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  • The Mac Night Owl Review: 20GB iPod: Still Number One

    August 6th, 2005

    In the corner, there’s a digital music player, and in this corner, there’s an iPod. Superficially, they may seem nearly the same. Both are portable electronic devices that can grab your music library from your computer and place it in your pocket and purse. But there’s where the resemblance ends, and as we all know, the iPod exists in the rarified atmosphere of the cultural icon.

    As you look at the history of the product, you can seize on various elements of its design and say “Eureka! That’s it!,” but other music players have shiny plastic fascias, clear, bright LCD screens and some sort of control center surrounding a square or circle. They may offer more storage capacity than the iPod, extra features, such as AM/FM tuners, and even a lower price, but their makers still don’t get it!

    From the famous Click Wheel to the simple, elegant, intuitive interface, Apple found the winning combination, and the rest remain also-rans simply because their makers just don’t get it! Although other music players may have traction overseas, we live in a world where young and old walk the streets and ride public transportation wearing those ubiquitous tiny white earbuds. The allure of the iPod transcends political boundaries, and even the President of the United States and Queen of England have one.

    A healthy cottage industry has arisen around the product, providing cases, external battery packs, audio interfaces, mics, remote controls and a hundred and one other devices that enhance your iPod in ways you may never have imagined. Little companies such as Griffin Technologies have prospered big time largely by piggybacking on the success of the iPod and have even managed to get distribution in large retail chains, such as Best Buy.

    So it was fitting to take a gander at the latest standard iPod configuration, the $299 20GB model, which now incorporates a color screen and the other features that first premiered in the iPod photo. At first glance, it looks very similar to the original iPod that premiered in 2001: The shiny plastic front, the stainless steel, smudge-prone backing, and the latest version of the famous Click Wheel, now in light gray. The controls have undergone revision over the years. The original navigation device, a Scroll Wheel, actually turned. Today it’s a flat device that moves electronically rather than physically. The navigation controls at first surrounded the wheel, then were placed in a single row above it, and are now integrated within it. Despite the changes, the essentials of the iPod and its smaller brother, the mini, can be grasped in just a few minutes without resorting to a manual. The Flash-based version, the iPod shuffle, doesn’t even have a screen, just a few simple controls.

    At first glance, today’s iPod seems at once familiar and yet different. The elegant packaging is tinier, yet eye catching. But to keep the price down, Apple has cut a corner or two. The thick foam inserts are gone, and it’s just too easy to bend the paper thin supports out of shape. Since most iPod owners these days run Microsoft Windows, the complimentary FireWire cable is history, replaced by a USB 2.0 connector that will also sync and charge your iPod on recent Macs. If your music repository resides on a Mac that doesn’t have USB 2.0, you have to opt for an optional FireWire cable or endure much longer download times via USB 1.1, and the need to use the AC adapter to charge the unit. The required FireWire cable, by the way, is not the conventional variety, but a special configuration designed to mate with its Dock connector.

    The rest of the package is the same. An AC adaptor, the familiar iPod earbuds, and a set of foam inserts, which are essential to provide the best possible fit and noticeably tighter bass reproduction. As before, today’s iPod is a sealed system, and access to the internal workings to replace the battery or service other components is best left to a service tech.

    With longer-life batteries no available, Apple has jumped on the bandwagon, claiming a maximum life of 15 hours. This figure appears to be conservative, as some users report 16 hours and greater under normal use. Comparing the color display with the older black and white display is akin to the differences between Mac System 6 and Mac System 7. The color interface is now subtly shaded to give a more dimensional feel.

    Audio quality remains good, not stellar, but unless you’re a purist, you may not care. Besides, if the standard earbuds don’t do it for you, there’s a rich variety of aftermarket earphones that’ll meet the needs of even the most critical music listener. While I don’t have a wide variety of gear at hand for testing, I attached the $49.99 Radio Shack model 33-1218 Noise Canceling Foldable Stereo Headphones I use for The Tech Night Owl LIVE radio show to the iPod just to see how audio quality improved. Although not quite state-of-the-art, the difference was crystal clear. Bass reproduction was more solid, with greater visceral impact, and mids and highs were more natural. If you’re willing to put up with this big, clumsy alternative, you can enhance your iPod’s audio quality big time without breaking your budget.

    Some day, Apple may enhance the iPod line with full motion video capabilities and other multimedia-related features. But today’s iPod remains a winner. It continues to set the standard for digital music players, and nothing else comes close.



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