Released about a month ago, Apple's portable MP3 player—the iPod—features the same design-savvy aesthetics as the company's iBook and PowerBook G4 systems, a generous 5GB of storage space, and yes, a hefty price. But any initial misgivings about the iPod are immediately forgotten when you pull the device out of its elegant box (even the packaging is impressive) and see it firsthand. And the experience gets better, from the iPod's innovative and intuitive UI to its first-of-a-kind integration with Apple's music-jukebox software and speed-shattering FireWire connection. Frankly, I didn't know how I would react to Apple's over-hyped MP3 player until I used one. Now I would have a hard time parting with it: Consider me converted.

If you review the iPod's specifications, the device doesn't seem too impressive. It has a 5GB hard disk, but some other hard disk-based players feature much larger capacities. The iPod ships with a FireWire interface, common on Macs, but not so common on PCs; until this device shipped, portable digital-music players always relied on the more common, but suddenly pokey, USB connection. And the iPod isn't Windows compatible, at least not yet, which limits the potential market to about 5 to 10 million modern Mac users. And at $400, it hits the high end of the price range for this type of device. Sounds like a loser, doesn't it?

It isn't. Instead, the iPod is a trendsetting product that Apple's competitors are destined to copy again and again. The iPod is easily the most usable and elegant portable digital-audio player on the market. Here's why.

Design

The iPod looks like a work of art, with an iBook-like snowy white fascia and an industrial silver back that, sadly, is overly prone to scratching. A large white disc, or jog dial, sits prominently at the device's bottom center and is flanked by four simple buttons, with a fifth sitting in its middle. The four outside buttons are obviously labeled as menu, play/pause, previous song, and next song; the middle button is used to select items when you enable the menu. The unit's top contains three items: the FireWire connection, the headphone jack, and a lock switch so you can throw the unit in a pocket or bag and not worry about inadvertently triggering its buttons. An LCD display for the menu sits above the jog dial.

And the iPod menu—well, it's a thing of beauty that's ostensibly based on the new columnar-view style in Mac OS X. (Actually, it's more similar to the UI in Creative's NOMAD line of MP3 players.) When you turn on the iPod, the optionally backlit display presents a list of choices, which include Playlists, Artists, Songs, Settings, and About. To choose an option, you dial the disc with your thumb, clockwise or counterclockwise; a slight clicking sound provides additional feedback. To select an item, click the center button. This interface is immediately obvious and works surprisingly well. The jog dial speeds up as it rotates, which is important when you're scrolling through long lists of songs or artists. To move up one level in the menu, click the menu button. Simplicity.

Here's an example. Let's say you want to hear all of a certain band's music. Turn on the iPod by pressing any button, scroll to Artists, then Select. The columnar view now changes to show a selection called All, followed by an alphabetical list of each artist you've stored on the device. Scroll down and select the artist name, and the view changes to a list of that artist's albums, preceded by the now familiar All choice. Select All. If you'd like to repeat or randomly play the selection, choose Settings from the main menu, and you'll see options for Shuffle and Repeat. You can also use this menu to determine whether the backlight comes on and the duration of the light, set the display's contrast, turn the jog dial's clicking sound on or off, set a sleep timer, and perform other tasks.

The iPod is heavier than you might expect, given its size, but isn't heavy per se; it contains quality rather than unnecessary heft, as with the Creative Labs Nomad, another hard disk-based personal-audio device.

Integration

The iPod is the first portable digital-audio device that's truly integrated with digital-music software, in this case Apple's excellent iTunes. In fact, I can't review the iPod without also reviewing iTunes because the iPod relies on iTunes and won't (yet) work with any other jukebox software. Apple iTunes ships with Mac OS 9.x and X, and the iPod includes an updated version that the device requires (since the iPod shipped, Apple has updated iTunes at least once and all future versions will, of course, be iPod-compatible).

