Series: Groovin' with the iPod
Apple's sexy music player makes inroads into pop culture - despite it's price tag
Article 1 of 6 in series
by Jeff Carlson
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 playerShow full article
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.
Article 2 of 6 in series
Apple CEO Steve Jobs last week unveiled two new products in his keynote address at Macworld Expo in Tokyo. A new 23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display with 1920 x 1200 resolution joins the company's existing LCD flat-panel displays and will sell for $3,500 when it becomes available next monthShow full article
Apple CEO Steve Jobs last week unveiled two new products in his keynote address at Macworld Expo in Tokyo. A new 23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display with 1920 x 1200 resolution joins the company's existing LCD flat-panel displays and will sell for $3,500 when it becomes available next month. (In contast, the 22-inch Apple Cinema Display, still available for $2,500, offers a mere 1600 by 1024 resolution.) The company says the new display's resolution will allow editing of HDTV (high definition television) digital video "with room to spare." At the same time, Apple introduced a more capacious iPod, a $500 version of the portable MP3 player with a 10 GB internal hard drive, available immediately. The existing 5 GB model remains available for $400. For an extra $50, either model can be personalized at the Apple Store with laser engraving of two lines of text containing up to 27 characters each.
Jobs also previewed Apple's upcoming support for Bluetooth. The short-range wireless communication technology is intended to link personal electronic devices such as computers, cell phones, and personal digital assistants when they're in close proximity. Promising "a Bluetooth solution that actually works and is easy to use," Jobs said that, in early April 2002, Mac OS X users will be able to download free preview software from Apple's Web site for use with the D-Link USB Bluetooth adapter, itself to be offered at the Apple Store for $50. Apple's Bluetooth software will automatically recognize other Bluetooth devices that come into range and offer to connect to them.
At the same event, Jobs made the surprise announcement that, effective 21-Mar-02, current flat-panel iMac configurations have increased in price by $100; orders placed prior to that date retain the price at the time of order. Citing rising component costs for memory and flat-panel screens, Jobs defended the price hikes as a better alternative to keeping the original pricing but reducing features. Given the demand for the new iMac, we don't see the price increase as a deal-killer: Apple says it has shipped 125,000 new iMacs since the model's introduction in January and is now shipping 5,000 iMacs per day.
Article 3 of 6 in series
Among the announcements at Steve Jobs's Macworld Expo keynote in New York was the release of new versions of Apple's popular iPod MP3 player. The existing 5 GB iPod remains available, though its price drops $100 to $300Show full article
Among the announcements at Steve Jobs's Macworld Expo keynote in New York was the release of new versions of Apple's popular iPod MP3 player. The existing 5 GB iPod remains available, though its price drops $100 to $300. Although Jobs said nothing of this, I anticipate that the 5 GB model may not last too much longer, given that it doesn't share the slightly redesigned case now used by the $400 10 GB model and a newly introduced $500 20 GB model. The new case is about 10 percent thinner, sports a solid-state scroll wheel (much like a trackpad surface), and adds a FireWire port cover. Plus, the iPods now come with an accessory kit that includes a case with a belt clip (though there are numerous other iPod cases that might suit you better), a wired remote, and new headphones. Existing owners can purchase the accessories separately: the case alone sells for rather steep $40, and the remote/headphones bundle also costs $40.
The iPod's internal software has changed as well, so you can now browse by genre and composer (a feature for classical music fans for whom the artist and the composer are different), support for smart playlists and play counts that synchronize with the equivalent features in iTunes 3, support for the iTunes 3 Sound Check feature for regularizing volume, and support for Audible.com with round-trip bookmarking for spoken word content. (For existing iPod owners, these features require iPod 1.2 software, which Apple says will be available in August.) iTunes 2 is still supported for Mac OS 9 users, though presumably without support for the new features appearing in iTunes 3, which works only in Mac OS X.
Additional changes that start to move the iPod beyond being an MP3 player include an Extras menu that lets you browse through calendar events and contacts synchronized via iSync from iCal and Address Book under the forthcoming Mac OS X 10.2. The Breakout game is also available from the Extras menu, instead of as an Easter egg, as is an option that displays a clock.
Perhaps most notable is that, starting in late August, Apple will sell the same iPod models to Windows users for the same prices. The iPod hardware requires no changes, but the package sold to Windows users includes a six-to-four FireWire cable (for connecting to the four-pin FireWire ports common on PCs) and can synchronize songs with Musicmatch Jukebox Plus, a leading PC MP3 player. I suspect that the PC user experience won't be quite as good as on the Mac, since four-pin FireWire cables don't carry power, so PC user will have to use an AC adapter instead of charging the iPod while it's plugged into the FireWire port. Plus, I'd be surprised if Musicmatch Jukebox Plus offered all the features of iTunes in terms of play counts and smart playlists. And finally, Apple said nothing about there being any synchronization of calendars and contacts for PC users.
