|Apple iPod (10GB Scroll Wheel)|
|Home Theater Audio Sources MP3 Players|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Tuesday, 01 January 2002|
The first thing I noticed about the Apple iPod when I cracked open the box was a sticker right on the screen saying, "Do not steal music!" It dawned on me that this may be the best use of reverse psychology I have ever witnessed. The Apple iPod is Steve Jobs' latest attempt at wooing Apple loyalists with yet another unbelievably sexy product in an entirely new product category specifically designed for Apple’s target market – Generations X and Y.
The Apple iPod is an MP3 storage device, created by the Apple industrial design team led by Jonathan Ive. These are the same people who were the creative power behind the groundbreaking iMac. As a study in design, The iPod is no slouch when compared to the iMac, especially considering that at $399, it has a larger hard drive than my Apple iBook laptop, yet still fits easily in my palm and/or slides right in my pocket. The net result is that you can easily pump 1,000 songs onto this tiny device, thanks to its five-gigabyte hard drive. Other MP3 players, like the Diamond Rio-Nike MP3, are far more affordably priced at around $99, but suffer from having storage space of around only 32 MB, upgradeable with memory cards. With the iPod’s storage space, you could fly from LA to London and not run out of tunes.
The interface of the iPod is predictably excellent and should be used as a template for simplicity for high-end audio-video manufacturers. On the front of the iPod, you have a circular wheel with four buttons surrounding it that handle functions like: Menu, Fast Forward, Reverse, Play and Pause. The center button functions more like an Enter button. The middle of the wheel functions like jog shuttle and multitasks as a volume control and song menu scroller.
Uploading music to the iPod was inspiringly simple from my Apple G4 desktop computer. I now have over 1,400 songs that I have either ripped from CD or got from Napster back in the good old days. Simply connect your iPod via a Firewire connection to your computer and Apple’s iTunes software automatically updates your stash of portable tunes (assuming you want it to do so). Apple iTunes software is the best (if not only) way to get songs on to the iPod. Much like other MP3 management programs, iTunes allows you to manage and play your MP3s from your computer, but on the iTunes, the interface is so smooth, you are likely to be impressed.
Do note that as of this Christmas season (2001), Apple’s iPod is a product that will only work with a Macintosh computer running OS 9 or OS X (pronounced OS "ten"). An Apple representative said it was a Christmas present to all of the Apple loyalists, but it is hard to imagine Apple closing the door on Windows users with such an hot item. The iPod is the fastest way to show someone who isn’t familiar with Mac why Mac fanatics are so enthusiastic about the products in a venue that doesn’t require a PC user to have to switch religions.
Other features of the iTunes software that make it a winner include MTV-like onscreen descriptions of your songs to accompany a trippy screen saver and a pointless yet visually compelling EQ. iTunes also comes with an internet radio tuner that is preprogrammed with easily 100 internet radio stations, which proved to be a good alternative when I got sick of my MP3s. Your iPod cannot receive Internet radio, because it is obviously not connected to the web. Audio enthusiasts will note that as a software-based MP3 player for your computer, I found that iTunes decimated SoundJam MPFree in terms of audio quality when listening to MP3s on my desktop music system. The difference was not subtle, considering with iTunes I could hear details and resolution that was simply not available on SoundJam MPFree. This is despite the low quality of most of my highly-compressed MP3 files. iTunes software is a free download available on Apple.com.
Once you have your songs on your iPod, you are pretty much ready to rock. Based on how far you want to take organizing your songs, you can have all sorts of playlists that contain categories of music and/or themes that best fit your moods. For example, you may want a collection of balls-to-the-wall rockers for your workout in the morning, yet you may want more atmospheric electronic and jazz tunes for your listening pleasure, while on or waiting for an airplane. Creating these playlists for your iPod with iTunes is a piece of cake. In fact, the iPod is so easy to learn I can say you can figure the entire gadget in about 10 minutes. There are all sorts of goodies, but they are so logically organized that you can buzz through the menus in mere minutes without ever having touched an iPod before. This is part of the genius of the iPod, because in a world of technical difficulties and the constant urges to call the IT department, who needs another gadget that we can’t figure out? The iPod is very simple.
