We’re wrapping up 2003 with a jumbo issue! First, we’re happy to announce the release of our latest ebook, Kirk McElhearn’s "Take Control of Users & Accounts in Panther." Then we have a pair of articles by Dan Frakes, covering a host of iPod accessories and headphones. Also in this issue is a heads-up on where you can find us at Macworld Expo in January, the winners of last week’s Bare Bones Software DealBITS drawing, a new DealBITS drawing for Insider Software’s FontAgent Pro, and news of Lasso Professional 7. Have a safe and happy holiday – see you in January!
TidBITS 2003 Holiday Hiatus — It’s been a mad rush to the end of the year, but you’re reading our last TidBITS issue for 2003, and we’re all anticipating some well-deserved relaxation with friends and family over the next few weeks of the holiday season. I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to the many people who help keep TidBITS vital and relevant: Tonya, Geoff, Jeff, Matt, Mark, and Glenn, our corporate sponsors and Internet hosts, our knowledgeable authors and contributors, our amazing volunteer translators, all the participants of TidBITS Talk, the folks who have helped make the Take Control project the huge success it is, and of course, everyone who gives meaning to our work by reading TidBITS each week. Our next issue will appear on 05-Jan-04, as we gear up for Macworld Expo in San Francisco. See you in 2004! [ACE]
DealBITS Drawing: Bare Bones Software Winners — Congratulations to Andre Bloch of free.fr, Wayne Clodfelter of troutnc.com, and Mary of sympatico.ca, whose entries were chosen randomly in our third DealBITS drawing. Each will be receiving a piece of software from Bare Bones Software: BBEdit, Mailsmith, or TextWrangler. Everyone else who entered has received a coupon code good for a 15 percent discount on any Bare Bones product. Thanks to the 967 people who entered, and keep an eye out for future DealBITS drawings. [ACE]
Blue World Releases Lasso Professional 7 — Blue World Communications has released Lasso Professional 7, the latest version of its powerful Web-and-database serving middleware for Mac OS X and Windows. Version 7 features an embedded version of the MySQL database (enhancing both performance and security), improved Unicode and extended character set support, significant data source caching (which can dramatically improve performance of some database-driven sites), dynamic manipulation and generation of images, performance enhancements specifically for folks serving FileMaker Pro databases with Lasso, multi-server sessions (so user sessions can be tracked across multiple Lasso servers), support for Apache 2, improved database transaction support, enhanced support for dealing with SOAP, XML, and WSDL-based Web services, hundreds of new tags, and much more. Lasso Professional 7 costs $1,000, although Blue World is offering a $50 discount through 31-Dec-03; upgrade pricing is available for previous versions. Lasso Professional 7 requires Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar with either Apache 1.3, Apache 2, or WebSTAR V, and is fully optimized for Mac OS X 10.3 Panther and PowerPC G5 processors. A fully functional 30-day trial version is available from the Blue World Web site. [TJE]
Last Call for Free Macworld Expo Passes — Despite a great turnout from TidBITS readers last week, our friends at Peachpit Press still have some Macworld Expo exhibits-only passes left for January’s show. To request a free pair of passes (normally $15 to $35), send an email message to <[email protected]> with your name and postal address. See you at the show! [JLC]
For many of us who were accustomed to the classic Mac OS, the multi-user aspects of Mac OS X have been the most confusing. My parents are still dubious about why I set up separate accounts for them on their Cube, and even those of us who have adopted Mac OS X heartily have found the quirks and repercussions of a multi-user operating system frustrating to overcome at times. How do you share your iPhoto Library or iTunes Music folder between two users on the same computer? For that matter, what’s the point of that Public folder, with its Drop Box folder, and why would you want to use those two folders instead of the Shared folder in /Users? Is there any way to log in and switch among users without needing a password?
Those are just a few of the questions we had, and Kirk McElhearn’s new 65-page ebook "Take Control of Users & Accounts in Panther" answers all of them and many more. (Although the book concentrates on Panther’s interface, at least 80 percent of the text applies equally for those still using Jaguar, and you’ll be better prepared for when you do upgrade to Panther.) Kirk explains the basics of how accounts work, discusses the different types of accounts, and helps you figure out an account strategy that’s appropriate to your situation. Then he reviews how to log into and out of accounts, looks in detail at the ramifications of Panther’s new Fast User Switching feature, and shows you how to manage your startup items.
Next come my favorite sections: how to use your second account to troubleshoot problems, and instructions on the four ways you can share files among users on your Mac. (Note that Kirk doesn’t cover sharing files over a network; for all the details on that topic, subscribe to the Take Control announcement mailing list by sending email to <[email protected]> and watch for news of Glenn Fleishman’s "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther" – due out soon.) Lastly, Kirk provides step-by-step instructions on how to share your photos and music using iPhoto and iTunes, something I’ve been asked about all too many times.
