Digital music player

Introduction

The third generation of Apple's iPod is the most dramatic revision of the world's best-selling digital-music player yet. Where generation-2 iPods merely cleaned up the fascia controls and top ports, iPod 3 reshapes the case, repositions and adds ports, offers a recharging and synching dock, and changes the mechanical controls from around the touch wheel into four separate solid-state buttons. At first glance the new iPod looks like another company's imitation of Apple's player. But on closer examination there's much to like about the redesigned interface. The fascia is now completely solid-state with no mechanical parts bar the Hold switch. Moving the controls to separate touch-sensitive buttons is easy to get accustomed to, and requires less effort to operate. I can't say that it makes navigating a lot easier than previously, as Apple did an excellent job with iPods 1 and 2 - but it'll be a lot more immediate for newcomers, who'll recognize the controls from CD and cassette players. The buttons and wheel are recessed for easy non-visual control. Cold-weather performance could mean frozen fingers as you can't work the buttons through gloves - although the remote-control (standard with 15GB and 30GB models) should help unless you've got goalkeeper's mitts on. Also altered is the iPod's case, which is slimmer and smoother (but also very slightly longer) than before; and there's no clear polycarbonate cover. I didn't like the rounded corners at first, but now I must admit my chunky 20GB model looks boxy in comparison. The new iPod has less presence, but the smaller and lighter they get, the more portable they become. Despite the weight loss the difference is marginal in real-life as even the 20GB iPod was pretty light. The new form factor is definitely more shirt-pocket friendly, but you can still expect it to drag thin cotton. The screen is enhanced, cooly bluer than the previous slightly bronzed LCD. With backlight on, the new iPod's screen really shows its stuff - a great improvement on its predecessor. The new iPod's backlight control also lights the four buttons, which glow red for an easy visual lock in darkened bedrooms or lecture halls. The fact that there are no moving parts also makes the iPod less susceptible to dust and dirt contamination - take a look at a 5GB iPod, and you can see grime trying to creep in behind the moving wheel. Apple provides a plastic protecter for the FireWire connector at the base of the new case. Worryingly, the new dock will collect foreign particles and moisture while not in use, so there's more chance of goo getting inside the iPod. Rudimentary maintenance will stop this, but it's something that iPod 2 owners didn't have to worry about. With previous iPods, charging and synching via FireWire is easy if rather inelegant. The new dock (standard with 15GB and 30GB models) makes the process neater - if not cleaner (see above). The iPod chirps when connected to the dock, which includes an audio line-out port for connection to a stereo or speakers; in our tests, we got more volume from the iPod jack than via the dock's port. The iPod's line-out is now separated from the remote-control's port. The separate remote and headphone jack should increase jack life, as the older jacks were prone to cracking and splitting. The new iPod does, however, require a special cable - so if you want to charge at work as well as at home, you'll need to either carry the cable with you or buy a second - you can't, as previously, use any old 6-pin FireWire cable. Another iPod Dock Connector to FireWire Cable costs £15; a second dock, £29. You don't need the dock to recharge (indeed the new 10GB model doesn't come with one as standard). Apple is sure to expand its iPod user base by now offering USB 2.0 for Windows users only. FireWire is still the better option for Mac users, as it charges the iPod when connected to the computer. The new iPod's big downer is its reduced battery life (down by 20 per cent from ten to eight hours), caused by Apple using a smaller battery to allow the slimmer case. The new iPod is slimmer and lighter than earlier models, but I'm not sure the reduction in battery life is worth it as the difference in weight and width is barely noticeable when strapped to your belt. The Apple Store does offer a £45 Belkin Back-up Battery Pack (with charge-level indicator) that uses four standard AA alkaline batteries to power the iPod for a claimed further 12-15 hours. The new iPod allows you to create on-the-go playlists, which is great - except that they're temporary and disappear when you sync with the Mac. Other features exclusive to the new iPod are the ability to display the clock at the top of the screen, an alarm clock that can wake you with a beep or a song, and two new games (Parachute and Solitare). You can even view text files that you've dragged to the Notes folder on the iPod.
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