TV-PGJanuary 6, 2004: The miniPod has landed; can its form factor overcome its $249 price point? Meanwhile, Apple finally unveils GarageBand (surprisingly enough, it's not a word processor), and if you were hoping to download the new versions of iMovie and iPhoto, you may want to make alternative arrangements...
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The miniPod: Let's Get Small (1/6/04)

Awwwwwww, it's just an eentsy-beents! To the utter surprise of absolutely nobody (except Albert "Thunderstruck Al" Sherman of Booneville, PA, who was also shocked to learn that he didn't win the lottery and that water is wet), Uncle Steve today announced the iPod mini, which we're probably going to keep referring to as the miniPod just because we think it sounds better. Whaddaya know? Sometimes strong feelings come true. Or truish, anyway.

For those of you who followed all the rumors, yes, it's cheaper; yes, it's smaller; yes, it's available in colors (though not in stripes). No, it's not Flash RAM-based, which only comes as a surprise to the brilliant predictive mind of analyst Rob Enderle, who's now batting something like 0 for 3,483 when it comes to Apple prognostications. On the plus side for good ol' Rob, though, there's a decent chance that the miniPod announcement will spawn another Enderlicious prediction, most likely one about how the new device will fail miserably because it's too expensive and packs a 4 GB hard drive instead of 256 MB of that Flash RAM that he's so darn crazy about.

The thing is, if he does say that, we'll be in a bit of a pickle, because we won't be able to disagree-- at least, not to our accustomed level of mouth-frothing stridency. While we were always a little skeptical that Apple would ever ship something good enough to call an iPod at that magical $99 price point that got tossed around in the press so blithely over the past couple of weeks, we hadn't ruled out a miracle, and we had at least hoped for a $149 2ish GB option. Instead Apple seems to have drawn a line in the sand and decided that anything less than a thousand songs in your pocket just isn't an iPod, and so only the rumored high-end miniPod surfaced-- at $249, which is fifty smackers more than most people had been expecting.

Now, here's the thing: if there had never been an iPod in the first place and Apple announced the $249 4 GB miniPod today, we'd be jumping up and down and hugging strangers in the street, assuming they didn't look too gross or anything. But considering that a mere fifty clams more gets you a full-fledged 15 GB iPod, we're not at all sure just how many people will be lining up to plunk down a quarter-grand for only a quarter of the disk space. Presumably it'll be people who 1) have small music collections, 2) like aluminum but hate plastic, 3) love shiny metallic colors but detest white, and 4) have trouble lifting five to six ounces but feel they can manage 3.6 okay.

That said, we just held up a half-inch stack of business cards (which is exactly the width of a miniPod and only a tenth of an inch shorter), and we have to say, dang, that's one small iPod. Especially with 4 GB of breathing room, which means it holds 80% of what our original iPods hold, and actually does more in terms of extras and the like. In other words, this could well be one of those products whose specs don't necessarily look all that great on paper, but when you hold one, your wallet seems to leap unbidden from your pants. Sort of like the original iPod, actually; you may recall that we were pretty lukewarm about the whole thing at first, and boy did that ever change.

So there's the miniPod story: a ridiculous amount of function in a likewise ridiculously tiny package, all for what is (when you think about it) a ridiculously fair price for what you get. Sure, if you don't mind lugging around a hulking behemoth of a gleaming white plastic thing, you can pack four times as much music into its big brother for only $50 more, but for some people even a thousand songs will seem like overkill, and the physical size factor may be a real issue; the iPod is portable, whereas the miniPod is barely there at all. And if the price bums you out, well, who knows? The "insider info" about the entry-level 1.5 GB miniPod may well have been real after all; Apple could be keeping it in the wings, ready to take on the low-end Flash-based players (that other 31% of the market, for those of you who watched the Stevenote) at a later date. Like, when 4 GB miniPod sales start to level off. Geez, we may even have to start saving up just in case.

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"These Macs Go To Eleven" (1/6/04)

The miniPod is cool, no doubt, but can we be honest? It just wasn't the star of the show. Neither was the long-awaited G5 Xserve, for that matter, nor guitar-slingin' demo boy John Mayer, nor even Srinidi Varadarajan of the Virginia Tech Big Mac project (although we admit we were all yelling "SRINIIIII!!! WOOO!!! YEAH!!!" and holding up lighters when his video spot came on). For us, only one thing that shared the stage with Steve came close to matching his radiance, and that was GarageBand.