After working with Kirk on this title for a few weeks, we’ve become convinced that anyone who manages their own Mac should read it (and I’m giving a copy to my parents for Christmas so they know why I’ve set their Mac up as I did). The fact is, users and accounts are key to using Mac OS X effectively, and I know we certainly haven’t been doing so as well as we could have until now.
If you’re the primary user of your Mac, you should take a look, and to help you with that, we’ve now uploaded a free sample for this and all the rest of our current Take Control ebooks. The samples give you a sense of how the books look and work and provide the full table of contents along with a few pages of content.
With Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, Apple included Font Book, a font management utility. But people who are serious about managing their fonts quickly found that it wasn’t competition for a real font manager like Insider Software’s FontAgent Pro. For those who work with fonts on a daily basis, FontAgent Pro offers a powerful set of features for managing, organizing, activating, exporting, viewing, and even repairing fonts. FontAgent Pro was built from the ground up as a Cocoa application for Mac OS X, and it offers drag-and-drop functionality in an Aqua interface.
Last July’s Macworld Expo in New York was, as I wrote back then, highly concentrated, with many fewer exhibitors and many fewer attendees. Apart from the raw numbers, though, the show went well, so I have no ill premonitions regarding the upcoming Macworld Expo in San Francisco. It’s also nice to see, after the fuss regarding kids at Macworld Expo in New York, that IDG World Expo has reverted to their previous policy of requiring a registered adult to accompany children under 16, with kids under the age of 5 receiving free admission.
As has been true in recent years, there are almost no public events after the Macworld show floor closes each day, but the primary exception remains the long-running Netter’s Dinner, scheduled for Thursday, January 8th and now in its 18th consecutive year. For those who like tradition, the Netter’s Dinner is ideal, since it will once again be held at the Hunan at Sansome and Broadway, where the hot and spicy Chinese dinner (vegetarian dishes are available) costs $18. You must register by 06-Jan-04 via Kagi – use the link below. The booming voice and Hawaiian shirt of our fearless organizer, Jon Pugh, will again be absent, so I’ll once more be moderating the boisterous raise-your-hands survey. Help me avoid sounding unprepared on stage by sending suggestions for questions ahead of time, and when you’re shouting from the audience, yell loudly!
As in previous years, meet at the top of the escalators on the south side of Moscone at 6:00 PM and be prepared for a brisk, sometimes damp, walk that snarls traffic throughout downtown San Francisco. We’ll leave no later than 6:30 PM for the restaurant.
TidBITS Events — Along with the Netter’s Dinner on Thursday night, Jeff, Glenn, and I will be speaking at various times throughout the show, and for the first time in six years, Tonya will be able to attend several days as well. (For his fifth birthday, which we also hope will involve something relating to clipper ships, Tristan will be spending a few days with my sister, the cool aunt. He’s looking forward to it so much that he told us we could just drop him off at the door and didn’t even need to come in.)
On Wednesday, January 7th, from 11:00 AM to 12:15 PM, Jeff Carlson will be giving a Macworld Users Conference talk entitled "Graduate from iMovie to Final Cut Express." Then, at 1:00 PM, Jeff will be at the Peachpit booth (#1917) to talk about iMovie, Palm organizers, and iChat AV, and signing copies of his books. Also at 1:00 PM, Glenn Fleishman and I will be answering your questions about wireless networking and signing copies of The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, Second Edition at the Aladdin booth (#1507). Lastly, from 3:30 to 4:45 PM, I’m giving a Macworld Users Conference talk about getting started with iPhoto.
On Thursday, January 8th, at noon, I’ll be in the User Group Lounge (room 250/262 in the West Mezzanine in the South Hall of Moscone, one level above the show floor) to talk about Apple’s show announcements, what’s cool on the show floor, and our Take Control ebooks. At 2:00 PM, Joe Kissell (author of "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther") and Tonya and I will be back at the Aladdin booth (#1507) to take questions about upgrading to Panther and the Take Control series in general. Then, from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM, Glenn and I will be at the Peachpit booth (#1917) for a wireless networking demo and to answer your questions.
We’re all looking forward to seeing you at the show!
Headphones. Everywhere you look, people are using them with portable music players – including the iPod – but they’re also extremely popular computer accessories, used for watching DVDs, playing games, and listening to tunes at work or play. For the past two years I’ve been providing recommendations for headphone gifts based on the premise that most headphones stink (especially those that come with portable audio devices, but even many that you buy yourself in electronics stores). The bad news is that this hasn’t changed; most still aren’t very good. The good news is that there are more quality options available than ever, and prices seem to be getting better every year. If someone in your life uses headphones, give them a pair that do their music/movies/games justice.
The response to the previous years’ articles was overwhelmingly positive, so I’m revisiting my recommendations from last year. A few models have been discontinued, others have been replaced, and some prices have changed. I’ve also added a few items based on feedback from readers and evaluations I’ve done over the past year. Below, listed by type/style, are this year’s recommendations. I’ve included approximate street prices in US dollars, and URLs for more information. (If an item is difficult to find, I’ve also included a URL for a reputable vendor.)
