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A Week with the iPod

by James Duncan Davidson

The iPod seems to be the "must have" toy for the tech-set, and for good reason. It’s the first portable MP3 player to hold a good-sized music library that you can actually take anywhere.

Sure, the Creative Nomad was one of the first multi-gigabyte MP3 devices, but it was really too big to carry in your pocket. And the Nomad had three other strikes against it: slow transfer time, a user interface that was hard to use, and battery consumption that challenged the Energizer bunny. I played with one for a few hours and just couldn’t justify keeping it.

The iPod solves all of these problems with its reasonable size, Firewire interface, decent user interface, and long-lasting, built-in rechargeable battery. Apple did their homework and came up with a very good entry in their first digital-lifestyle device.

From outward appearances, it looked as if they had got everything right. So I took the plunge and bought one before going home for the Thanksgiving holidays to give it a spin. Along the way I found a lot to like about the iPod, and several things that need a bit of work.

Out of box experience: great

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True to Apple form, the iPod comes in a gorgeous package. Anybody picking up one of these off the shelf, or unwrapping it on Christmas morning, will sense the elegant minimalism of Apple’s design department.

The “out of box” experience that Apple has always done so well at with the Macintosh has been put to good use here. I had nothing but “oohs” and “ahhs” as I unpacked the various parts. The iPod itself was wrapped in a plastic wrapper with the words “Don’t Steal Music” written on it in several languages.

About thirty seconds after I had ripped off the plastic wrapper, I had plugged it into my PowerBook with the provided Firewire cord and was synching my iTunes library with it. No muss, no fuss. It just worked.

The 2.5 gigs of music that I carry on my laptop synched quickly and were done by the time I had walked to the kitchen for a beverage and back. I then plugged in the headphones and tried to listen. Unfortunately, as long as the iPod is hooked up to a computer, it cannot be used to play back music. I quickly pulled out the power adapter from the box and plugged in the iPod so that I could listen while it charged up for the first time.

User interface: almost perfect

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The user interface of the iPod is quite elegant indeed. The use of the original Macintosh “Chicago” font makes for a readable display and is a nice nod to Apple’s history. The scroll wheel is a very intuitive way to navigate the menus and to control the volume. At first, I thought it might be a bit confusing to use the same control for two different purposes, but I haven’t yet run into a case where it has been a problem. On-screen information is easy to read and the back light works very well.

Navigating your music collection is fairly easy. Almost every way that iTunes gives you to navigate your music is available. You can browse songs sorted by playlist, artist, or album. Browsing by playlist or artist is available from the main menu. Browsing by album can be accomplished by browsing by artist. In order to browse through all the albums in your collection you can browse by artist in the main menu, then select “all” artists. This little trick took me a day or so to figure out, but is the primary way I now browse through my collection.

One feature that iTunes provides, and which I use quite a bit, that isn’t present on the iPod is the ability to browse by genre. I listen to a wide variety of music and love to use shuffle play, but without the ability to play songs only from a specific genre of music, it is all to easy to have a mellow jazz track follow a really thumping techno track.

Form factor: elegant, but not rugged enough

The small size of the iPod lends itself to being stashed wherever you want. I’ve carried it in my hand, jacket, and even my jeans pocket without a problem. Like cell phones before it, I think that it would be nice if the iPod were smaller. If it were the size of the newest Rio-based devices, the form factor would be perfect. However, considering that the iPod stores a lot more music (5Gb vs. 128Mb), the size is ok. Just like the PowerBooks, I’m sure it will shrink over time.

One area in which Apple should have paid more attention is in the finishes used on the iPod. The glossy clear plastic front and shiny metal back are eye-catching and make for great pictures. However, in my use so far, the front plastic is starting to show a haze of super-fine scratches from being carried in pockets and rubbing against fabric. Similarly, the shiny metal back suffers from a multitude of fingerprints and fine scratches. For a device that is intended to be carried everywhere, I don’t expect it to stay in pristine condition for long, but it should wear better than it is so far.

Music playback: gaps between tracks

The quality of the music playback is first-rate, and the provided headphones are truly great. The only headphones that I have that are better than the iPod's are some closed-ear, over-the-head DJ-style headphones that are much more bulky. I found the iPod's headphones comfortable to wear; however, two members of my family found them to be too big. One size does not seem to fit all.

The one complaint I have about the iPod’s music playback is in the way that it behaves when changing tracks. Like iTunes, there is a slight pause between tracks. With pop music, where each song is a distinct entity, this isn’t a problem and you would never notice. However, I listen to quite a few “mix” albums – albums where the artist has seamlessly mixed each track into the next. With this kind of music, the gaps become noticeable and even annoying. Classical music lovers will also run into this, as many titles in that genre have pieces that span several tracks.

Luckily, this doesn’t have to be a show stopper for long. All Apple has to do is modify the software so that it plays tracks seamlessly with no pause. WinAmp and other software-based MP3 players have been doing this for years, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem to fix. Hopefully, if Apple fixes this, they’ll also fix this behavior in iTunes.

FireWire disk mode: look ma! it’s a portable hard drive

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One thing that separates the iPod from all other MP3 players is that it can behave as a FireWire-based hard drive, enabling the easy transport of files from computer to computer. To mount the iPod as a hard drive under Mac OS X requires a simple selection in iTunes. Once mounted, the iPod acts as a decent-speed hard drive. It’s not nearly as fast as an internal hard drive, but I was able to copy 50 Megs of data in under 30 seconds. Not too bad for when you need a few gigs to carry some data without a computer.

Bottom line: good for a 1.0 product, looking for the 1.1

The bottom line is that I like my iPod quite a bit. In fact, I’m keeping mine and not letting it go back. The team at Apple that designed the iPod should be very proud of what they have accomplished.

I’m a bit hesitant that it will scratch more as I use it, but thankfully all my other complaints can be fixed with a software update. And the only thing I really want fixed ASAP is the track gap issue. When one track of a mix album blends seamlessly into the next, I will be in MP3 nirvana.

My Rating: 8 out of 10. I’ll give it a 9 out of 10 if the track gap issue goes away. And, if the next rev of the iPod also comes with a more durable finish, then it can score a perfect 10.

James Duncan Davidson is a freelance author, software developer, and consultant focusing on Mac OS X, Java, XML, and open source technologies. He currently resides in San Francisco, California.

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