Many of the goodies of the iPod are easily accessible by thumbing the Menu button. You can set screen contrast, clicker sensitivity, the sleep timer, start up volume and the operating system language all on the first screen. Shuffle, also on the menu, allows the iPod to randomly pick tunes from your collection. Unlike SoundJam MPFree, the iPod’s algorithm for selecting random songs is far more random, which creates a more positive listening experience.
As you play with the iPod more and more, you really appreciate the fine details such as how responsive the volume control is on the main jog shuttle. Each track counts down the time remaining on the tune. The iPod allows you to set a crossfade between songs to get that radio station level of production. The battery light is located in the upper right section of the main window and battery life is reported at ten hours. Charging the iPod is completed through plugging in the Firewire port when downloading songs or connecting the Firewire cable to the ultra-sexy AC adapter provided with the iPod. The switchblade-like AC adapter has a retractable prong to plug into the wall and is small enough to easily stick in your briefcase for a trip. In my case, all I need is the Firewire cord and my iBook laptop for a trip and my laptop can charge my iPod in no time.
MP3s are a funny dilemma, considering that music enthusiasts never had the ability to have so much entertainment in our palm, yet storing that much music in such a small device (and or sucking it off the internet) requires significant data compression. This is the same compression, considered to be an audio no-no, which started the DTS vs. Dolby Digital surround sound format war. What it basically comes down to is that some MP3s sound surprisingly good and others sound bad. If you use iTunes to rip your own tunes from your CD collection, as Apple suggests, you are stacking the deck in your favor for good portable sound. If you are pulling mystery MP3s of Ralph Wiggam quotes from Gnutella, you are likely to get a crappy-sounding MP3.
It is up to you as to how you want to configure your iPod and you have nearly infinite set-up options. For me, I focused the majority of my hard drive space on excellent musical content, so I have handpicked music for my workouts and traveling. I am now no longer a slave to L.A. broadcast radio with their eight-minute commercial stop sets during my morning workouts nor do I have to worry about packing a big selection of CDs for a road trip.
The headphones for the iPod suck. The stock earphones are an in-ear design and, much like the horrendous mouse that comes standard with the older iMacs, it makes you wonder who agreed to ship the iPod with such woefully bad headphones. Physically, they are uncomfortable. Sonically, they are even worse. On an airplane, the in-ear design does pack easily, but they do little to block or cancel out the significant background noise. The stock headphones also are tinny on the high frequency, even for MP3s, and have absolutely no bass. I invested an extra $200 in Sennhieser EH2200 headphones, which are professional grade cans that are both comfortable and can block out background noise. While they are far larger than the Apple in-ear speakers, the performance improvement is inspiring. Sennheiser also makes special noise-canceling headphones that specifically eliminate background noise and background clutter also at about $200 per pair. They have a different sound and are physically smaller but worthy of consideration. When shopping for replacement headphones I will advise you to not consider investing in B&O’s slick A8 $180 headphones, despite their iPod-like sex appeal. They simply sound bad and I found them to be uncomfortable to the point where I had to rid myself of them on eBay.
The iPod has amazing control over many parameters, but I would have loved to see an EQ included in the iPod interface. There is an EQ on iTunes, but not on the iPod. Everyone has different ears and clearly MP3s are far from a perfect media, thus a little bump in the bass or a bit of a roll off in the high end could really add to your listening pleasure. With firmware updates obtainable from Apple.com and easily installed, thanks to the Firewire connection, EQ would be a logical feature for Apple to add to the iPod in future updates.
The Apple iPod is yet another winner from Apple in an entirely new category. The iPod as an audio toy has enough performance features to make it well worth the cost, despite its lower cost, non-Mac-centric competitors. The lust factor is sky high on the highly stylized iPod, which will give you that undeniable urge to reach for your wallet and slap down some platinum.
note: A newer model of the iPod is now available and has the capacity to hold up to 10,000 songs. Prices have also changed.