Note that there are definitely "better" headphones available than those listed below – especially if you have a dedicated headphone amplifier that can drive them properly. However, the models listed below will play nice with the headphone jack of your iPod, PowerBook, iBook, iMac, or Power Mac. Also keep in mind that sound quality between different models from the same manufacturer often varies significantly. Just because a model from a manufacturer is recommended here doesn’t mean that another model from that manufacturer is just as good; there’s a good chance it isn’t.
Earbuds — These models sit in your outer ear, like the iPod earbuds.
Sennheiser MX 400 ($13) or MX 500 ($17): Considered by many to be the best all-around traditional earbuds, these two models are also among the least expensive. People with small ears may find them to be a bit big. The MX 500 adds an inline volume control.
Sony MDR-E888 ($65): Sony’s best earbuds; they’re not quite as balanced as the MX 500, but they’re still quite good. Unfortunately, they’re almost four times the price. Sony claims to have discontinued them, but they’re still widely available, especially online.
In-Ear-Canal Headphones — These "seal" in your ear canal to block out external sound, and they’re great for traveling. The main drawback to in-ear-canal headphones is that some people don’t like sticking things inside their ears… way inside. Be sure to read the included instructions on how to get the right fit. Fortunately, all of the models listed here include several different sizes of rubber and/or foam tips to help you achieve the most comfortable fit.
Etymotic ER-4P ($260): The best earbud/canal headphones on the planet, in my opinion, and one of the best headphones, period. The ER-4P actually provide far more isolation (roughly -28 dB), and better sound, than any noise-canceling headphone on the market, making them the ultimate travel headphones.
Shure E5 ($450-$500): Shure’s top-of-the-line, the E5 use two drivers in each earpiece instead of one. I personally prefer the sound (and comfort) of the Etymotics, but the E5 have become quite popular in audio circles, and some people prefer the way the E5 fit.
Etymotic ER-6 ($130): The "budget" version of the ER-4P. These don’t sound quite as good (most notably in the bass), and don’t provide as much isolation (-20 dB), but they’re still excellent, and are half the price.
Shure E2c ($100): The "budget" version of the Shure E5 (with only a single driver per earpiece), the E2c headphones are in the same class as the Etymotic ER-6, but provide a different tonal balance – more bass, but less detail. They also fit slightly differently; I find them a bit less comfortable than the ER-6, but I’ve heard from more than a few people who prefer the fit of the E2c.
Sony MDR-EX71SL Fontopia ($45): The successor to the EX70 mentioned last year, these headphones don’t impress me any more than the EX70, especially their emphasis on bass and lack of detail, but that’s mainly in comparison to the excellent Etymotic and Shure models. They’re still a good value if you don’t want to splurge on the Etymotics or Shures, and some people find them to be more comfortable.
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Earclips — Instead of using a headband like traditional headphones, the drivers on these models clip/hang on each ear. They tend to be quite comfortable, and won’t mess up your hair. This style has grown immensely in popularity over the past few years, but the only ones I’ve heard that I can recommend from an audio perspective are the two Koss models below.
Koss KSC-35 ($30): The KSC-35 were officially discontinued last year, but they were so popular among headphone fans that Koss reintroduced them "for a limited time." (I put that in quotes because it seems like more of a PR tactic than a reflection of their availability – Koss has been selling them on their Web site for months.) Small, lightweight, and comfortable, they offer some of the best sound under $100. They’re one of the best headphones available for exercise and active use, and one of the best bargains of any type.
Koss KSC-50 ($20): The "successor" to the KSC-35, they’re available everywhere, but spend the extra $10 and get the originals, which sound a tad better and are more comfortable. I recommend the KSC-50 only if you can’t get the KSC-35, or if you like the looks of the newer model better. They’re hard to beat for $20, though, regardless of the type.
(Koss does not let you link directly to headphone models at its Web site, below. Go to Products and click the Portable link to see the Koss models included here.)
Lightweight, Over the Head — These are traditional over-the-head headphones using a metal or plastic headband. Koss has long been the king of sound quality in this area, as they have an entire line of portable headphones that use a driver that is much better than almost anything else on the market. However, Sennheiser released a new line of lightweight/portable headphones last year that are excellent and give the Koss models some competition.
Koss PortaPro ($40): Variants of the PortaPro have been around for decades, and for good reason: it’s hard to beat their sound for the money, and they fold up into a small bundle for travel. The headband provides adjustable temple grips for comfort.
Koss SportaPro ($20): These are similar to the PortaPro (the same drivers) but with less expensive construction and a headband you can wear over your head or behind your neck. They also include an inline mute button.
Koss KTXPRO1 ($20): Similar to the PortaPro but, like the SportaPro, these headphones don’t have the same build quality. They don’t fold up, but they come in various colors and provide an inline volume control.
