First Look: iPod

Apple’s iPod, a 6.5-ounce MP3 player the size of a deck of cards, is one of the most exciting products to come from Apple in years. Powered by FireWire, the iPod can hold as much as 5GB of data, providing a compelling balance of size and capacity. However, this combination of features comes at a relatively high price: $399.

But How Does It Work?

Sandwiched between the iPod’s stainless-steel back and Lucite front is a hard drive large enough to hold roughly 1,000 songs encoded in MP3 format at 160 Kbps.

The drive’s enormous cache—32MB of solid-state RAM—virtually eliminates skipping; shaking the iPod vigorously and even banging it against things didn’t interrupt smooth play. (However, we don’t recommend this—shaking and banging can damage the hard disk.) The large cache also allows the hard disk to spin down, extending battery life.

Accessing your music files via the iPod is easy. The 1.5-by-1.5-inch screen has very crisp text, and a bright backlight makes the display easy to see in the dark. The controls are designed for one-handed use. To make selections, you use a single middle button below the screen; a rotating jog wheel around that button controls volume during playback and lets you scroll through hierarchical menus of playlists, artists, and songs. Four buttons located on the jog wheel’s perimeter control track playback, as well as backlight and sleep modes. Using the controls can be awkward at first, but once we became accustomed to them, the interface’s ingenuity was apparent.

It’s unfortunate that Apple didn’t include a belt clip, case, or arm band like those that come with other music players. And although the included white ear-bud headphones are stylish and, as Apple claims, provide good-quality sound, we found them too large to wear comfortably for long periods of time.

Made for Macs

There are other MP3 players that work with the Mac, but none has been integrated with Apple’s iTunes. In fact, the iPod’s release coincides with that program’s first major upgrade: iTunes 2.

The iPod can synchronize its contents with your iTunes 2 music library, automatically updating itself with the latest changes to your library and playlists. You can also switch to a manual mode and pick the songs and playlists you want to transfer.

iPod attempts to safeguard intellectual property by allowing you to sync with only one copy of iTunes at a time. Trying to sync with a friend’s iTunes music library (or even another of yours) will overwrite all the music on your iPod with the new library. But even iPod’s copyright-protection features have their limits—by switching to manual mode, you can transfer MP3 files to and from iTunes.

The iPod has a smaller hard drive than the 20GB, USB-based Nomad Jukebox, but its FireWire interface makes the USB connections on other MP3 players seem slower than molasses. It takes hours to transfer 5GB of music files to a music player that connects via USB; the iPod can transfer that amount in as little as 12 minutes.

We tested the iPod by copying 333 songs (1.35GB) to it, and the results were quite impressive. Using a Power Mac G4/450, it took 4 minutes and 58 seconds in Mac OS 9.2.1 and just 3 minutes and 5 seconds in Mac OS X 10.1. You can even use the iPod’s hard drive to transfer other types of files, since the iPod appears on your desktop as a regular portable FireWire hard drive.

The FireWire port on the iPod does more than just allow you to download music from your Mac. Connecting an iPod to your Mac also charges the iPod’s internal lithium polymer battery. If you’re on the road, you can connect the FireWire cable to the iPod’s included AC adapter for a quick charge.

The Last Word

The Apple iPod sounds like a dream come true—and for anyone with a love ofmusic and a Mac that has a FireWire port, it is one. Although $399 placesthe iPod at the high end of the portable music player market, it buys you astylish, high-capacity audio player with Mac connectivity that is second tonone.

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