The Mac Webb

iPod: MP3s and Data To Go

- 2002.02.21

After using my iPod for about two weeks, I wonder how I ever got along without this handy little tool. I am amazed at how often I return to the house after realizing I accidentally left the little wonder behind.

This high level of utility is even more amazing when thinking back to my first reaction to the iPod. When Apple first announced the device, I was a bit under whelmed, as I had allowed the Mac rumor sites to raise my expectations too high. I thought the machine would be the rumor darling iWalk, bringing OS X to the handheld market. Although I knew that was not a realistic offering, I still had my fingers crossed in hopes for some new PDA.

My first thought was that the iPod was a bit overpriced and far from revolutionary. My opinion began to change when I compared the iPod to the competition as an MP3 player. I considered three key areas when looking for the best portable MP3 player: size, interface, and sound.

Size

One of the greatest positives for the iPod is the machine's size. No machine on the market offers the size/capacity ratio of the iPod. This machine is measures 2.43 by 4.02 by .78 inches and weighs only 6 ounces. It easily fits in your coat or pants pocket, allowing you to actually take the machine with you more often than you would with the competition.

I have worked with the Archos offerings and the Nomad products, and I found both too large to be carried in your pocket. The small size of the iPod is attributed to the use of the Toshiba 5 GB PC card hard drive. This hard drive has been very popular with PDA enthusiasts, as it offers an incredible amount of storage in a tiny, spinning drive.

Interestingly enough, the price of the hard drive alone was around US$350-400 at the time of the iPod's release at a US$399 price.

I have used the machine as a driver for my home stereo and as a driver for my car stereo. The machine's long battery life has saved the day on more than one car trip this month. The reports are that the battery lasts approximately 10 hours between charges. I have found nothing to contradict this claim.

Software Interface/User Interface/Connectivity

The user interface of an MP3 player is one of those items that users rarely consider. The iPod interface is so good that it makes you realize how important the interface is in an MP3 player. The controls are simple to use and present information without lag.

Within 5 minutes of use, you know everything you need to know about making the iPod work. Choose by playlist, artist, or song and press play.

The addition of the sleep timer and the backlit screen are nice touches, considering I use the iPod in the evenings before bed. I spent a few months using an Archos machine and found that the interface was a bit confusing, and I found response lag to be a problem.

The ability to sync with iTunes is extremely helpful and makes managing 5 GB of data much more efficient. I would caution everyone to take some time organizing things in iTunes before your first sync session.

One of the biggest pluses when looking at the iPod in relation to the competition is FireWire connectivity. Moving multiple gigs of MP3 data via USB is a very long process. When using the FireWire connection, the process is over before I have time to grow bored.

One option I would like to see would be the ability to build playlists on the iPod based on music in the library. For example, I have 2 GB of OTR (Old Time Radio) files and would like to listen to particular tracks in a sitting. Each show has its own playlist, and I would love to be able to make a playlist labeled "tonight" and pull tracks from three or four playlist.

Sound

Strange that this was my third category for an MP3 player. I must admit that while a huge music lover, I am by no means an audiophile. I do not mind MP3s compressed at 128 kbps and have even listened to files at 64 kbps without problem.

For the enthusiasts, the iPod performs remarkably well. The machine covers the spectrum with 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz frequency response. This means a lot more to my audiophile friends than to me; all I know is that they sound great through the home stereo or the car speakers.

Apple has also included 18 mm rare-earth Neodymium-magnet transducer headphones. Again, to me this means they sound great when you use the headphones.

After comparing the basic functions, it becomes readily apparent that the iPod is the leader in the portable MP3 category. No other machine balances the portability, sound quality, and software/hardware interface as well as the iPod. If this were the entire selling point of the machine, I would recommend the product at the US$399 price.

But wait - there's more!

The Rest of the Story

The basic features are not the entire value equation when looking at the iPod. The most under hyped and most important feature of the iPod is its ability to mount in FireWire disk mode.

For years, I have used my PowerBooks in FireWire Target Mode, allowing me to utilize the desktop peripherals (dual monitors, speakers, scanners, etc.) while working with data and applications on the PowerBook.

Apple has allowed users to go one step further and given us the ability to achieve the computer as terminal concept. Picture a Web designer or artist who uses a desktop machine at home and a desktop at the office (or client site). This designer can simply save all of the files and applications on the iPod, place them in a pocket, and take the entire project to the office machine. This option is much more portable and much less costly than using a PowerBook in FireWire mode.

I have installed an OS 9 system folder and a few utilities on my iPod to create an emergency boot partition. I have used this to boot three different Macs in order to confirm that you can actually use the iPod as a startup disk. This option increases the value of the iPod immensely (to Mac users, of course).

Oops

One final note. I was walking through the local CompUSA last week when I noticed a young man enter wearing his iPod headphones. I watched from across the room as he quickly connected his iPod to the display iMac and began moving files back and forth. I looked over his shoulder and watched him copy Microsoft Office and a few other applications to his iPod.

He was gone before I could explain the ramifications to a CompUSA employee. LEM

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