This past Wednesday night I spent the evening in Studio 4 at BBC Television Centre in White City, West London. This was the venue hired by Apple for the evening to allow the press and various other invited guests to view the live satellite feed of the Apple product launch event that took place in California.
Speculation was rife as to what the new product would be, with everything from a video-enabled iPod to the first Intel-based Powerbooks suggested.
In fact, a video-based iPod was indeed one of several announced new products, along with one I had been tipping for over a week.
Lets get the iPod out of the way first. Two new hard disk-based models were announced, replacing the existing 20GB and 60GB iPod Photo models currently on sale.
The two models, a 30GB and 60GB will sell for £219 and £299 respectively in the UK ($299 and $399, plus tax, in the US) and are both slightly thinner than the models they have replaced, although both are use traditional hard drive technology, not on Toshiba’s new perpendicular magnetic storage technology, as had been widely expected.
The screen is sharper, and is slightly larger (2.5 inch diagonal) than a conventional non-video colour iPod (2 inch diagonal), and can display video and images at a reasonable 320×240 resolution, which is half VGA resolution.
Battery life has also improved, with the 30GB offering up to 14 hours run time, and the 60GB offering up to 20 hours run time off a full charge. However, continuous video playback reduces this to two and three hours respectively.
However, the whole device leaves me disappointed. Rather than embracing the medium Apple really has just stuffed the functionality into an existing iPod form factor. To give it due, the playback quality of the demo units and their example episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost were very impressive. However, it is still too small to watch for an hour at a time. I’ll be saving my pennies for the next version, which will hopefully have a slightly larger, 16×9 ration display on it.
Also announced alongside the iPod was a whole new version of iTunes, version 6.0, which to be perfectly honest doesn’t really look any different to version 5.01, except for an extra menu option for your video library, and subsequent driver support for the new iPod models, along with support for downloading, playback and transferring video to the device itself.
But the main event was in fact the first item announced by Apple chief exec Steve Jobs – the new iMac. Cosmetically the same as the previous G5 iMac, the new model is half an inch thinner, features faster G5 chips, bigger, faster hard drives, faster memory and an integrated iSight camera that is also of a better specification than the standalone iSight.
Now I have seen inside the previous iMac G5 model, and I can right now that it didn’t exactly have bags of unused space inside the case. In fact, it was the most densely packed computer I have ever seen, with ever inch of space put to use and devices and fans strategically placed to ensure maximum cooling amid the few conduits for airflow that existed. Therefore, shaving another half an inch off an already slim machine is a technical marvel.
Integrating the iSight camera is a masterstroke. The iSight is easily the best webcam with integrated mic on the market. However, it is painfully underutilised within MacOS – only iChat AV uses it, and as such it does not sell nearly as well as it should. Fitting the iSight into the actual iMac display not only ensures that people will have a powerful videoconferencing platform at their disposal whether they like it or not (and they will eventually use it), but it will be a catalyst for increased use of iChat AV and sales of standalone iSight cameras.
In addition to the new iMac, Apple announced two new pieces of software, which for now will be exclusively bundled on the new slimmer iMac (though expect them to appear in the next release of the paid-for iLife suite, expected in January).
First is Photobooth, a very silly, but very fun tool for taking still images using your iSight webcam. AS well as taking conventional pictures, you can apply a number of different effects to them, including fisheye and x-ray – all demonstrated with great hilarity by Jobs.
But the big one is Front Row – Apple’s very impressive first attempt at a home media interface to rival Microsoft’s Windows Media Centre operating system.
Using the newly launched and bundled 6-button remote control (which looks like, and is no bigger than an iPod Shuffle), users can switch their iMac into Front Row mode, whereby the MacOS desktop disappears and is replaced with four icons, providing easy access to your stored music, videos, photos and your DVD drive. All very simple and very minimalist – a user interface not too far detached from the iPod itself. The remote even has a weak magnet in it so you can stick it to the side of your iMac for safekeeping.
While Front Row is just a playback mechanism so far, I’m sure that over time it will take on more Media Centre-like features such as the ability to control TV cards and record TV and radio straight to the hard drive for playback later and time shifting. Either way – for a first stab at a completely new medium, I was very, very impressed. I was very surprised that they have opted to bundle it with the iMac, and not something a bit more living room-friendly such as the Mac Mini (which in turn could be easily plumbed into a TV) or an entirely new TV-friendly device. I have a strong feeling that such a plan is already in the works at Apple for the not too distant future.
One last thing – Apple also announced the universal iPod dock. Purchasers of the recently launched iPod Nano will have noticed that the pack included a dock adapter, which the Apple web site explains away as being for future products. That future product has arrived – one dock to fit them all. The dock, which is very similar to the Kensington Stereo Dock, except that it also connects to your computer for synching as well as to a hifi, ships with inserts for all legacy dock-connector iPods from the 3rd generation iPod to the present models. The Nano and the video iPods include their respective inserts in the box with the iPod itself. You simply snap in the insert for your model. The dock has an integrated infrared receiver, and is compatible with the new Apple remote, which is available separately as well as bundled with iMac. The Apple remote can control the play, pause, fast forward, rewind and skip controls – the same as the now discontinued wired remote.
The video iPods, the universal docks, remote controls and the new iMacs will be available from Apple Stores and online in around a week, while iTunes 6 is available for download now.