Radio Shack Pro35A ($20-$40): These are actually rebranded Koss KTXPRO1 headphones, but in black/silver instead of color. They vary widely in price – if you find them during one of Radio Shack’s frequent sales, they’re the same price as their Koss counterparts.
Sennheiser PX 100 ($40): The new kid on the block, the PX 100 model is an impressive alternative to the Koss headphones listed above. They’re extremely comfortable, and feature a clever design that allows them to fold up like a pair of glasses. (They even include a hard, eyeglass-size carrying case.) If you like bass, you’ll also like their slight emphasis on the low end.
Sennheiser PX 200 ($50): These are the "closed" version of the PX 100, meaning they seal over each ear to block out some degree of external noise. The PX 200 headphones are more balanced sounding than the PX 100, but are more sensitive to placement – if you don’t get a good seal on your ears, they can sound a bit thin.
Street Style, Behind the Head — Like earclips, this style has become quite popular – Sony’s emphasis on their Street Style line has ended up naming the entire genre. They clip over each ear, but include a headband that goes behind the head/neck for stability. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many choices if sound quality is important to you.
Koss KSC-55 ($15-$20): These are basically the Koss KSC-50, mentioned above under Earclips, but with the behind-the-headband. Unfortunately, if you have a large head, they have a viselike grip.
Sony Street Style MDR-G72LP ($30): Although I’m personally not a big fan of the sound of the G72, they’re some of the most popular street style headphones on the market, mainly because they’re very comfortable and they fold up for easy storage. (Search for "G72LP" at Sony’s Web site below.)
Vertical In-Ear — These models have a thin headband combined with earbud-sized earpieces that sit vertically (facing forward) in each ear. They tend to be very comfortable, and are good choices for exercise. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good options in terms of sound; I’ve found only one I can recommend.
Sony MDR-A44L ($20): These headphones sound quite good, and have a much wider headband than most models in this category, making them even more comfortable than most. (Search for "A44L" at Sony’s Web site below.)
Full-Size Sealed/Closed — These headphones fit over or around the ears and block out some degree of external noise; they’re good for travel or use in noisier environments (the isolation also saves others from having to listen to your music). On the other hand, they tend to be quite a bit bulkier than most of the headphones mentioned so far.
Beyerdynamic DT 250-80 ($150): These are possibly the best traditional sealed headphone that can be adequately driven by a portable device or computer; they’re very comfortable (with nice velour earcups) and have great sound.
Sony MDR-V6 ($70). Quite comfortable, foldable for travel, and built like a tank, the V6 are studio monitors, which means you get a more analytical sound (lots of detail, but some people find the sound fatiguing after a while). The MDR-V6 are identical to the "pro" line MDR-7506 that sell for $40-$50 more, but are very different from the MDR-V600, which are nowhere near as good.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($100): Like the Sony MDR-V6, these are studio monitors that fold up for travel. They don’t have the impressive bass response of the V6, but the 280 Pro offer the most isolation of any headphones save the Etymotic and Shure models mentioned above.
Sennheiser HD 212 Pro ($50): From Sennheiser’s more affordable 200-series line, the HD 212 headphones aren’t as balanced as the HD 280, above, but they have more impressive bass response and are a bit more comfortable for some people.
Beyerdynamic DT 231 ($90): These are good, closed headphones that probably fall between the two Sennheiser models mentioned above, both in cost and performance.
Koss UR29 ($30): Although not as impressive sounding as the other closed models above, the UR29 headphones still sound good, which is quite an achievement given their low price! They have a bit of emphasis on the bass, which may be good or bad depending on your preferences. The UR29 fold up when not in use and include an inline volume control.
Full-Size Open — Like the closed models above, these are bulkier than most portable headphones. However, unlike the closed models, they don’t seal out any external noise (or seal in your music), so they’re best suited for home use.
Grado SR-60 ($70) or SR-80 ($90): Some people think these Grado models look "old fashioned," but that’s part of their charm. That and the great sound you get for the money – the SR-80 are a major bargain in high-end headphones, and the SR-60 aren’t far behind.
Sennheiser HD 497 ($60): An excellent pair of home headphones that are also extremely comfortable, the HD 497 sound great directly out of an iPod or computer.
Style over Substance — I prefer good sound in a headphone to a fault – I’ll wear the ugliest headphones around if they sound good. But I’m open-minded enough to realize that not everyone has the same preferences. Some people see their headphones as an extension of their appearance, and legitimately care what they look like. Here are some of the "chic-est" of headphone chic. When compared to the sound of the other headphones I recommend, they come up a bit short, but they’re still an upgrade over the stock headphones that come with most portable players.
Bang & Olufsen A8 ($150): B&O has traditionally offered impressively designed products with better-than-average-but-not-as-good-as-the-good-stuff sound quality, and the A8 are no exception. They offer an innovative design that’s a bit of a cross between earbuds and earclips. Whatever you call the design, they’re certainly stylish.
Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 ($75): If you think the Koss earclips recommended above are simply too ugly for your ears, give these a look – you can’t get much more high-tech-looking. With brushed aluminum earpieces and clips that adjust to fit different ear sizes, these are both very comfortable and very cool.
Audio-Technica ATH-EW9 Sovereign ($200): For the iPod owner who has everything, I give you Audio-Technica’s flagship earclip: a version of the ATH-EM7, above, with earpiece enclosures made of Hokkaido cherry wood.
Noise-Cancelling — These gadgets feature a processor that "cancels" out external noise in a limited frequency range. Until last year I couldn’t recommend any headphones in this category because noise-canceling technology is still no match for good old isolation (see the Etymotic and Shure models above), and because almost every model on the market sacrificed audio quality for noise-canceling circuitry, leaving you with fairly poor sound. But there’s finally a pair of noise-canceling headphones worth mentioning.
Sennheiser PXC 250 ($130): Virtually the same headphones as the PX 200 recommended above, but with noise-canceling circuitry. Lightweight, comfortable, and offering excellent sound in a fold-up design, these are a good travel solution if you don’t like in-ear-canal models. They’re also great computer headphones – the noise-canceling feature is perfect for neutralizing the droning noise of computer fans. (My office has two Power Macs, a G4 and G5, and the PXC 250 headphones "silence" them impressively, making the Sennheisers my favorite headphones for listening to music during work, or even for just "listening" to silence when I’m trying to concentrate.) Even more impressive, the PXC 250 are less than half the price of the (overpriced) Bose offerings that seems to be advertised in every magazine in America.
Wireless — For use at home, wireless systems let you move around without being tethered to your audio source by cables. Like noise-canceling headphones, it used to be difficult to recommend a wireless headphone system because they sounded lousy, even compared to cheap wired headphones. However, a couple of impressive systems have surfaced over the past few years that make wireless a viable, if not perfect, option for those who value good sound.
Amphony H1000 ($130). One of the least expensive wireless systems on the market, but also one of the better sounding options. The Amphony system uses a technology that combines digital and radio frequency technology to provide clearer sound with less interference. They’re also quite comfortable. One caveat for wireless network users: the Amphony system uses a set of frequencies very close to those of the 2.4 GHz 802.11b (AirPort) wireless protocol, and the two do not co-exist well.
Freespan xdream ($200). Another great sounding, and comfortable, wireless system, the xdream uses infrared technology rather than radio waves. The downside is that you need to have line of sight between yourself and the transmitter; the upside is that there is no radio frequency interference (a major problem in most homes nowadays).
Headphone Amps? If you’re serious about sound quality, you might also consider a dedicated headphone amplifier. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a headphone amplifier is for increased volume. Although that might be a benefit (and a danger to your hearing, if you aren’t careful), the main reasons for using a headphone amplifier are (1) the ability to drive harder-to-drive headphones; and (2) sound quality. Headphone amplifiers generally provide the necessary power for your headphones to keep up with the music, even during complex transients. In addition, some, like amps from HeadRoom Corporation, offer a "crossfeed" processor that makes the extreme left/right imaging common in headphones sound a bit more natural (i.e., closer to the sound of speakers or even a live performance).
Headphone amplifiers connect to a line-level output (preferred) or headphone jack (if necessary) on your audio source. For portable use, HeadRoom offers their AirHead ($150) and Total AirHead ($200). These portable amps are perfect for using with an iPod or PowerBook (or even with a desktop Mac). They run off of AAA batteries and provide two headphone jacks for music sharing. The newest models, just released, also have a slim profile case that is approximately the same width and height as the iPod. (In fact, HeadRoom sells a bag that holds the iPod and amp as a package.) Other portable options include numerous DIY or DBSE ("done by someone else") amps, with lots of information available on the Web. For non-portable amps, the selection is surprisingly varied. HeadRoom probably has the largest variety, both of their own amps and those from other manufacturers, but much more info is available online at some of the URLs listed below.
(Disclaimer: I’ve done a bit of editing for HeadRoom. However, I was a satisfied customer long before that.)
Where to Buy? I’ve listed links to retailers for those products that aren’t widely available. Most of the other models can be found in the United States at a good headphone-only retailer like HeadRoom or GoodCans. A few of the Koss, Sony, and Sennheiser models can be found at electronics chain stores. Web retailers like Amazon and Buy.com also carry a number of the products mentioned here.
If sound quality isn’t your primary goal, and you’re instead looking for the latest in headphone chic, Audio Cubes and MiniDisco both carry a wide variety of style-over-sound models. They both also carry a number of better sounding headphones, including models I’ve recommended here.
Note that Sennheiser currently has a holiday rebate on several models I’ve recommended, good until 31-Dec-03: $5 for the PX 100, PX 200, HD 497, and HD 212 Pro; and $10 for the HD 280 Pro. I’ve seen the rebate form posted online at Amazon.com, but it’s good on products purchased from any authorized Sennheiser dealer.
Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about, or just talking about, good headphone audio, check out Head-Fi and HeadWize.
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Last week I gave you Part 1 of my holiday gift suggestions for the iPod user(s) in your life, covering Apple accessories, music, software, cases, bags, and jackets. Part 2 provides you with the best in third-party iPod add-ons, car accessories, speakers, reading, and repair options. Give your favorite iPod user even more reason to love their iPod with one (or more) of these useful items.
To recap from last week: I’ve divided products into categories, and included approximate U.S. prices for each, though you may be able to find items for significantly less. I’ve also noted whether each product is available for the older (FireWire port) iPods, the newer (dock connector) iPods, or both. For recommendations on headphones, see "Music to Your Ears: 2003," elsewhere in this issue.
Accessorize iPod Add-Ons — The iPod is much more than simply a portable music player, and it’s more versatile than many people realize. Here are some add-ons that your iPod lover might love to own.
SendStation PocketDock ($19, dock connector): One of the biggest criticisms of the newer iPods is that they did away with the standard FireWire port in favor of the new dock connector. Granted, the dock connector has opened the doors for some great accessories, but it was still nice to be able to use any old FireWire cable you had lying around to recharge or sync your iPod. The PocketDock is a nifty (and tiny) adapter that you plug into the dock connector on your newer iPod, enabling you to use any standard 6-pin FireWire cable.
SiK imp ($26, both, but only dock connector iPods for the purpose here): The imp is officially a car charger for any iPod, but if you have an iPod with a dock connector, it provides a truly unique feature: you can disconnect the imp’s cable from the car charger and get a truly portable, line-level output cable, perfect for use with a portable headphone amplifier. (The cable also provides a standard FireWire port, like the PocketDock.)
TEN Technology NaviPod ($50, both): One of the great things about the newer iPods is that the dock base provides a real line-level output, making it perfect for connecting to your home stereo. Add a NaviPod, and you have a true remote-controlled iPod audio system. The NaviPod receiver sits on the top of your iPod and lets you use the included remote control to play/pause, skip, search forward/backward, and control the output volume. (The latter is useful on older iPods that don’t have a line-level output, or when you’re connecting your newer iPod via the headphone jack.) The NaviPod also includes a handy metal stand that keeps the iPod standing upright (and, thus, keeps the remote receiver visible) when not in the dock. Both models provide pass-through jacks – so you can still connect cables when the NaviPod is in place – for headphones (both) and FireWire (older iPods). The only drawback to using a NaviPod is that you can’t see the iPod’s display from across the room (but to be fair, the iPod’s own remote has the same limitation).
Belkin Backup Battery Pack ($60, dock connector): The newer generation of iPods are smaller and lighter – but at a price. The battery only lasts about two-thirds as long as the previous generation. If you or your iPod lover need longer iPod battery life and don’t mind adding some bulk, consider Belkin’s battery pack. It holds four AA batteries and connects to the dock connector on the iPod, providing 15 to 20 hours of juice (assuming a fully charged iPod battery). The iPod fits in a cradle on the pack, secured by a suction cup that safely attaches to the iPod’s metal back.
SiK HotWire ($11, both): I often want to charge my iPod through my Mac without it mounting in iTunes, so that I can just snatch it out of its dock base when I need to use it. The HotWire provides a solution: a "power-only" FireWire cable. Use it by itself with older iPods, or via an adapter like the PocketDock with newer iPods. Since it doesn’t transfer data, you can’t sync with it, but it’s perfect for charging.
Belkin iPod Voice Recorder ($50, dock connector): This tiny gadget allows you to record voice notes on your iPod; you can then play them back on the iPod (the Voice Recorder also includes a tiny speaker), or transfer them to iTunes or another audio application when you get home. The sound is mono-only, and the recording quality isn’t close to being high-fidelity, but then again, the Voice Recorder is intended for voice memos, not for concerts and performances.
Belkin Media Reader for iPod ($100, dock connector): If your iPod owner is also a digital photography buff, the Media Reader might be useful. It’s basically a universal media card reader (CF, SmartMedia, SD, Memory Stick, and MMC) that plugs into the iPod’s dock connector and then transfers photos to the iPod. When you get back to your computer, you can then import the photos into iPhoto or your favorite photo application. The Media Reader is most useful for those times when you either don’t have a computer handy and you need to empty your media cards, or you want to make sure you have backup copies of important photos. There have been reports of poor transfer speeds when copying more than 256 MB of photos at once. Belkin and Apple are reportedly working on a fix.
PodPod iPod stand ($15, both): The new iPod docks are great for syncing, but they’re also useful for keeping the iPod upright (and thus away from desk clutter and scratches). If you want a stand for a second location (or, if you have an iPod that didn’t come with a dock), the inexpensive PodPod is a nice option. Simple? Sure. But it’s hard to beat for the price, and it’s quite attractive.
