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Apple’s 6.5-ounce, deck-of-cards-sized iPod isn’t the first portable MP3 player. What makes it different is that it was designed for Mac users and uses Apple technologies such as FireWire and iTunes.
Sandwiched in between the iPod’s stainless steel back and iBook-white front is a 5GB hard drive. That’s enough to hold roughly 1,000 songs encoded in MP3 format at 160Kbps. True audiophiles can even fit seven or eight complete albums in uncompressed AIFF or WAV formats.
The drive’s enormous 32MB cache virtually eliminates skipping by loading songs into solid-state RAM – shaking and even banging it into things didn’t interrupt smooth play. The large cache also allows the hard drive to spin down, extending battery life.
Accessing your music files via the iPod is easy as well. The large screen has very crisp text – in the classic Mac Chicago type, no less. Longer, scrolling track names, however, are dim and ghosted. A bright backlight makes the information easy to see in the dark, but the background can look splotchy.
The control area is designed for one-handed use. A single button in the middle helps make selections, a scrolling jog-wheel around that navigates hierarchical menus and controls volume during playback. Four buttons on the outside control tracks, as well as backlight and sleeps modes. It’s very well designed.
It’s unfortunate that Apple didn’t include a belt clip case or arm band, which come with some other music players – especially since the iPod is ideal for exercise use. The ear-bud headphones are stylish and provide good audio quality, but we found them too large to wear comfortably for long periods of time.
Although there are other players that work with the Mac, none has been as integrated with Apple’s iTunes as iPod. In fact, the release of the iPod coincides with the first large upgrade to Apple’s free player/encoder-iTunes 2.
The iPod can synchronize its contents with your iTunes 2 library, automatically updating itself with the latest changes to your library and playlists whenever you attach it to your Mac. You can also switch to a manual mode and pick the songs and playlists you want, or set iPod to synchronize with a custom iPod playlist.
iPod does its part to safeguard intellectual property by linking to only one copy of iTunes at a time. If you go to a friend’s house (or another Mac in yours) and try to sync with that iTunes library, it will overwrite all the music on your iPod. But even iPod’s copyright protection features have their limits – you can transfer MP3 files to and from iTunes by switching into manual mode.
5GB may sound like a lot of space – and it is – but it’s not as much as on the Nomad Jukebox 20GB. However, the iPod uses the lightning-fast FireWire interface, up to 30 times faster than the USB and not yet available on other digital-music players.
In our tests, when copying 333 songs (1.35GB of total data), the results were impressive. A G4/450 took 4:58 minutes under Mac OS 9.2.1 and just 3:05 under OS X 10.1.
The FireWire port on the iPod does more than just allow you to download music from your Mac. Plugging in an iPod also charges its internal lithium polymer battery. (If you’re on the road, you can connect the FireWire cable to an AC adaptor for a quick charge.) You can even use the free space on the iPod’s hard drive to store and transfer files.
iTunes 2 adds supports for the iPod, but that it isn’t a one trick pony. It adds several new features that were noticeably absent from the first version.Most impressively, iTunes 2 adds a 10-band graphic equalizer with 22 presets for styles, including rock, hip-hop, and classical – you can even save your own presets.
Some features common in other players are still missing from iTunes, chief among them different interface skins, extra visualization plug-ins, audio recording, and Internet broadcast – all features that iTunes’ predecessor SoundJam MP offered.
An Apple portable music player sounds like a dream come true – and it is for anyone with a FireWire-based Mac and a love of music. Although the £349 price tag means a hefty financial commitment, you’re getting a unique Apple product that you’ll find yourself using everywhere. And with the new features of iTunes 2, the duo make a nice package.
This review appeared in the Expo issue of Macworld