When rumors started zipping around the Web about a new digital music device from Apple, we thought that it would be a musical home-networking kit, designed to merge Apple's iTunes software with the living room stereo. Boy, were we wrong.
The new device--dubbed the iPod--is a portable player, and a sweet one at that. Featuring a 5GB hard drive, a high-speed FireWire connection, and a simple yet powerful interface, this tiny device will undoubtedly jump to the pinnacle of our Top 5 hard drive-based MP3 players list when it's released on November 10. Initially, the iPod, which carries a somewhat hefty $399 price tag, will be a Mac exclusive that's compatible only with OS versions 9.2 or 10.1.
Typically inspired design
If Apple is known for one thing, it's an innovative and free-thinking approach to product design. The iPod continues this legacy in a number of ways. The first thing that you notice when you pick it up is the stainless steel back, which contrasts with the white color of the clean front panel. Then, you notice the unit's size. The iPod is the smallest hard drive-based MP3 player available--about the size of a deck of cards. A large screen enables you to see the simple menu structure easily, and everything's a snap to find. But our favorite part of the design by far is the scroll wheel used to navigate the menus. When holding the device in one hand, it's possible to move through every song, album, or playlist in mere seconds. Unlike other jog dials or button navigation systems, the scroll wheel accelerates as you turn it, allowing for the kind of maneuvering that's necessary to rapidly peruse 5GB worth of MP3s (about 1,000 songs encoded at a bit rate of 160kbps).
When you attach the iPod to your Mac, the iTunes 2.0 software (available in early November) opens up and recognizes the device, which also shows up as a hard drive in the Finder. If you have the default Autosync feature enabled, the iPod then grabs every new song and playlist from iTunes automatically. File transfers take place over the FireWire (IEEE 1394) connection at incredibly rapid speeds--30 times faster than USB transfers. This makes the iPod the quickest and most convenient MP3 player for loading files. As files transfer, the FireWire connection also charges the player (1 hour gives an 80 percent charge, 3 hours gives the full 10 hours of playback time). A FireWire-to-wall socket adapter is included for charging the iPod on the road, as are ear bud-style headphones, which audiophiles will probably want to replace.
A few things missing
You won't find an FM radio, a voice recorder, PIM functionality, a car adapter, an equalizer, or a carrying case in the box. Digital music fans can handle all of these omissions except for one: support for Windows (or Linux for that matter). Apple CEO Steve Jobs has discussed adding compatibility with other operating systems, but for the immediate future, this device is only for people running Mac OS 9.2 or 10.1. Out of deference to copyright owners, you cannot port MP3s from one Mac to another. However, you can use the devices as a portable FireWire hard drive and store more than just music files.
There has been speculation that $400 is too much to pay for an MP3 player, and this will undoubtedly hold true for some folks. But the fact is that most hard drive-based players are priced in this range, and none of them come close to matching the iPod's design, small size, ease of use, or file-transfer speeds.