Evaluating Apple’s Classic iPod

Note: This is a review of the original “classic” iPod. Apple recently released a new version with buttons separated from the navigation wheel, USB 2.0 and Firewire connections (USB 2.0 only works on the PC), and a dock on the higher-end versions. The new versions are thinner than the old ones as well. I’m publishing this review now for completeness’s sake … and because I really love my iPod…

There’s a line in Atlas Shrugged where railroad executive Dagny Taggert’s looking at an old steel bridge that’s about to collapse and needs to be replaced. She’s contemplating doing it with a new kind of metal, called “Rearden Metal”, which is stronger and lighter than steel. But when she orders her engineers to draw up the designs, she finds that they’ve botched the job badly, failing to take advantage of the new metal’s inherent strengths. When asked what’s wrong, she sighs in disgust and says something to the effect of “when men got structural steel, they did not use it to try and use the same designs they’d used for wood.” Finally the metal’s creator, Hank Rearden, comes along, and shows her how to build the bridge correctly and for less than the cost of a new steel bride.

The iPod is like that (well, except for the cost bit). It’s takes advantage of today’s advances in electronics and design to create something wholly new, and incredibly cool.

Apple’s MP3 player is certainly not the world’s first–there are plenty which came before it. Some stored music on hard drives but were large and bulky, while others used the much slimmer — but also far lower-capacity–flash memory cards. In both cases, but particularly those based on hard drives, the designers seemed obsessed with matching the look and feel of a conventional Walkman, with a few useless bits of 21st century eye candy attached to make it even more unwieldy.

Not the iPod. This beautiful little machine is about as thick as a deck of play cards and only a little taller. While other MP3 players have an assortment of buttons and navigational do-hickeys, the iPod has a simple scroll wheel which is rimmed by easy-to-touch buttons (one for menu, another for pausing or playing, one for skipping ahead, and one for skipping in reverse). There’s also a round button in the center of the wheel that serves as the “selector”. The wheel takes up about half of the iPod; the other half is dominated by a monocrome display screen. The face of the iPod is solid white, but its protected by a coating of thick plastic. The back is polished steel.

Nestled in the top are the iPod’s data ports–one for a headphones jack, another for the Firewire cable. Joining them is a “hold” slider that’s used to disable input from the scroll wheel and buttons. The iPod comes with a black, belt-clip equipped carrying case (a much-needed improvement over its initial release, which had no such case), a set of ear-bud headphones, a cord-mounted remote control, a Firewire cable, and a charger. Also included is software for running the iPod–on the Mac it’s Apple’s own music program, iTunes, and on the PC it’s MusicMatch (note that on the PC side you’ll also need a Firewire card, which is not included. They cost about $20 and are pretty easy to install, though it does require opening your computer).

So how does it work? In a word, wonderfully. My iPod is presently half-filled with music, and includes about 20-odd albums. It took less than a minute to transfer these files (representing about 4 gig) to disk, and the process was as simple as plugging the included Firewire cable into the iPod and my iBook.

Once loaded, moving around the iPod’s inventory is a snap thanks to its well-designed navigation tool. How easily? I was able to walk around the downstairs at 2 a.m., rocking my baby daughter in one arm, and scroll my way through a dozen-odd play lists, quickly finding the songs I was looking for. The iPod offers multiple methods for browsing for songs. There’s the standard playlists, usually based on albums, but you can also create custom playlists either hand-built or assembled dynamically by iTunes using user-defined search criteria. You can also browse by artist and genre.

In addition to music files, iPod is able to play audio books downloaded from Audible.com. The Audible files are downloaded into iTunes, which then loads them onto the iPod like any other MP3. Audio books don’t work quite as well on the iPod as normal music files do. It plays the files just fine, and the books sound great, but the iPod has no way to bookmark your place. While normally the iPod just remembers where you left off when listening to a file, sometimes it accidentally re-sets to the beginning of the file. Being able to set one or more bookmarks would be a godsend.

The only time I ran into problems with the interface was when I was trying to fast forward through a book — you have to “double-click” the center button to get to the “fast forward/rewind” screen, which is represented by a thick shaded line. Moving the scroll wheel left or right movies a cursor along the length of the line. It’s not exactly intuitive, and it took me a few tries to figure out how to use it. Also, once you let up on the fast forward/rewind, the iPod’s state reverts to the default, which is volume control. So I’d be trying to navigate my way through a book, pause to check where I was, and then whammo, blast my eardrums when I tried to fast forward again, and ended up cranking the volume.

The iPod goes beyond audio files. It can be mounted as a Firewire hard drive to store data (in fact, one researcher uses his iPod to store a copy of the human genome) and on the Mac, it can be used to save calendars from Apple’s iCal program, as well as the Mac OS X Address Book. While there’s no way to directly enter data into calendars from the iPod itself, the ability to carry around this sort of information outside of a traditional PDA is a nice extra.

Overall, the original iPod’s a terrific piece of technology and still, even after several years on the market, the best MP3 player out there for any platform. It did for digital files what the Walkman did for cassettes — invented a fundamentally different way for people to manage, carry, and listen to their music.

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