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ATPM 7.12
December 2001

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Review: iPod

by Daniel Chvatik, dchvatik@atpm.com

excellent

Developer: Apple Computer

Price: $399

Requirements: Mac with built-in FireWire port, Mac OS X 10.1 or Mac OS 9.2.1

Trial: none

Overview

For a long time, Apple has been focused on the consumer business. In years long past, Apple had a complex line-up of computer models and the accompanying peripherals such as displays, printers, speakers, and a digital camera. Then came the big cut and Apple’s product offerings were limited to a 2 x 2 matrix of computers, plus a mouse, a keyboard, and three display types. Now, led by its “digital hub” strategy, Apple is ready to expand once again into the realm of consumer accessories.

ipod1

iPod in all its glory

Apple chose an MP3 player for its first step as a creator of digital hub solutions. An MP3 player is a little device, not unlike a Discman, that plays digitally stored music files (MP3 files) that can be created (“ripped”) from CDs or downloaded (sometimes illegally) from the Internet. In typical Apple-style, the secret product launch was heavily hyped, and when the public finally laid its eyes on this supposedly “revolutionary” new digital device, many were understandably disappointed. Statements such as “everybody will want one” had led people to expect the impossible. However, unreasonably high expectations do not mean that the iPod is actually bad.

To make sure that there are no misunderstandings: the iPod is not for everyone. Instead, it is geared at a particular segment of the consumer market. But in my opinion, the iPod hits that segment dead on. There are many people who disagree with me, and ultimately it is you, the consumers, who will be casting the final vote.

Installation

I just installed a wireless PC card on a Windows NT machine for a friend this weekend. Now, I can say without hesitation that installing the iPod is a pleasure. It starts by opening the packaging. The iPod is so well packaged, it is delightful to unwrap. Once you remove the outer cardboard, the main box opens up into two halves. One of which contains the iPod, and the other contains the accessories: FireWire cable, power adapter, software CD, headphones, and a quick getting started guide. Everything is done in great taste. My iPod even came pre-charged, so I could jump right in.

ipod2

iPod packaging

There are three ways to install the required iTunes 2 software: you can download it over the Internet (which I had done before buying the iPod, so I was all set). You can install it from the included CD. Or you can install it directly off the iPod when you connect it to your Mac (more on that later). Apple had a little debacle with the online version of the iTunes 2.0.0 installer—under certain circumstances it could delete some of your disks. Luckily, this problem has been fixed in the iTunes 2.0.1 and 2.0.2 installers and does not affect the installers that come with the iPod CD or on the iPod. I won’t be covering the parts of iTunes 2 that do not pertain to the iPod. If you want to know more about iTunes 2, please take a look at our iTunes 2 review

The only disappointing part about the installation process lies with the system requirements. Apple requires you to have the newest version of your OS (either 9.2.1. or X 10.1) running, so getting the iPod to work may force you to update your operating system.

After you are done installing all the software (which may take a bit of time under OS X), you are ready to connect the iPod to your Mac. Whenever you connect the iPod, iTunes will automatically launch. The first time, iTunes will prompt you to name your iPod. From then on, your iPod will recognize this Mac as its home base. Every time you connect the iPod to your computer, it will attempt to synchronize its music collection with your Mac. If you connect your iPod to another Mac, you have a choice of changing your iPod over to that machine. You cannot transfer music this way between two Macs. But don’t worry, I will tell you later about another way to do that.

Operation

I said iTunes will synchronize the music collection between your Mac and the iPod. What that means is that iTunes will try to copy all the songs in your iTunes library to the iPod’s 5 GB hard drive. The next time you connect your iPod, iTunes will update your iPod to reflect the changes made to the iTunes library. What if you don’t want that or if your iTunes library is larger than 5 GB? iTunes offers two alternatives: you can either transfer the songs manually, dragging songs or playlists to the iPod. Or, you can tell it to just synchronize selected playlists. Synchronization is lightning fast, thanks to FireWire. It takes less than a second per song, and about 10 seconds per CD.

The iPod comes with little documentation, just a sheet that explains the most common functions and buttons on the iPod. iTunes has some limited help functionality in its Help menu both for itself and the iPod. It explains how to do some of the things that I mentioned so far. But to save you the trip to the Help menu, here’s how to access some of the important features: In iTunes, select your iPod from the Source list on the left side. A new icon will appear on the bottom right, representing an iPod. That icon opens up the iPod preferences window. Here, you can set the update mode (everything, just selected playlists, or manually), choose whether iTunes should open every time you connect the iPod, and enable/disable FireWire disk use (more on that later).

