Small device, big on features

Player: Apple's iPod MP3 music player offers many user-friendly features, including its impressive `syncing' abilities with FireWire-equipped Macs, but its price can sting.

November 12, 2001|By David Zeiler | David Zeiler,SUN STAFF

It might not be the first portable MP3 music player, nor the second, nor even the 20th, but Apple's iPod nevertheless redefines the genre.

Though not quite the "breakthrough" Apple promised before its Oct. 23 introduction, this sleek device combines the best features of existing digital music players with a few nifty new ones to create an awesome piece of personal technology.

Let's start with iPod's size. Its dimensions are comparable to a deck of cards or a pack of cigarettes, so it easily slips into a shirt pocket. At 6.5 ounces, it's light enough to keep with you all day.

Of course, trimmer and lighter MP3 players aren't unusual, but they typically use "flash" memory that holds only an hour or two of music. The iPod boasts a 5 gigabyte hard drive that holds more than 1,000 high-quality MP3 audio files, or about 65 hours of music.

Again, the hard drive option isn't unique - Archos, for example, offers a version of its Jukebox player with a 20 gigabyte hard drive. However, the Jukebox series of MP3 players is nearly twice the size and weight of iPod.

As for iPod's interface, thanks to four intuitive buttons and a scrollwheel, almost everyone who tried my test unit figured it out in less than a minute - something you can't say about most portable music players.

Using the spacious 2-inch diagonal LCD screen, you can select music by playlist (user-created groupings of songs), artist or from an alphabetical listing of every song in the device.

Where iPod truly sets itself apart, however, is how well it integrates with a Macintosh running iTunes 2, the latest version of Apple's free jukebox software.

The iPod works only with FireWire-equipped Macs; in other words, models made within the past year or so. Envious Windows users can hope for a PC-compatible version next year (Apple refuses to tip its hand), but don't hold your breath.

When you plug the iPod into the Mac, it immediately launches iTunes and "syncs" the music on your Mac's hard drive with the iPod. Any playlists you've set up in iTunes are transferred to the iPod, along with artist and album information. Any songs you've recently removed from your Mac's library are simultaneously deleted from the iPod.

Instead of taking three to five minutes to download an album, as it would with the USB connections on other players, iPod's FireWire hookup snatches it in less than 10 seconds. Should your computer-based music collection approach iPod's capacity of 5 megabytes, the little machine will suck it down in less than 10 minutes.

Another benefit of FireWire is that it recharges the iPod's lithium polymer battery whenever it's plugged into the Mac. Apple claims 10 hours of continuous use, but it's not unusual to get 11 or 12 hours.

No doubt this is made possible by 32 megabytes of built-in flash memory, which provides 20 minutes of skip protection while minimizing hard disk activity.

You can also set up the iPod to transfer music manually, and can even use it as a portable hard disk.

So what's not to like?

First, Apple has made it tough to use the iPod to copy music from one Mac to another - it's auto-synchronization feature is one-way.

I also hated the earbud headphones. While they sound great, they kept falling out of my ears. Worse, the wire strands were always getting tangled in my pocket. Luckily, the standard sound jack accepts substitutes.

Then there's iPod's gorgeous appearance: white translucent plastic on the front and shiny stainless steel on the back. The problem is that the steel smudges with highly-visible fingerprints after handling.

Also, no carrying case or belt clip is included. Greg Joswiak, senior director of hardware and marketing at Apple, said the design team found that users had so many different preferences for these items that the company decided to let iPod customers choose third-party carrying cases.

Finally, there's iPod's price: $399. While I think the value is there, it's not clear whether a critical mass of people will pay for it. Nearly everyone who held the iPod wanted one until I mentioned the price.

Nevertheless, the iPod could prove a commercial success - it exudes cool and has an unbeatable combination of features.

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