Article 4 of 6 in series
by Jeff Carlson
iPod 1.2 Supports iTunes 3, Jaguar -- After showing off iTunes 3 and the new iPod models at July's Macworld Expo (see our coverage beginning in TidBITS-639), Apple has released the iPod Software 1.2 Updater for owners of existing iPodsShow full article
iPod 1.2 Supports iTunes 3, Jaguar -- After showing off iTunes 3 and the new iPod models at July's Macworld Expo (see our coverage beginning in TidBITS-639), Apple has released the iPod Software 1.2 Updater for owners of existing iPods. A new Browse menu adds the capability to search your song library by genre and composer (provided that information is included in the songs' ID3 tags), as well as by artist, song, and album title. The software also adds support for Audible.com audio books along with the Sound Check feature introduced in iTunes 3, which balances the volume of tracks imported at different sound levels. The iPod now includes on-screen visual feedback to indicate when it is safe to unplug the FireWire connection from your Mac. And, in preparation for the release of Mac OS X 10.2, the iPod now includes a calendar for synchronizing with the upcoming iCal, a clock to keep track of time (though you can view the time only by navigating to the Clock menu item; we want to see it also displayed on the main Now Playing screen in a future version), and an alarm for events requiring attention. The iPod 1.2 Software Updater is a free 6.7 MB download. [JLC]
Article 5 of 6 in series
by Jeff Carlson
Apple took a lot of flak from many people - including me - about the iPod's initial high price of $400. Although the snazzy MP3 player was certainly well designed, other devices, such as the Archos Jukebox, boasted more storage and lower pricesShow full article
Apple took a lot of flak from many people - including me - about the iPod's initial high price of $400. Although the snazzy MP3 player was certainly well designed, other devices, such as the Archos Jukebox, boasted more storage and lower prices. However, when I finally broke down and bought my own 5 GB iPod, I realized that the specs tell only part of the story; the real secret to the iPod's success is its size.
Attentive TidBITS readers will note that just as Adam can be obsessed about data backups, I'm obsessed with the size of devices: laptops, Palm devices, and now the iPod. I use it far more than I expected I would because it's so easy to carry around. I find myself listening to it when I'm working, even when it's just as easy to use iTunes on my PowerBook, so I can continue to listen to music as I walk around the house or office.
However, the iPod's smooth, minimal design can also be a drawback: I either have to carry it in my hand or put it into a pocket (which isn't always comfortable, and increases the chances of scratching up the exterior) when I'm on the move. Exercising also becomes a bit of a hassle: I like to keep my hands free when I go running, and running clothes seldom offer good pockets. Clearly, I wasn't the only person longing for a better solution, which is why several companies now sell iPod cases. After doing some online research, I contacted three manufacturers and asked to try their iPod cases. I also managed to look at Apple's new iPod case, which ships with the 10 GB and 20 GB models.
iGlove -- Like the iPod, the iGlove from Software & Things was designed with simplicity in mind. It's a one-piece black leather pocket that the iPod slides into from the top, with a circle cut out of the front for access to the iPod's controls. A plastic window protects the iPod's screen; a leather-covered metal belt clip is mounted on the back. The iGlove's stitching faces outward, which provides a tighter fit for the iPod and also offers a few millimeters of shock-absorbing bumpers around the edges to help protect the iPod during a fall. My only irritation with the iGlove is that the raised stitching around the circular controls makes me have to use my fingernails to press the buttons around the iPod's scroll wheel. The iGlove costs $27; a model without the belt clip is available for $25.
XtremeMac iPod Case Bundle -- With four different bundles of iPod accessories, XtremeMac wants to make sure you and your iPod are covered no matter what your needs. Each of the four bundles contains a case for the iPod, a swivel-style belt clip (like those frequently used with cell phones), and a mesh pouch for holding the iPod's earbud headphones; this basic package costs $30. For $40, you also get two adhesive-backed swivel mounts for clipping the iPod to a wall, desk, or monitor case, and a neck lanyard for wearing the iPod like a Macworld Expo admission badge. The $50 Essentials bundle, which is what I received, adds a charger that plugs into your car's power adapter. And finally, the $90 Ultimate bundle includes all of that plus XtremeMac's iShare earbud splitter, a set of audio cables, and an audio cassette adapter that lets you route the iPod's music through your car's tape player and speakers.