All the hoopla I described so far of course only has one function: to make sure the iPod can play the music you want, how you want it. After all, that’s what you’d want an MP3 player to do. The iPod works well in that regard. I am no audiophile, so I am not the best judge of the sound quality. All I can say is that it sounds good to me. The headphones seem to be of high quality, if a bit too large for my ears.

In terms of playback, iPod has most things you would want. There are three play modes: by playlist (lists taken from iTunes), by artist name, and by song. I’d like to see an album mode as well in the future. Of course, you can skip back and forth between song and fast-forward both ways within songs. You can repeat one or all songs and enable a random (shuffle) play mode within the three main modes above. Further settings let you turn on backlighting for the LCD for a few seconds after you press a button, set an automatic power off after a few minutes, change the operating language, change contrast, turn off the clicker, set a startup volume, or reset all settings back to factory defaults.

Startup volume sets the iPod’s default volume. Backlighting is bright, almost too bright for my taste. You can use it as a primitive flashlight in very dark environments. Backlighting can be manually toggled by holding the menu button down for a few seconds. Finally, the Clicker refers to a little speaker on the iPod that gives optional acoustic feedback when you press a button.

Controlling the iPod is easy. Except for the Hold switch, which is located on top, all the controls are on the front below the big and easily readable 2" LCD. As a matter of fact, it is easily one of the best displays I have seen in any digital device. The buttons are well placed and feel solid. The thumb wheel in the middle (used to scroll through the list and change the volume) triggers a bit too easily, but other than that the controls are great.

Apple engineers even squeezed in an Easter Egg. Go to the About screen from the main menu and hold the middle (enter) button down for about five seconds. A little game of breakout will pop up that you control via the iPod buttons. Besides triggering the Easter Egg, the About screen also shows you available hard disk space and the number of songs on your iPod.

Reading the comments and other reviews on the Web, it seems some people have trouble finding the power button—because there is none. They probably didn’t have time to read that single documentation sheet. To turn off your iPod, just hold the play button for about five seconds. Press any button (other than Hold) to turn the iPod back on. If you have trouble with your iPod and nothing seems to work, you can try resetting it by holding Menu and Play down simultaneously for 10 seconds to reset the iPod. Resetting shouldn’t affect the data or music on your iPod.

On a sadder note, my iPod broke after a week. It simply wouldn’t turn on, no matter what. Apple’s repair service was excellent, and I had a brand new iPod on my doorstep three days later.

FireWire Disk Use & Battery

One of the coolest features of the iPod, in my opinion, and one I have hinted at before, is the so-called FireWire disk use. Basically, once you connect the iPod to a FireWire-enabled computer with the proper drivers (all FireWire Macs with newer system software), the iPod will show up on the desktop as a hard drive. That way the iPod doubles as a portable Zip disk if the target computer has FireWire as well. Actually, it doubles as almost 50 Zip disks because of the 5 GB hard drive, provided you have no songs on the iPod.

The iPod stores the songs separately from the data, so you don’t have to worry about erasing one when you use the other function. There are some third-party programs available that make the song folder available in the Finder if you want to mess around with the iPod. One reason you may want to do that is so you can play MP3s on your computer directly off the iPod with something other than iTunes. A list of three currently available programs can be found at the end of this article.

Apple itself uses the disk mode by including the iTunes 2 installer on the iPod hard disk (in addition to the install CD). Erasing the installers frees a mere 7.8 MB on the iPod HD—good enough for 1-2 songs. Not really worth it since your iPod can store 1000 songs (4 minutes long on average, at 160 kbps—or about 1300 songs at 128 kbps according to Apple).

The second coolest feature is the iPod’s battery. Now I know, since when are batteries cool? The iPod battery is built into the housing and cannot be exchanged by the user. However it is rechargeable, so you don’t really need to exchange it, ever. According to Apple, a full charge is good enough for about 10 hours of use. I usually had to recharge a bit sooner than that, however I was playing around a lot with the backlight. Apple includes a battery charger with the iPod, but I only tried it once so far because—here it comes—the iPod charges through the FireWire port when it is connected to a computer! That way, loading songs onto the iPod turns into a charging session as well. This feature really saves you a good bit of time and hassle.

How Does It Stack Up?