At its most basic level, iTunes provides jukebox functionality ala Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) or Real Jukebox: The application lets you rip CD music into your music library (in this case in MP3 format only), create playlists, burn audio-mix CDs, and listen to Internet radio stations. The iTunes interface (as with those of most Apple products) is simple, clean, and easy to use, with no extra frills or dead weight. And newer versions include cool new features such as cross-fading between songs for a radio station-like effect, an equalizer with more than 20 presets, and MP3 CD-burning capabilities.

When you plug the iPod into a FireWire-equipped Macintosh, the device appears as a drive icon on the desktop, although most people will probably never take advantage of this feature. You can use an iPod as an extremely portable external hard disk, which you can use to transfer files between two or more systems. Open up iTunes, and the true integration shines. The iPod appears in the source list alongside your music library, radio presets, and any playlists you might have created. The best part, though, is that the iPod automatically synchronizes when you load iTunes, without any work on your part. And because of FireWire's blazingly fast speed, this process takes no time at all.

Speed and Power

So how fast is the iPod? FireWire transfer speeds are about 400Mbps, almost 40 times faster than USB, which runs at about 11Mbps. You can transfer more than 1000 songs—recorded at 160Kbps in MP3 format—from the Mac to the iPod in about 10 minutes, or less than 10 seconds for an average audio CD's worth of songs—quite an improvement over USB, which would take about 5 hours to transfer 1000 songs.

Likewise, Apple's claim about "1000 songs in your pocket" is an understatement. Most people probably record MP3s in the more popular (and smaller) 128Kbps setting. If you use this format, you can fit about 1200 to 1300 songs on the iPod.

Battery life is another impressive feature. The company claims that the device will provide about 10 hours of use between charges, but I've already exceeded that time limit twice. Most impressive is the way the unit charges. In my description of the ports on the unit (above), you might have noticed that I didn't mention a plug for a power supply. That's because the iPod gets its power through the FireWire connection. While the iPod is connected to your Mac, the iPod battery recharges. And if you want to recharge on the road, just bring the FireWire cable along. Apple supplies a square power adapter that plugs into one end of the wire. Again, elegant and simple.

Flaws

Of course, the iPod isn't perfect. As noted previously, its high price—currently $400—and Macintosh exclusivity limit its appeal for many people. And the iPod has other problems. As with all Macintosh drives, you must dismount the iPod before you can unplug it from the computer. This process usually entails dragging the iPod's desktop icon to the Trashcan, an unintuitive and silly necessity, although iTunes also includes a menu item that performs the same function. Given the device's price, I'm surprised that Apple includes poor-quality ear-bud headphones instead of something a little more appropriate for audiophiles. Also, the unit scratches too easily and doesn't come with a protective case or belt clip, such as those included with the Iomega Hip Zip I used previously. Also, the iPod doesn't feature some of the new iTunes features, such as cross-fading, which shouldn't be hard to implement.

The biggest problem I've seen, however, is one that will admittedly affect few users. Because I use a 2001 iBook with a relatively small 10GB hard disk, I purchased an external FireWire drive to hold my iMovie films and digital music. But I often use the iBook around the house, without being connected to the external drive, and the other day I created a playlist in iTunes and wanted to add it to the iPod so I could take it with me on a drive. So, I connected the iPod directly to the iBook, let it auto-synchronize, and then left with the device. When I got to the car and connected the device to the stereo, I found that the iPod was empty; because iTunes couldn't connect to the nonexistent external drive, it assumed I didn't have any music and deleted everything on the iPod.

Fortunately, the iPod's FireWire connection speed let me quickly resynchronize at a later time, but I was still unhappy about the whole thing. Of course, I had set up the iPod to auto-synchronize, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised.

Conclusion

Apple's iPod is a winner, despite its lack of Windows compatibility, heady price, and a few issues. I'd like to see a price drop, however, along with a better remote-control-enabled set of headphones. But it's hard to complain about a device that's so easy to use. Even beginners can immediately use the iPod, and the iPod's design and integration with iTunes will appeal to more sophisticated users.

If you're a Mac user and don't balk at the high price, I strongly recommend the iPod. Windows users might want to wait a bit, however, to see whether iPod Windows support appears and how well it works with their systems.

--Paul Thurrott
December 18, 2001