SHIFT: Is less more? The new iPods vs. Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard, Apple's latest OS X operating system for Macs, debuted in late August to wide acclaim. Much of the praise has stemmed from the fact that the system boasted "no new features," according to Apple. Of course, Snow Leopard does have a few bells and whistles, but the system is defined, not by them, but by the fact that it's smaller and faster than its predecessor, Leopard. Consequently, reviews have focused on how brave and visionary Apple is for keeping things simple.

On the other hand: Yesterday Apple announced a new line iPods, as it does every fall. The iPod Nano has about a million new features, some of which struck me as unnecessary feature creep. Aren't iPods for music? Don't you already have a video camera in your cellphone? And now the Nano's a pedometer too? Both this year and last year, I was struck by how iPods are trying to do more and more, without adding features that anyone wants to use (remember last year's shake-to-shuffle for the Nano?). Here's a gadget that's known for being minimalist in a company that just based an entire operating system on the notion that "less is more."

Sense a contradiction here? Follow the Continue link to read more about Apple's split personality.

Is Faster Enough? (or, I spent $30 on an OS and all I got was this picture of a supernova)

Snow Leopard's release was greeted with mostly glowing reviews (for more details than I could ever hope to provide, check out this 23-pager) that praise its low price ($30) and diminutive size (installing it will leave your hard drive with 7GB extra space).

I despise feature creep, and tend to love Apple's streamlined products. But in this case I worry minimalism may have gone too far. Yes, Snow Leopard is a bit faster. But if I'd wanted to make my computer a bit faster and more stable I could have just upped its internal memory from 1 GB to 2 GB. It doesn't actually increase processor speed, but then, neither does Snow Leopard. But the end result — a computer that handles programs more quickly and stably, fewer spinning pinwheels — would have been similar. And I could have done that months ago, with no waiting, no worrying about it not running certain programs, and without the dubious benefit of translucent menus. In the end, it feels as though this update should have been a free, downloadable service pack.

I've had a lot of trouble getting excited by my shiny new operating system. I'm not alone. Mark Wilson from Gizmodo's three-word Snow Leopard review read "no perceivable difference." So far as I can tell, the best thing about Snow Leopard (for the consumer, not for developers) is that my computer shuts down more quickly than it did before. The worst? I had to re-download photo-editing software Seashore, and System Preferences crashed when I was trying to change my desktop image.

iPod Nano: Jumped the Shark?

As a non-upgrade upgrade, Snow Leopard isn't a satisfying product. On the other hand, the new iPod Nano stands in stark contrast to Snow Leopard's simplicity. Chock-full of new features, it's added everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, including a video camera, pedometer, FM radio, 15 special effects for the videos you take, voice recorder and Genius Mixes. Other brands of MP3 player have had FM radios for years. And consumers have asked Apple for radios in the past. But Apple, usually wary complicating a simple, intuitive device, hasn't added tuners until now. Now that it has, the tuner seems to have been added in a haphazard and random-seeming way. Why should FM tuners be on the iPod Nano but not the iPod Classic or iPod Touch? It seems like Apple closed its eyes and threw a lot of stuff into the Nano, not really considering which features made the most sense.

While we're on the subject, I also think that in making the iPod Shuffle "simpler," Apple made it needlessly complicated. No buttons! Hooray? As with the Nano, this was a choice that doesn't keep the user's needs in mind. The Shuffle aims to be the apex of minimalism, but requires expensive headphones that nobody seems to like. Based on yesterday's announcement, they probably aren't going to improve much (or become less expensive) this year.

Time for a Tablet

What kind of upgrade is better — nearly invisible tweaks, or tons of pretty but ultimately unnecessary bells and whistles? In general, I prefer the simple-is-better, speedy Snow Leopard side of Apple's upgrade equation. But I understand that many will not want to pay even $30 for what's basically a minor speed boost. On the other hand, will people want to upgrade to the new iPod Nano not because an old one is broken, but because they're so excited by the machine's new features? That, too, is hard to imagine, and it makes the announced changes seem like add-ons for their own sake. They won't make or break an iPod-purchasing decision.

Perhaps Apple's best hope for a product that satisfies and inspires will not be from one of endless upgrades (simple or complex), but will come from a completely new gadget. How about a tablet? By definition it would be new and exciting, and by design it wouldn't have to have a million extraneous features.