It was nine years ago next month that Apple's (AAPL) first iPod music player took its first bow before an initially skeptical world. In that time its rank as first among the must-have gadgets in Apple's steadily growing family of digital wonders has fallen sharply in favor of the iPhone and, this year, the iPad.

Apple has sold 275 million iPods in various forms over the years, and you might reasonably think the product line's best days are behind it. You'd be wrong. At the end of a busy year in which Apple has significantly redesigned the iPhone, and launched the entirely new iPad, the iPod has been thoroughly redesigned, improved, and, in at least one case, stripped down for the better.

I spent the better part of my Labor Day weekend testing Apple's three newest iPods—the latest versions of the Touch, the Nano, and the Shuffle—and found myself generally impressed with Apple's changes.

Of the three new models, the Nano ($149 for 8GB; $179 for 16GB) has changed the most from prior versions. Once about the size of a stack of three or four business cards, the latest iPod Nano is, at less than 2.5 square inches, now about the size of a matchbook. Its marquee feature is a touch-sensitive display similar to, if significantly smaller than, that found on the iPhone.

At first it seems ridiculous to select and control the music playing with the diminutive on-screen buttons, until you try it. Tapping the "playlists" button brings up a selection of iTunes playlists, while swiping your finger across the display from left to right will take you to different options, such as the FM radio, the photo viewer, and a pedometer to help you track your daily run or walk. Album art looks surprisingly clear on the tiny display, though the text on the images can be hard to read. One clever feature: With two fingers you can rotate the display image to suit the player's position. Two metal buttons control the volume while a third serves as a wake/sleep button for when the screen goes dark. (Silly me, I kept tapping the screen to activate the display. It didn't work.)

While the last three iterations of the Nano, dating back to 2007, have played video, this one does not. It's the first time I can remember that Apple has reduced capabilities from one generation of the iPod to the next, and frankly it's a smart move that speaks to its new emphasis on audio. With video available on so many other Apple devices, the older Nano's screen size made it less than optimal for watching iTunes TV shows and movies, and most owners ignored video in the first place. Also gone? The video camera that appeared in the previous-generation Nano.

Touch's Improved Hardware

There's plenty of video, however, on the latest iPod Touch ($229, 8GB; $299, 32GB; $399, 64GB). Apple has added significantly to the hardware, bringing it more closely in line with the recently released iPhone 4. It has the same 326-pixels-per-inch Retina display, the same muscular A4 processor, and like the iPhone it sports front- and rear-facing cameras. It also supports the FaceTime videoconferencing feature that is the star of so many iPhone ads.

I was able to test FaceTime on the iPod Touch with an Apple employee, but not with my iPhone 4. As this column was being written, a software update for the iPhone that will allow FaceTime sessions between the iPhone and the iPod Touch had not been released, but it is expected this week. The FaceTime experience is hard to fully understand until you try it. Anyone with kids away at college, young children or grandchildren, or who spends any time away from close friends or family will love FaceTime. There is no service to sign up for, and on the Touch the chance to use it without the need of an iPhone wireless contract only increases the allure. And while, for now, FaceTime works only on Apple devices, Apple has offered it to open-source developers in hopes it will eventually appear on other devices.

Compared with every previous iPod Touch, this latest version kicks up the intensity about a dozen notches. Applications pop open much faster than before; games like Angry Birds (my current vice) run much smoother and look better on the improved screen. My iBook and Kindle libraries are perfectly readable, even on the smaller screen. Another favorite app, Shazam, which I use to get the names of songs playing on speakers around me, had been all but useless on prior Touch models that lacked a microphone; now it's fully functional.

While the Touch's camera takes fine still photographs, it really shines with HD video. I shot a few minutes of footage over the holiday weekend, and was impressed with both the clarity and the sound quality. Battery capacity has improved, too. After all that activity, I didn't have to recharge it.

Shuffle's Controls

The third, and least expensive, member of the family of new iPods is the Shuffle, now in its fourth generation ($49). Here again Apple has stepped back a bit. After the elimination of control buttons entirely in favor of an in-line control for the Shuffle's last go-round, the button wheel that was originally found on the second-generation model is back. VoiceOver, the digital voice that announces song titles and playlist names, is still there, and works as well as ever. The Shuffle holds 2 GB—the only configuration—in a package about the size of a Starburst candy.

Also new in Apple's music ecosystem is iTunes 10, which boasts a new social-networking feature called Ping. While interesting—a lot of my Facebook and Twitter friends love sharing selections from their music libraries—it misses a key point: With Facebook, Twitter, and many others, the last thing people need is another network on which to "follow" their friends. What they do need is a better music-sharing experience that integrates seamlessly with their existing social networks. To be fair, Apple will no doubt learn a great deal during Ping's first weeks and months, and make it more useful. If history is any judge—and the nine-year arc of the iPod family is probably the best example of this—over time Apple only gets better at whatever it chooses to do.

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