In the promotional video Apple created for its new audio player, Apple Vice President of Industrial Design Jonathan Ive says, "Our goal was to design the very very best MP3 player we could." Looking at the iPod, it's obvious that they've succeeded - but at $400 a pop, the big question is whether the iPod will turn into a success story like the iMac or a painful lesson like the G4 Cube.
Open the iPod Bay Doors, HAL -- The iPod is a stainless steel, 6.5 ounce portable music player. Thanks to a slim 5 GB hard drive, the device measures only 2.4 inches wide, 4 inches tall, and less than an inch thick. The drive is capable of storing roughly 1,000 MP3-formatted songs (or more, depending on compression rates), transferred to the device over a FireWire connection. Apple claims that the bandwidth provided by FireWire can transfer a CD's worth of music in ten seconds, while one's entire MP3 collection would take between five and ten minutes (provided your collection will fit). The iPod also supports WAV and AIFF formats and has upgradable firmware for adding support for other audio formats.
With its 32 MB memory cache, the device boasts 20 minutes of "skip protection," though the RAM is better thought of as a huge cache that lets the disk spin down, saving battery life. The iPod runs on a built-in lithium polymer battery capable of ten hours of continuous playback. It can be recharged to 80 percent capacity in about an hour, and to full strength in 3 hours. Since it uses FireWire, the pod charges when connected to your Mac; it can also store other data like an ordinary hard disk when the iPod is put into FireWire disk mode.
The iPod isn't by any means the first hard disk-based MP3 player on the market (see "Archos Jukebox 6000 Challenges Nomad Jukebox" in TidBITS-592 for a comparison of two other models), but it's the best looking and offers support for multiple languages (currently English, French, German, and Japanese). The iPod also includes an AC adapter that connects via FireWire cable (also included) and a set of earbud headphones. Apple is now taking pre-orders for the iPod, which will be available 10-Nov-01.
Adhering to Apple's minimal design aesthetic, the iPod has a two-inch-square backlit monochrome LCD and a large circular area containing four buttons (Play/Pause, Forward, Reverse, and Menu), a scroll wheel that rotates in both directions, and a button in the center for selecting the highlighted item. A button on top, marked Hold, locks the controls so you don't accidentally switch songs by bumping the unit (which is likely: the iPod doesn't have a belt clip, so it will be living in your pockets).
The interface is truly a gem (and not just because it uses the venerable Chicago typeface). Pressing any button turns the iPod on and displays the top-level list of options. You can choose a playlist, artist, or song; access the device's settings; or select About to view information about the iPod. (This is also where the designers added an Easter egg: with the About screen visible, press and hold the central button for a few seconds to activate a version of the game Breakout.) Use the scroll wheel to highlight items in the list and push the central button to make a selection. To go back up a level in the hierarchy, press the Menu button.
Holding the Menu button for two seconds activates the screen's LED backlight, which is a surprisingly bright white (not the cool blue shown in Apple's promotional video) - the iPod can literally light your way home. While you're playing music, you can view the time remaining in a song by pressing the central button and change the volume by rolling the scroll wheel. If the iPod is not playing, it automatically turns off after two minutes, or you can turn it off manually by pressing and holding the Play/Pause button for two seconds.
Other features in the iPod's software include a sleep timer to stop playing automatically after a user-specified amount of time and the capability to turn off the clicking noise associated with rolling the scroll wheel. I'm surprised the software doesn't include a way to balance the audio manually between left and right headphones, or any type of equalizer presets found in other devices, but I'm willing to be a bit lenient for this 1.0 version.
Syncing Beneath the Sound Waves -- If the iPod were just another device to which you copied songs, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting. One of the main draws is automatic synchronization between the iPod and iTunes 2 (available in early November as a free download for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X). When the iPod is connected to the Mac for the first time, iTunes can transfer your entire music library; subsequent connections can automatically synchronize the music and playlists on the device and on the Mac. You can also choose to move songs from your Mac to the iPod manually. However, you can't copy songs from the iPod to your Mac in iTunes, according to Apple's iPod FAQ and my own testing (the Show Song File option under the File menu is also disabled when you're browsing the iPod).
iTunes uses the serial number of the iPod and identifies your iTunes music library to determine to whom the device belongs. When I plugged it into my PowerBook G4, I got a dialog telling me that my iTunes music library didn't match the one stored in the iPod, which had been loaded by my friend Glenn Fleishman (who's reviewing the iPod for the Seattle Times). My options were to use my music library instead, which would have erased the device and synchronized my songs, or to continue without switching ownership. Since I was only borrowing the iPod briefly, I opted not to synchronize, which displayed the iPod's songs in iTunes locked and grayed-out. To add my own songs, I had to bring up the iPod's preferences in iTunes (by clicking a special button that appears in the lower-right corner of iTunes when the iPod is connected) and switch to manual mode.
From there I was able to add my own songs, which was as speedy as Apple advertises. Copying a CD's worth of music took around 13 seconds (the iPod takes a few seconds to initiate the connection); copying 102 songs (about 398 MB) took a minute and a half; and copying the rest of the songs on my PowerBook, 3 GB worth, took 11 minutes. I wasn't able to max out the drive's total storage capacity, 4.6 GB, but according to the iPod FAQ, iTunes detects that your library won't fit and prompts you to synchronize selected playlists or switch to manual mode.