When Apple released the iPod specifications, some people were immediately skeptical because the iPod uses a hard drive instead of the more common solid-state memory chips used by the majority of MP3 players. Using a hard drive allows you to have much greater memory (5 GB in the iPod) but at the expense of size and HD-related problems. Most of the problems come from the moving parts that make the hard disk work. These parts really don’t take shaking well, so it is risky to jog with a running hard disk in your device.

Apple’s solution to the problem: a huge RAM buffer. A 32 MB memory chip in the player buffers the songs from the hard disk, so the disk can be safely turned off in the mean time. According to Apple, the buffer lasts about 20 minutes. The iPod pre-fetches music for the next 20 minutes and then shuts the hard disk down again. This sounds great in theory, and works well in practice as long as you don’t change songs a lot. I tend to switch songs a lot, which causes a little bit of trouble with the iPod since I usually switch to songs it didn’t cache in the buffer yet. So the iPod needs to spin up the little disk drive, find the song, and load it into memory. That causes a noticeable break for about two seconds, during which the iPod is just silent. I wish it would just continue the old song until it is ready to play the next one. Overall, this is a minor problem though.

I mentioned earlier that the iPod hits its particular market segment dead on. What exactly is that segment? It’s the people who want to have a small MP3 player that they can carry in their pockets that will hold a lot of music. Now, since I am part of that segment, it is hard for me to see why anybody would want to be in any of the other segments—like the people who want to have a big and clunky MP3 player that can hold a lot of music, or those who want to have a small MP3 player that can hold little music. But to be fair, there are reasons not to have an iPod.

The players using other memory standards such as SmartMedia, CompactFlash, and MemoryStick can get a good bit smaller than the iPod. If you compare the iPod to the first few generations of MP3 players in the picture below, it is not much bigger. But it is much bigger than today’s smallest MP3 players. However, their drawback is that they hold very little music (usually 64 to 128 MB, or two to four times the iPod’s buffer alone!). Also, while these players tend to be cheap initially, storage memory prices are still quite steep, so unless you only want to listen to a few songs or like to update them a lot via a slow USB connection, they have little advantage.

ipod3

iPod compared to a credit card, the Rio 500 and 600, and the Pontis SP 600

At the other end of the spectrum are the big MP3 players that hold 20-30 GB. Now that’s massive storage that few people can fill up easily. Also, most of them have USB, so you’ll be sitting there for a few hours uploading music to a large drive. Many cannot double as a portable hard disk, although some can.

At 2.43 by 4.02 by 0.78 inches and 6.5 ounces, I think Apple’s iPod hits the sweetspot between small players and high capacity. Some people think it misses both because it’s too big to be small and 5 GB is not that much compared to the 20 GB players available today for much less than $400.

I think the iPod is small enough to fit in a pocket, and 5 GB is enough to hold all the music I want for a good period of time. Once you have more than 1300 files in a player, they become hard to manage without a keyboard or a more advanced user interface than what’s available in a small digital device.

Apple’s player is a bit expensive, but it is priced similarly to portable FireWire hard drives its size without an MP3 player function! Beyond that, it has an excellent LCD and comes in a well-done package with some really smart features. The design is excellent, although it tends to scratch easily if you are not careful and it catches your finger prints on its shiny surface.

Some people complain about the lack of a recording feature, radio function, or built-in equalizer. These features would certainly be nice, but I don’t really miss them that much in day-to-day use. Instead, Apple decided to built just an MP3 player, but an excellent one. Windows users are out of luck for now since the iPod only works on a Mac. However, software company Mediafour is working on a Windows client for iPod, to be released early next year.

The iPod may not be for everyone, but I think a lot of people will find one under their Christmas tree this year.

Quick Feature Summary

Small (2.43 by 4.02 by 0.78 inches; 6.5 ounces) MP3 player and portable FireWire hard drive with high capacity (5 GB). Stores up to 1,000 songs. Rechargable battery lasts up to 10 hours. Offers playlists (via iTunes), shuffle and repeat modes. Supports multiple languages (English, French, German, and Japanese, with support for native ID3 tags). 20-minute skip protection thanks to 32 MB RAM buffer. 2" back-lit LCD (160 x 128 pixel resoltion).

Strengths

  • Relatively small
  • Large capacity
  • Includes rechargable battery
  • Fast FireWire connection and auto-update
  • Large, back-lit high-quality LCD

Weaknesses

  • Somewhat pricey
  • Lacks a few marginal features
  • Requires newest system software to be installed
  • Switching songs sometimes causes delays
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