You might remember the GarageBand rumors from last September, when someone at MacRumors came across Apple's trademark application floating around in the soup of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database. Speculation ran rampant, since the name could have referred to just about anything even vaguely related to music. Allow us to pretend we knew what the heck we were talking about, then, when we posited that it might be "some sort of add-on that turns a Mac into a passable recording studio rig for cheap," because that's basically what it is: the fifth leg of Apple's $49 iLife suite which combines the dynamic looping elements of Soundtrack, dozens of software-based virtual instruments, and a digital recording studio that lets you capture and tweak your own special sound. Okay, so the description lacks oomph; you really need to see it-- and hear it-- in action. If you haven't sat through the keynote yet, we strongly recommend that you tune in and see what all the fuss is about.

So is this just another niche product? Maybe, but Steve has a point: if half the households in the U.S. contain at least one player of a musical instrument, that's pretty good odds at a viable audience-- and if the Mac population includes a disproportionately high number of musicians, which we suspect it might, well, so much the better. Besides, remember when iMovie first came out? Only about four people even owned a MiniDV camcorder at that time, and none of them was thinking about desktop video; now that was a niche. The same goes with authoring your own DVDs, because when iDVD first came out the SuperDrive only existed in the high-end $3000 Power Mac G4. These days, though, MiniDV camcorders are everywhere and even standalone DVD recorders are filtering down into the consumer mainstream. And since a lone cellist can now build an entire virtual string quartet (or a whole freakin' orchestra), who's to say that GarageBand won't increase the number of active musicians out there?

Whatever. Maybe we're just flabbergasted because of the timing: we've actually got an electric guitar UPS-Grounding its way across the country to us right now, which means we apparently bought something at just about the right time for once. We'll let you know if we're still as psyched once we're pumping that thing through the British Invasion virtual amp.

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Only The First Hit Was Free (1/6/04)

The Stevenote wasn't all Tater Tots and Twizzlers, though; you may not have noticed it at the time, but Steve tiptoed past a little fact that might have some Mac users leaning perilously close to Disgruntled Territory. It's nothing so nasty as the dual-USB iBook logic board failures that has malcontented zombies converging on the Moscone Center even as we speak, but we imagine at least some of the Mac-using undead might have a few choice words for the bigwigs in Cupertino when all's said and done. Nasty words. Hurtful words. Words like "nnnnnggghhhhrrr" and "mmuuuuuuhhhaaaa."

You no doubt thrilled to the revelation of all those nifty new features in iPhoto 4. (If you're wondering what happened to iPhoto 3, sources tell us that it kept showing up to work drunk and harassing the interns.) The new version packs Smart Albums, photo ratings, Rendezvous photo sharing, and possibly the best new feature since the application's debut: what Apple describes as "blazing fast performance," and what we hope we'll be able to describe honestly as "enough speed not to make our dual-800 MHz G4 drag like a Yugo hauling a bus full of hippos and sacks of nails." Plus its enhanced slideshow options include that oh-so-cool rotating cube transition, so you don't have to spring for Keynote or mess with Panther's Fast User Switching to see it.

And hey, how about that new iMovie? More transitions and effects, trimming of video clips right in the timeline, native iSight support, simplified sharing of your finished movies, audio scrubbing... the list goes on and on. (Well, no, actually, the list pretty much stops there, but still, that's one darn fine update.) And iDVD? Now it has a navigation map, twenty new themes, transitions between screens, and support for up to two hours of new pro-encoded video on each DVD.

Meanwhile, iTunes is... well, it's still the same old iTunes, but at least there's some new stuff kicking around in the iTunes Music Store, like Billboard charts and half a million songs. That... that sort of counts, right? Ah, whatever-- GarageBand more than takes up the slack.

So all in all, iLife '04 is a solid upgrade to the digital lifestyle suite, and at $49 it's a steal. But that won't appease some people when they discover that Steve conveniently glossed over the fact that you can no longer download its components anymore. So long, free ride.

Well, okay, that's not entirely true; iDVD was never really downloadable to begin with, and GarageBand is new, so you can't judge by that. And iTunes is still free to download, but then again, if it weren't, Apple wouldn't sell nearly as many iPods. iPhoto and iMovie, on the other hand, used to be free downloads, but now appear to be available only via iLife; even the download pages for the previous versions have been yanked. And to get iLife, you're either going to have to shell out $49 for a retail copy, or spend considerably more than that on a whole new Mac.

It's not the end of the world, of course, but yes, it's one more example of Apple taking a free product or service (like iTools), getting people hooked, and then charging for it later (.Mac). Sure, you get more for your money, like a great new version of iDVD and a kick-ass music creation and recording app that should probably cost more than $49 all on its lonesome, but if you're not the musical type, you don't own a SuperDrive, and all you want is a version of iPhoto that'll let you scroll through 2,000 photos before your great-grandchildren drop dead of old age, you now have to spend forty-nine clams like the rest of us. All we can say is, thank heaven there's a $79 Family Pack.

Of course, we'd feel even better about it if we didn't think we'd have to buy iLife '05 next January. Progress bites, huh?

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