Griffin Technology iFM ($35, old): If you or your recipient is a radio listener, and has an older iPod, you can add an FM tuner via Griffin’s iFM. It connects to the iPod’s remote control jack and uses (and requires) the iPod remote to control the tuner. To cut down on cable clutter, the iFM piggy-backs onto the iPod remote and provides a place to store the iPod remote’s cable.
Griffin Technology RadioSHARK ($70, both): Unfortunately, this product isn’t available for the December holidays, but it’s such a cool idea that I had to mention it. The RadioSHARK provides an AM/FM radio that connects to your Mac via USB; the included software lets you record radio to digital audio files, which can be played on your Mac or transferred to your iPod for on-the-go listening. Think of it as TiVo for radio.
Road Trip: Car Accessories — To truly appreciate what it means to have thousands of songs on your iPod, you need to take a trip that passes through radio no-man’s-land. Whether it’s a lack of any radio stations at all, or an overwhelming proliferation of "all talk, all the time" stations, having your favorite music with you can make the trip much more enjoyable. But you need a few items to get your music playing in your car and to keep your iPod going. (In other words, setting someone’s car up to be an iPod-playing-roadster is a great holiday gift.)
Griffin iTrip ($35, both): Although a number of FM transmitters – devices that broadcast your iPod’s signal to a specific radio frequency, allowing you to listen to it via your car’s FM radio – exist on the market, the iTrip is clearly the top dog, for a number of reasons. First, it’s an amazingly small package that sits right on top of the iPod, leaving no wires or dangling parts. Second, it allows you to use any frequency on the FM dial, which means that you’re much more likely to find an open frequency than with many of the other transmitters. (Griffin even offers the "iTrip Station Finder," a Mac OS X application that tells you which frequencies are open in each city, as reported by users.) Finally, and most importantly, I found the performance of the iTrip, especially on the newer iPods, to be much better than some of the other models on the market. The only downside is that setting the broadcast frequency is a bit of a quirky procedure; however, once you figure it out, it’s easy to do. (Also see Travis Butler’s detailed review of the iTrip in "Taking an iTrip: Three FM Transmitters" in TidBITS-681.)
Cassette adapter (cost varies, both): If the car stereo in question has a cassette deck, consider a cassette adapter instead of an FM transmitter. Originally developed years ago to connect portable CD players to car cassette players, these devices are now available for as little as $10, and can take the signal from your iPod’s headphone jack and transmit it to your car stereo via an adapter that looks just like a cassette tape. Since there’s no radio transmission involved, the sound quality is often significantly better. There are so many of these adapters on the market, and relatively little difference between them, that I didn’t list any particular models here. For the most part, you can’t go wrong with any one you pick.
Direct connections (cost varies, both): For the best possible sound in the car, you can try to connect your iPod lover’s iPod directly to your car stereo. If it’s a newer stereo with an auxiliary port on the front, it’s as simple as buying a mini-to-mini cable: connect one end to the iPod’s headphone jack (or, preferably, the line-level output on the dock base), and the other end to the stereo. If the car in question doesn’t have such a jack, you may be able to add one for a reasonable price. Most car stereo dealers have kits, or you can find them online.
Griffin PowerPod ($25, both), Belkin Auto Kit for iPod ($40, dock connector), SiK imp ($26, both): To use the iPod for longer trips, you’ll need a way to power it past its normal battery life. You could use the Belkin Battery Pack mentioned above, but these solutions let you power (and charge) your iPod from any automobile with an accessory power jack (the "cigarette lighter" jack in older cars). The PowerPod provides a standard FireWire port, so you can use it with any iPod, old or new, and it’s now shipping with a free dock-connector-to-FireWire cable (which is $20 by itself from the Apple Store). The Belkin Auto Kit works only with newer iPods with a dock connector, but it has a headphone jack built into the charger body. The imp works with old and new iPods, and provides a true line-level output when used with newer iPods.
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Belkin TuneDok ($30, both): For me, the biggest challenge of using my iPod in the car was where to put it. There are a number of mounting products on the market, but I prefer the TuneDok. It provides three different sizes of "cup" bases, one of which is sure to fit in your vehicle’s cup holder. You then attach the actual iPod mount – which securely holds your (bare) iPod using the same suction cup design as the Belkin Battery Pack – to the base. The iPod’s top and bottom are left exposed, so you can still connect an auto charger, audio cable, and/or FM transmitter. In fact, the TuneDok has a clip on the back to keep the audio or charger cable attached when you take the iPod out of the car. Okay, so it’s hard to describe; trust me, though, it works very well.
Listen Out Loud: Speakers — Apple responded to feedback when they added a line-level output to the dock base for the newer iPods; now users can get the best possible sound when connecting the iPod to a home stereo. Here are a few accessories for listening without headphones. If you have an older iPod, or a newer iPod without a dock base, you can also use these accessories; however, you must use the iPod’s volume control to approximate a line-level output from the headphone jack.
