First, it must be said that the Apple iPods are undeniably cool, with their small profile, feather-touch backlit buttons, and easy operation. These features will drive many people to rush out to the store, but users with lingering doubts about battery performance and longevity may hesitate. Overall, the picture is rosy, but careful buyers should consider these known issues before opening their wallets.
This is simply the best-designed MP3 player we've seen to date. The latest generation comes in 10GB, 20GB, and 40GB versions. They're currently the smallest and lightest high-capacity hard drive-based players in the world, measuring 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.62 inches and weighing 5.6 ounces. With its rounded edges and diminutive size, the new iPod is even more pocket-friendly and aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor.
Apple offers the same remote previous iPods had; it comes standard with the 20GB and 40GB versions.
The bluish-white backlit display measures 2 inches diagonally and has a higher resolution (160x128 pixels), allowing crisper graphics. The scrollwheel on the lower half of the device balances the display visually. Unlike the earlier iPod scrollwheels, it does not spin. In fact, the player's only moving parts are the sliding Hold switch on the top and the hard drive inside the case. The scrollwheel features the same accelerated scrolling of the previous model's, so we were able to whip through several thousand tunes in mere seconds and maneuver with precision between individual songs. An unlabeled multifunction button in the middle of the scrollwheel typically acts as the select control.
Between the display and the scrollwheel are four buttons: Rewind, Menu (which also moves you up one level during navigation), Play/Pause/Power, and Fast-Forward, all of which are reachable with your thumb when you're holding the device. You can turn off their orange backlighting (along with the display backlighting) to save power, or set it to turn on when you touch a button. All six front-panel controls are incredibly touch sensitive; they almost seem to respond to heat rather than pressure. Luckily, the Hold switch prevents accidental activation.
Unlike the earlier Apple iPod, which featured a standard FireWire port on top, the new iPod has a slot on its underside for connection to a proprietary cable or a docking station (a slot protector is included). The device comes with a FireWire cable, and for Windows users without a FireWire port, an iPod USB 1.1/2.0 kit is available for $19.
The 20GB and 40GB versions ship with a remote control, a docking cradle, and a case. The remote is the same one the older models had; it securely clips to fabric or bag straps using a spring-loaded rocker mechanism. The control connects to the device via both a normal headphone jack and another small jack for remote commands. This design solves the problem some earlier iPods had with their headphone/remote connections, which could be compromised by sharp impact.
The cradle positions the player at an angle. It includes a line-out jack for direct connection to a stereo, bypassing the iPod's volume circuitry (which, as any audiophile will tell you, degrades sound ever so slightly). Cables attach to the iPod either directly or through the cradle, so you can still connect the player to a computer if you leave the cradle at home.
The Apple iPod's playback features are all accessible and programmable from the main menu. You can browse by song, artist, album, genre, playlist, or composer. And the On The Go function--our favorite addition--enables you to create a new playlist even when the iPod isn't attached to a computer.
A new smart-playlist function lets you rate a song on a scale of 1 to 5 while it's playing; higher-rated songs play more frequently during shuffle. Mac and Windows users can also rate songs from within iTunes. The software also grants access to the iTunes Music Store, which sells music downloads for 99 cents per tune and $9.99 per album. One more great playlist feature: You can set which playlists update from iTunes--a nice combination of convenience and control.
Speaking of syncing, the updated version of iTunes for both Mac and Windows is smoother than anything else on the market. Once you drop the device into its cradle, iTunes starts up and can automatically sync the iPod to your music collection. iTunes can also create MP3 and AAC files from your CDs. The iPod handles AAC files like MP3 files, but AAC sounds better at the same bit rate. The player also supports WAV/AIFF and spoken-word Audible files, which can now be purchased from the iTunes Music Store, right from within iTunes. Also, iTunes can resample songs to a certain bit rate, apply volume leveling (a.k.a. normalization), and digitally enhance songs while transferring them.
Some people want to use the iPod to share music between multiple computers. You can, but it's not easy. Syncing to iTunes is possible with only one machine. But there is an unattractive alternative. We were able to copy MP3 files from the iPod to a second computer's hard drive in Windows by turning on "View hidden files and folders" and browsing the iPod's internal directories in My Computer until we found the music. Mac users can do the same thing if they install ResEdit. However, when we reconnected the iPod to the primary machine, the device wouldn't mount as a drive until we reset it.
On the other hand, the iPod has no problem transporting data files between computers (Macs or PCs) when you activate Enable FireWire Disk. In this approach, the iPod mounts as a data drive, but it hides music files in the default mode.
Apple now offers two accessories for the dockable iPod: the Belkin voice recorder and the Belkin media reader. The voice recorder adds a microphone and a 16mm speaker for recording WAV and AIFF files, which then transfer automatically to your Mac or PC during syncing. The media reader turns the iPod into a digital photo wallet. The module lets you pull digital pictures from your digicam's Compact Flash I/II, SmartMedia, SD/MMC media, or MemoryStick to make more room for new photos without having to upload the previous batch to a computer.
Three more extra treats: An alarm clock that can beep or play the song of your choice through a home stereo, three games (Brick, Parachute, and Solitaire), and the ability to play tunes from the iPod's hard drive while it's connected to your computer (so you can delete your music collection from your computer's drive to free up space).
The iPod's sound quality is great. Apple won't release the signal-to-noise ratio, but the player sounds quite clean to our ears--even cleaner through the cradle's line-out jack, which bypasses the device's volume circuitry. And it's more than loud enough, even through our large test headphones, outputting 30mW per channel.
Apple claims the iPod's internal lithium-ion battery will last 8 hours, but that's with the button backlighting and the EQ turned off and the volume limited to 50 percent. With heavy use, involving lots of backlighting and On The Go playlist creation, our test unit lasted about 6 hours. However, Apple has solved the old iPod's battery problem (the life of the nonreplaceable battery dropped to 1 to 3 hours after about a year of use) with an included firmware upgrade. The battery charges in about 2 hours, 40 minutes, with or without the cradle, from a FireWire port or the square, white AC wall adapter that comes with the iPod.
Our MP3 files transferred speedily over FireWire at around 3.3MB per second (equivalent to about one song each second) from Macs and Windows machines.