display, muscular A4 processor, and front- and rear-facing cameras.
The Touch also supports the exceedingly cool FaceTime videoconferencing feature. As of Sept. 8, when Apple released an update to the iPhone's operating system software, Touch owners can partake in FaceTime sessions with iPhone owners. Yes, there are videoconference products, like Skype, but none are as easy to use as FaceTime: You press a button in the address book entry of the person you want to call, and you can start a face-to-face video chat over Wi-Fi. One day this will become the new normal.
The Touch's other software improvements are similarly drastic. Applications pop open faster and look better on the enhanced screen. IBook and Kindle libraries are perfectly readable on 3.5 inches. The front-facing microphone also makes apps like Shazam—which identifies music—fully functional. While the camera takes fine still pictures, its high-definition video capabilities are truly impressive in terms of both clarity and sound quality. Battery capacity has improved, too.
The third and least expensive member of the iPod family is the iPod Shuffle, now in its fourth generation ($49, 2GB). After eliminating all buttons from its last version, Apple has reinstated the circular control wheel from the device's second-generation model. (The controls on the last Shuffle were on its headphones.) VoiceOver, the digital voice that announces song titles and playlist names, remains and works as well as ever. The Shuffle holds about 500 songs in a package the size of a cough drop and remains a value at less than 50 bucks.
As a coda, Apple has also broadened its music ecosystem with iTunes 10, which boasts a new social networking feature called Ping. While an inspired notion, it's the sole release that misses the mark. Even though Facebook and Twitter devotees love sharing songs from their music libraries, many aren't lusting for another social network to follow their friends. Next September, perhaps Apple will have found a way to improve sharing on existing social networks. That might give us something to talk about as Favre ponders his future.