Griffin iPod Home Connect Kit ($15, both): You can buy the right audio connection cables anywhere – such as your local Radio Shack or electronics superstore – but the Griffin set is a "can’t go wrong" choice. It includes both iPod-to-male-RCA and iPod-to-female-RCA cables, which should let you connect to any home stereo that uses RCA inputs.
Tivoli PAL ($129, both): There are a lot of portable speakers out there, but the dirty little secret of "stereo" speakers is that if they’re too close together, you pretty much lose any stereo imaging. So in many cases it’s better to get a higher quality mono speaker. I highly recommend the Tivoli Audio PAL (Personal Audio Laboratory). You simply connect your iPod to the PAL’s line-level input via a mini-to-mini cable. With its small size (6 by 4 by 4 inches; 15.2 by 10.2 by 10.2 cm), all-weather design, and 15 to 20 hours of rechargeable battery life (it can also run off AC power), you can take it with you on any adventure. Even better, it includes one of the best AM/FM tuners on the market, and, most importantly, it sounds great. I often use a PAL, iPod, and NaviPod remote (mentioned above) as a portable system (see my amateur picture at the URL below) – people are always amazed by the sound coming out of this tiny package. It also makes a great office or bedroom system.
Tivoli Model Two ($159, both): If you don’t need portability and want true stereo sound, check out the PAL’s big brother, the Model Two. It has the same amazing tuner and input jack, but with stereo sound via two separate, real wood, enclosures. It also has a second "computer mix" input that lets you hook up your Mac at the same time – a nice touch that lets the computer audio play full-time, whether listening to the iPod or the radio. Like the PAL, you’ll be amazed by the sound, and the design is retro-cool.
Altec Lansing inMotion speaker system ($150, both): In terms of gadget factor, this portable speaker system wins hands-down. Stored for traveling, it’s the size of a small hardcover book. But open it up and it provides stereo speakers in an impressive package that complements the iPod’s own design – simply place the iPod in the built-in dock (which can actually charge and sync newer iPods) and you’re good to go. Although the sound quality isn’t as good as that of the Tivoli models mentioned above, it’s a lot better than I expected given the size of the speakers. Plus the inMotion is a better solution for a suitcase, carry-on, or backpack due to its slim profile.
Cambridge SoundWorks Model Twelve ($400, both) or Acoustic Energy Aego 2 ($600, both): If you (or your loved one) are picky about sound and you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, check out the ultimate in two-channel, self-powered speaker systems – just plug one of these systems into your iPod (or your Mac, for that matter) and get great sound that will amaze your friends (and possibly annoy your neighbors). Both of these systems have stellar reputations; the Aego 2 takes the prize for best sound, but the Model Twelve system is "transportable" and can be powered by a battery, accessory power jack, or AC.
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Read Up — Although the iPod and iTunes are easy to use, you’ll never use them to their full potential without some help. I suggest a little iPod leisure reading.
Secrets of the iPod ($12, both): A number of iPod books are out there, but in my opinion none of them quite matches up to Chris Breen’s Secrets of the iPod, published by Peachpit Press and now in its third edition. In addition to general iPod info, tips, tricks, and shortcuts, it also has the best section on troubleshooting of any iPod book I’ve seen. And it’s the only book on the market that offers you free music (a link to Chris’s own solo piano album).
We Can Rebuild Him — If your favorite iPod user has an older iPod, or just hasn’t taken very good care of their newer one, some gifts for repair and maintenance might be appreciated.
Ice Cream ($20-$25) or iCleaner ($17-$25): One of the drawbacks of the iPod’s shiny, attractive surface is that it scratches easily. Ice Cream and iCleaner can both remove those small-but-far-too-noticeable scratches. The standard products are intended for your iPod’s plastic surfaces, while Ice Cream M and iCleaner Pro are for removing scratches off its smooth metal backside.
Battery Replacement ($50-$100, both): One criticism of the iPod has been that its battery is non-replaceable. However, if your loved one’s out-of-warranty iPod battery is starting to show its age, all is not lost. Laptops for Less now offers replacement batteries ($50) for both the original and newer iPod models, including detailed installation instructions. PDASmart offers both a do-it-yourself kit ($60) and a mail-in replacement service ($68). Finally, even Apple is now offering their own replacement service ($100). The upside to Apple’s service that you get a 90-day warranty; the downside is that I’ve read reports that you may not actually get your original iPod back; instead you get a refurbished replacement unit. I haven’t been able to confirm this either way.
AppleCare for iPod ($60 or less, both): Apple has long provided AppleCare policies for their computers; they’ve recently introduced one for the iPod. It’s officially a "two-year" plan, which in AppleCare language means "two years from the date of iPod purchase." In other words, instead of 90 days of phone support and one year of warranty support, you get two full years of both. Note that you can buy AppleCare from authorized resellers including companies like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics.
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