Spoutin' Off: Apple's new iPod Nano offers both elegant and flashy features
By Michael Rau
September 19 2005
As the moment for the anticipated announcement from Steve Jobs approached, the buzz was about the expected introduction af a new iTunes-enabled cell phone from Motorola.
The phone was, indeed, unveiled, but it's buzz was quickly drowned out by an unexpected product launch -- that of the iPod Nano, the newest release in that illustrious product line and, in my humble opinion, the best.
First, about that new phone, dubbed the Motorola Rokr.
If you're someone who really uses all the various bells and whistles now packed into cell phones, you'll probably like this new feature. But be forewarned; the phone only holds about 100 songs. Also, since it lacks the elegant thumbwheel interface of a standard iPod, it's not as easy to navigate through the menu.
I can't personally recommend it, but then I'm a bit of a dinosaur in that I prefer to use my cell phone as a cell phone and my digital music player as just that.
Now let's talk about the Nano.
First, it replaces the extremely popular iPod Mini (while being about $50 more in cost). It has the same available storage capacity, but is considerably smaller and lighter. It also has a color screen (as opposed to the Mini's grayscale) and can be used to store and display photos just like one of its bigger siblings.
But what really sets the Nano apart is its storage system. It uses flash memory instead of a hard drive to store its songs and photos. This is why The Nano is so much smaller than the Mini. The iPod Shuffle also uses flash memory, but has much less capacity and lacks the best features of higher-end iPods like the display screen and thumbwheel navigator.
As compact as engineers have been able to make hard drives, they're still mechanical devices and thus can only get so small. Flash memory takes up much less space.
Similarly, although hard drives are remarkably reliable considering the speed at which they run and amount of time they're in use, they're still mechanical devices, subject to failure and end-of-lifespan issues.
Flash memory is solid-state. I couldn't even begin to explain how it works, but since it has no moving parts, it's not subject to the same issues as a mechanical drive.
Flash-type memory has been around for a few years now. You're probably most familiar with it being utilized in storage cards for digital cameras and in the USB thumb-drives which have become so popular as methods of transfer for large amounts of data from one computer to another.
But it's also evolving rapidly. You may have read the recent announcement here from Samsung that they've engineered a flash chip that will hold 2 GB of data. These can be combined into larger cards, each holding up to 32 GB of data.
Now, that's not nearly as much as large hard drives, but for solid-state memory, is pretty amazing. And while I don't believe you'll see mechanical hard drives fade away anytime soon, the writing's clearly on the wall - solid-state memory is the future of digital storage.
Many prognosticators are saying we'll soon see flash memory showing up in small laptops and other devices which don't need huge amounts of data storage capacity.
Engineers are also working on ways to chain these together in such a way that several flash cards could be linked to serve as a single storage unit. When this threshold is crossed, the capability will exist to replace larger mechanical drives with solid state storage.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to this right now is cost. A breakdown of component costs in the iPod Nano indicates that the 4 GB(*) of flash memory in the larger-capacity Nano costs Apple as much as $180. As you can see, despite its cost, Apple isn't making much on this device. But I believe they see it as something of a loss-leader that will strategically entrench the iPod even more deeply into pop culture, as well as helping to drive down the cost of flash memory.
Apple has signed a long-term agreement with Samsung to supply them with flash memory and such an agreement should help drive down costs, too. Getting the cost per GB for solid-state memory down to something resembling that of mechanical hard drives will be the key.
Imagine this as your external storage device of the future: It might be a box, say 2 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches deep. It would have a high speed connection, probably USB 2, in the rear, In the front you'd have a row of maybe 10 to 15 vertical slots. In each of these slots, you'd insert a compact flash card with several GB of capacity.
When you needed to expand your storage capacity, instead of going out and buying a new hard drive, you'd just buy another flash card and insert it in the next available slot.
Elegant, huh? And kinda flashy, to boot - just like the new Nano.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
Copyright © 2005, Daily Press
(Note: This is corrected from the print version. My apologies for the original error -MR)