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Tech Lab

Apple’s latest iPods offer entertaining new features

It’s the time of year when fruitcakes sell like hot cakes, and so do Apple Inc.’s iPod media players. And yes, there’s a connection.

You remember ­iPods, right? Just 11 years ago, the first of them delighted music buffs worldwide. Apple has sold over 350 million since. But Apple’s own iPhone, and millions of other smartphones, have made the “pure” media player obsolete. The iPod is Apple’s only major product line with falling sales — down 30 percent from two years ago.

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But Apple keeps on polishing the iPod, with happy results. The newest iPod Touch and iPod Nano players are sleek, elegant reminders that a personal entertainment device doesn’t have to come with a monthly phone bill.

Not that either of these devices is cheap. The iPod Touch is priced at $299 for the model with 32 gigabytes of memory or $399 for 64 gigs; the Nano comes with 16 gigs and costs $149.

The Nano costs $20 more than last year’s model, but you’re paying for extra real estate. A larger 2.5-inch screen makes the device more useful for viewing photos and screening videos, though it’s not the best choice for either activity. The extra money also covers the cost of a Bluetooth radio, so the Nano can broadcast music wirelessly to any compatible device. That may help compensate for the fact that the Nano won’t plug into your existing ­iPod docking stations. Like all new Apple mobile devices, it’s moved on to the new Lightning connector. I can’t complain; the smaller plug is much easier to work with, especially on a gadget as small as the Nano.

Both iPods also include the same new-style earbud headphones as the iPhone 5, which are nicely shaped to better fit the human ear. I find them slippery and prone to slide out, but the sound quality is superior to the old-school buds. Throw in a built-in FM radio tuner and physical fitness software that tracks your footsteps, and the iPod Nano makes an attractive running buddy.

Its big brother, the iPod Touch, is likely keeping the iPod brand alive. Earlier this year, Apple said it had sold 46.5 million Touches since launching the product in 2007, compared to 86 million iPhones over the same period.

The Touch is often described as an iPhone with the phone left out. That’s surely one reason the new Touch is thin to the point of anorexia, with a gleaming aluminum backside available in several tastefully gaudy colors. And this Touch’s latest upgrades are lifted from various iPhones. There are the new earbuds, of course. And the Touch is blessed with the same excellent video screen as the ­iPhone 5, a 4-inch, high-resolution display that’s bigger, and to my eye, a bit sharper than the one on my iPhone 4S.

The standard array of ­iPhone apps will run well on the iPod Touch, which is powered by a dual-core processor, the same chip used in the ­iPhone 4S and the second-generation iPad. But of course, your choice of apps is limited by the lack of cellular connectivity. Some will only work when you’re hooked up to a local Wi-Fi network. Then you can stream Netflix movies or Pandora music, or use the Siri speech-recognition system to ask questions about the weather or the score of the Celtics game. You’ve also got ­FaceTime, Apple’s painless video conferencing tool, for free video calling to owners of other Apple mobile devices.

The pictures will look pretty decent; there’s a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, and a very nice 5-megapixel camera on the back, borrowed from the ­iPhone 4. It’s capable of shooting 1080p high-resolution video as well as stills.

Like the Nano, the new Touch has now got Bluetooth on board. I only wish Apple had thrown in a GPS chip as well, so it could deliver precise location data. Instead, users must rely on a less exact Wi-Fi-based location service. And the turn-by-turn navigation service now standard on iPhones is unavailable on the iPod Touch.

Still, the iPod Touch is a mighty capable device, though hard to justify if you’re already packing a full-fledged smartphone, or about to purchase one. Then again, the Touch and its little brother will fit nicely under a Christmas tree. About 40 percent of all iPods are purchased during the holidays, many by people who’d never buy one for themselves, but think they’re just the thing for a relative or friend. Just like a fruitcake, only a lot more tasty.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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