If you're looking for case variation, XtremeMac offers 16 different styles, from colored leather to suede to denim to camouflage (including a style that comes with a place for a small photograph). An oval hole at the top of the cover provides enough room to open the large front flap without unplugging the headphones; this becomes important time and again, because you can't do anything else on the iPod without lifting the flap. However, I like that the flap is flexible enough so that I can pull it all the way around (sans headphones) and lay it mostly flat against the back while the iPod is connected to my PowerBook via the FireWire cable.
To protect the iPod's face, the case uses a sheet of clear plastic with the required circle cut out to access the navigation controls. It took me a bit of fidgeting to match the circle with the controls, but because the plastic is fairly thin, the controls are easy to use even when the iPod isn't perfectly lined up.
The swivel-style belt clip is very secure, requiring that you insert the case's round knob into one of the included swivel mounts at a 90-degree angle; to release the case, you rotate to the same angle and push a button that unlocks the mechanism. When attached, the case can spin freely. I ended up using the belt clip mount most often; the lanyard is a clever alternative, but I found the iPod too heavy to carry around my neck.
I wasn't able to use the car adapter to charge the iPod because my car is apparently one of the few American vehicles that doesn't have a cigarette lighter or charger. And while the small mesh bag sounds like a good way to store your earbuds, the opening was just small enough that it was annoying to get the earbuds in and out of the case. Also, the bag clips to the side of the case, which made the whole package feel more bulky than necessary.
Super Dooper iPod Case -- This ballistic nylon flip cover case, by WaterField Designs, nicely solves the problem of what to do with the iPod's headphones: a pocket on the underside of the case's cover has a wide opening to store the earbuds without adding much to the bulk of the overall unit. The pocket is soft to protect the iPod's face, which is otherwise uncovered, unlike the other cases I examined.
However, I'm not as impressed by a slit in the top that provides access to the iPod's inputs. It's a narrow eyelet, which means the FireWire port and Hold switch are always partially covered. This is good news for people with 5 GB and early 10 GB iPods that lack a FireWire port cover, but in practice I find it irritating. You can use the FireWire cable's end to push aside the "eyelids," but it's unnecessarily cumbersome. Worse, it makes the Hold switch tough to toggle, a feature I use all the time to make sure I don't accidentally skip a song by bumping the iPod.
The rest of the Super Dooper iPod case is fairly well done, with Velcro patches at the bottom to hold the flip cover in place and a swivel-style knob that clips into an included belt clip. The back is made of a tight mesh that allegedly helps dissipate the heat generated by the iPod (I've never noticed it as a problem), and also lets some of the device's mirrored rear finish shine through. Although actually putting an iPod into the case can be a bit of a challenge - an "escape hatch" (WaterField's terminology) opens to slide the iPod into place - once secured, the iPod enjoys a snug fit. The $40 Super Dooper iPod case comes in three colors: red, blue, and white.
Apple's Designer iPod Case -- There's no polite way to say this: unless you buy an iPod with the case included, steer clear of this overpriced add-on. There are no openings to access the iPod's controls (presumably because the 10 GB and 20 GB iPods also come with Apple's iPod wired remote control), and I've heard reports of the attached clip mechanism breaking easily. Apple offers it for $40 - alone, not with the remote control - which is $40 that you could better apply toward buying more music.
Case Closed -- After I purchased my iPod at last January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, one of the first people I showed it to was frequent TidBITS writer Chris Pepper, who lifted his own scuffed and scratched iPod and said, "Get a case." Of the three cases (since Apple's fell out of the running quickly), I find myself alternating between two. The iGlove is a great general-purpose case for tumbling around in my bag and when listening to the iPod at my desk; I like its protection and open access to controls. However, when I'm exercising, I take advantage of the XtremeMac's swivel mount and belt clip (which attaches acceptably to my running shorts) and all-enclosed design. Not only is my iPod still in good condition, it's much easier to carry around everywhere I go.
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Article 6 of 6 in series
by Jeff Carlson
iPod 1.2.6 Update Fixes Battery Drain -- For several months now, many iPod owners have been reporting dramatic decreases in battery charge that minimize the music player's vaunted 10-hour playing abilityShow full article
iPod 1.2.6 Update Fixes Battery Drain -- For several months now, many iPod owners have been reporting dramatic decreases in battery charge that minimize the music player's vaunted 10-hour playing ability. Apple last week released iPod 1.2.6 Software Update, which more accurately gauges the battery charge so the iPod does not shut down prematurely. Apple claims that the update offers longer standby time for all iPods and increases playback time on scroll-wheel models. Separate updaters are available for Mac OS X (5.2 MB), Mac OS 9 (6.2 MB), and Windows (12.6 MB). [JLC]