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Apple iPod redux

We take a closer look

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Review

Well, we finally got our mitts on an Apple's iPod last night. Just for a short time, you understand, while the company's staff were looking the other way, but enough to get a feel for what the new MP3 player is capable of - and what it isn't.

Some readers will recall our initial scepticism about the device. There are more capacious, cheaper products out there, we said, and Apple is launching its product into a market that if not yet well established, isn't exactly cutting edge either. We thought that iPod isn't exactly innovatory, and doesn't live up to the "breakthrough" tagline the company applied to the device in pre-launch publicity material.

Having held the small, cigarette pack-sized gadget in our hands, we're still not sure about how successful Apple's strategy will be and we certainly haven't been persuaded that it's something insanely great, to borrow Apple CEO Steve Jobs' favourite phrase. But we have to admit that it is a dashed fine machine, and even if the price tag is high, it's arguably best portable MP3 player on the market today.

Behind the dial

First, a quick recap of the specifications is in order. iPod contains a 5GB hard drive, which is less capacious than that offered by rival products, from Archos and Creative Labs, but enough, says Apple, for around 1000 four-minute songs compressed at MP3's 160Kbps rate, though we use 192Kbps. At a rough guess, that would give use room for around 800 songs, which is still plenty.

The drive as a 1.8in unit, believed to have been made by Toshiba or Fujitsu, though Apple wouldn't comment on the source.

The iPod contains 32MB of playback buffer memory, which allows it to load up 20 minutes of music ahead of playback to ensure there's no skipping. And, yes, we did give it a good old shake to make sure. We can't say we've taken it jogging, but playback was very smooth and jitter-free.

It sounds good too. iPod has a built-in amplifier which gives a nice, warm sound that's neither excessively bass nor overly-treble as per many players without a bass-boost circuit. We haven't conducted extensive listening trials - we're an IT site, after all, not a hi-fi rag - but to these ears it sounded better than the Rio we've used in the past and, according to other journos present, much better than the Archos.

We didn't try the "earbud-style headphones with 18mm drivers using Neodymium transducer magnets", but one of our colleagues in the hi-fi press told us we should be fairly impressed.

We were impressed with the 160x128 backlit LCD, which is a darn sight sharper and shows more information than all the MP3 players we've looked at. Combine it with the iPod's selection wheel, and we found we could easily select songs, adjust the device's settings (sleep time and so on) and pump up the volume all one-handed. Incidentally, if the device dozes off during playback, it will pick the song up again when you power up. And there's a 'hold' switch to prevent inadvertent pauses, fast-forwards and power downs.
 

The iPod is powered by a built-in rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery capable of ten hours' playback on a single charge. Free of many of the nasty chemicals contained in more traditional power cells, the iPod's battery doesn't require heavy metal shielding, which is one of ways Apple has got the weight down to 6.5oz (185g).

FireWire

Talk of the battery brings us to the one feature that really puts iPod head, shoulders, heck ankles above the crowd: the IEEE 1394 connection. Now this is innovative. The FireWire cable not only provides exceptional fast music transfers - we moved over 50 songs onto the device in a matter of seconds; the USB connections of all other players take a lot longer - but doubles up as a power supply, recharging the iPod's battery for as long as it's connected to the host Mac.

You can recharge the iPod with its standalone adaptor, but this Palm-style approach - and, when its coupled with the automatic music collection synchronisation feature, you see just how Palm's HotSync concept has influenced the design of iPod - is far more straightforward. We like it.

Mac only

Now while 1394 is widespread on modern Macs, it's not to common on Windows machines - though XP may change this. Even if you have a 1394 port, you won't be able to hook up an iPod, at least not as an MP3 unit - you may be able to use it as an external hard drive, just as you can under the Mac OS.

Music transfer - automatic or otherwise; en masse, or individual playlists - is provided solely through Apple's music management and playback app, iTunes, and a new version of it at that. iTunes isn't available for Windows (or Linux, for that matter) and isn't likely to be for some time, though we're sure enterprising coders will get around that soon enough - iPod is really just an external hard drive, after all.

Exclusive...
Apple's reasoning here is that it wants to provide the best products for its own Mac user base - which it imagines it can boost by offering kit that doesn't work with anything else.

     
 iPiracy?

In the post-Napster era, you might wonder why a company like Apple, as plugged into content-creation industries as it is, would be willing to attach its name to the controversial MP3 audio format. Oldies may be less interested, but MP3 is big with the kids, and Apple is keen to encourage new generations of computer buyers to choose Macintosh.

MP3 is popular because it's compact and makes swapping and sharing music easy. So does iPod. With its capacity to hold around 1000 songs, all of which can be installed on the player in around ten minutes, it could be seen as a copier's dream. Upload 150 CDs worth of songs then download them to another Mac in another ten minutes.

That certainly seem possible with the pre-release version of iTunes 2 we looked at, but since Steve Jobs hinted that such duplication may be made impossible, we wonder if the ability to copy MP3 files back off the iPod will be removed from the shipping version. Either that or some sort of watermark will be added to the files to ensure they can only be used with the source Mac. Apple has made no such announcement officially, so we'll just have to see.

In any case, Apple will continue to rely on the old argument first used by the consumer electronics when they introduced domestic tape-recording equipment: we're not responsible for what buyers do with our product. If it works for Sony et al, it should work for Apple, which now adds the words 'Don't steal music' to all iTunes and iPod-related documentation.

 
That plan might make sense if it was the only product of its kind, but it isn't. And we find it hard to imagine someone deciding whether to go Mac or PC on the basis of the availability of a $399/£329 MP3 player.

Surely the price is enough to maintain the level of exclusivity Apple clearly wants to project? And as for offering a superior, more integrated and intuitive experience on the Mac OS than on Windows, well it's not hard to provide a feature-limited version of iTunes for users of the Microsoft product.

After all, if Apple is sufficiently keen that Windows users choose QuickTime that it makes its multimedia software available on other platforms, why not do the same with a product that can actually make the company money?

... and expensive

We still feel the device is expensive, though we reckon that more music fans the we thought at first will be willing to pay the extra for the rapid file transfer speed, the compact size and low weight. In fact, the weight is sufficiently close to solid-state players that Apple could also win business away from the likes of Rio by touting the iPod's capacity. It would cost a lot more than $399 to give a Rio 5GB worth of Flash cards.

In short, iPod is a very competitive product. But for the price, we can't see why a Mac owner would choose any other MP3 player. Windows users, however, can't even vote for the Apple product if they want to.

It's a difficult balance to strike. Is it better to promote your brand (and drive computer sales) through an exclusive, integrated product line, or seek to widen your appeal by offering distinct but mass-market products that draw attention to your PCs? In short, do you want to be Bang & Olufsen or Sony? The Mac-only approach taken with iPod - and Apple's LCD display line - suggests Apple has the former in mind.

The saga of the Cube, however, shows that it doesn't always work. But we don't think iPod will be Apple's second Cube - it's a lot easier to decide to buy an expensive but feature-packed MP3 player than an expensive and under-powered designer PC. We like iPod, and we think a lot of other Mac users are going to too. ®

iPod will ship in the US and Europe late November. The US price is $399, the UK price is £329

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