FireWire Burning in Your Pocket -- The iPod uses FireWire to connect to your Mac, so you can mount it as a regular hard disk on your desktop. Apple has kept the audio playing portions separate from the data storage features by storing music files in an invisible folder, so even if you copy MP3 files to the drive via the Finder, the iPod won't play them.
Even though Apple isn't heavily pushing the FireWire disk mode feature, it's an important bonus. You can take your music library with you, sure. But what about tossing a copy of your email folders on the hard disk, or encrypted sensitive documents, or software registrations protected by one of the password-storage utilities? With a 5 GB hard disk in your pocket, you don't need to carry Zip disks or copy large files over the Internet when you need to be in more than one location.
The only minor downside to using FireWire disk mode is that you must manually remove the hard disk from the Finder's desktop (or use the Eject button in iTunes) before unplugging the iPod to avoid potentially losing data.
iTunes 2 -- The new version of iTunes adds more than iPod compatibility. In addition, iTunes 2 finally incorporates a 10-band equalizer (which was in iTunes's predecessor SoundJam). Users can choose from 22 preset configurations, or manually adjust the settings and create your own presets. You can even associate different EQ presets with individual songs (bring up a song's Get Info dialog box, click the options tab, and select an equalizer preset). EQ boosts may introduce distortion into your music, depending on the music you're playing and how the recording was mastered - if that happens, use the Preamp slider to lower the volume before iTunes applies equalization. iTunes 2 also burns MP3 CDs that store over 150 MP3 files per disk and features a crossfader that overlaps playback of different songs rather than leaving a bit of silence between them. Under Mac OS X, clicking the iTunes icon in the Dock adds controls for repeat and shuffle play to the options for playing tunes.
According to Apple's Web site, iTunes burns audio CDs up to twice as fast as before, but since I don't have a CD-burning Mac, I wasn't able to test this. The program also adds the generically named Sound Enhancer, a slider in the iTunes preferences that veers from low to high. The lowest value seem to disable the feature entirely, but the higher you go, the more separation iTunes introduces into the stereo field, much like the "3D" effects on some portable stereos. Sound Enhancer can introduce some distortion and weird artifacts, but it may make music sound clearer or better defined, particularly over small speakers or at low volume levels.
iPod Mac-only -- Apple is taking some flak for the fact that the iPod works only with FireWire-equipped Macs - Windows machines and Linux boxes need not apply. There has been a lot of speculation about this decision, since it would seem suicidal for Apple to ignore the vast Windows market with a product that shouldn't inherently require a Mac. Cross-platform users have already expressed dismay at being left out, though as others have noted, if the Windows machine in question has external speakers, it's no harder to plug those speakers into the iPod than it is to plug the iPod into a computer.
Steve Jobs said that Apple would look into making the iPod Windows-compatible in the future, but he also said that the product took only nine months from conception to completion, and such a short product cycle may simply not have left room for adding Windows compatibility. It's also possible Apple chose to avoid the Windows market to avoid availability problems heading into the holiday season - if the Toshiba 1.8" hard drives inside the iPod are in short supply or if Apple wasn't positive of its ability to meet demand, why not just focus on the core market of Mac users?
It's not as though avoiding the Windows market is unusual for Apple - Apple didn't make it easy for Windows users to use the AirPort Base Station even though the necessary information and software to do so soon became available. I suspect the same will happen with the iPod - someone will figure out how to write to the appropriate spot on the hard disk from any FireWire-enabled Windows or Linux computer and the necessary drivers will then spread widely. And as with the AirPort Base Station, other companies will undoubtedly follow Apple's design lead and undercut Apple's prices, so it makes more sense for Apple to focus on creating the best possible experience for Mac users instead of diluting its efforts across multiple platforms.
I Saw, I Paid, iPod -- I honestly think Apple has created the best portable audio player on the market. It's sharp, it's elegant, it makes me wonder why I thought having a Rio 500 with 64 MB of RAM was cool. But it costs $400, which will be the iPod's biggest stumbling block. Granted, you can argue that everything is priced $100 too high, so I'll skip everyone's first fantasy that goes something along the lines of, "If someone were to give me an iPod for free...." The problem with a $400 iPod is that the price is actually justified, yet at the same time too high.
When you look at the iPod's specs, and when you take into consideration its industrial design and size (smaller is almost always more expensive), the price is fairly reasonable. And when you note that just the Toshiba 1.8" hard drive itself costs $400, the iPod is almost a steal. As Marshall Clow noted in TidBITS Talk, you can think of the iPod as a free MP3 player wrapped around an extremely portable hard drive.
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But you can't ignore the playing field, paying $400 for an MP3 player is on the high side of acceptable, even if it's the best MP3 player ever devised. Most people I've talked to say that at $250 or $300, they'd have already put an order in. But $400 stretches the boundaries of how much to spend on an audio player, especially when Creative's Nomad Jukebox 20 GB player stores 4 times the capacity of the iPod at the same price. People may be more willing to put up with a larger device without the iPod's sleek design, superior interface, and long battery life if it will save them $100 or more.
So what do you think? Check our home page for this week's poll, which asks how much would you seriously consider paying for an iPod.
I'll be interested to see how the iPod fares, especially once there are enough units available so potential customers can see and touch iPods for themselves - Apple's advertisements are enticing, but you can't get a sense of the iPod's tiny size until you actually hold (and operate) it in one hand.