By Eliot Van Buskirk (08/22/02)
It's an understatement to say that we loved the original 5GB and 10GB iPods; at the time, they were the best-designed MP3 players that we'd ever seen in terms of size, interface, and software syncing. Our only complaints were the lack of a remote, a carrying case, and full sound controls. With its latest batch of iPods, Apple adds these amenities and more to what was already a near-perfect MP3 player.
In terms of hard drive-based MP3 players, this iPod leads the portability race. At 4.0 by 2.4 by 0.72 inches and 6.5 ounces, the new model is a shade thinner than the earlier versions. A shiny, stainless-steel back and a thick, Lucite front give the iPod a clean, modern look, while the large, 1.25-by-1.58-inch screen enables you to easily view the device's straightforward menu structure. The new, static scroll wheel works just as well as the original iPod's rotating scroll wheel, which we suspect wasn't as durable as it could have been. But the static scroll wheel still allows for the same effortless menu navigation, enabling you to quickly find a track by song name, album, artist, genre, playlist, or composer. Finally, Apple adds a well-advised cover to the FireWire port to help keep out debris (the original iPod lacked a port cover).
In true Apple fashion, the company has developed a remote that's worthy of the elegantly designed iPod. While it lacks a display, the flat, silver, in-line remote looks great and accesses playback functions easily. The only slight issue that we had with this remote was with its cleverly designed toggle clip, which can detach from your shirt or your bag strap when you press a button on the right side of the remote. The headphones plug in tightly to the remote; this ensures a solid connection so that the remote doesn't lose functionality when jiggled, the way some others can. A sleek, black carrying case with a sturdy belt clip and a square, folding power adapter also share the iPod's high-style design.
Before the iPod appeared, USB was the fastest way to transfer files to an MP3 player. Thanks to the iPod's FireWire connection, filling up all 10GB takes only 20 minutes. Performing the same feat via USB would take at least 10 hours. The iPod not only has the fastest file transfers but also the easiest: just connect the player to your Mac and watch in awe as iTunes 3.0 starts itself up and automatically sends new songs and playlists to the device's memory.
Apple says that you can also use the iPod as a portable storage device to transport any kind of files between two compatible Macs, but we were able to use this function only with OS X. You can't sync the iPod's library to two different Macs, thanks to Apple's insistence on a bare minimum of copyright protection. However, there is a workaround for transferring MP3s in your iPod library between two Macs. First, download and run the free ResEdit software, then follow Apple's instructions for using the iPod as a hard drive within iTunes. Once the iPod icon shows up, select the player within ResEdit, go to the Get File/Folder Info, and deselect the check box marked Invisible. Now you can transfer MP3s directly into and out of the iPod's song library from any compatible Mac.
One other notable feature is the new PIM software, which integrates calendar and contacts with Microsoft Outlook, Entourage, Palm Desktop, and the Mac OS X Address Book. If you don't already manage calendar and contacts with one of these apps, just download Apple's free iCal software, enter appointments and contacts, and sync them to the iPod by following the iTunes Help file. Finally, Apple has added support for Audible files, meaning that free and for-pay audiobooks and audio newspapers are now compatible with the player.
Some people complained that the original iPod didn't get loud enough to drown out external sounds, especially in urban settings. Apple took heed to this gripe--the new iPod gets so loud that testing the maximum volume caused a slight headache. Another issue with the original iPods was that the EQ options were too few and didn't add enough bass to the signal. This problem has also been remedied; Apple includes 30 equalization presets, some of which add sufficient bass. In all our testing, we never noticed a single skip, but we still don't recommend jogging with any hard drive-based device.
Songs blazed over the FireWire port at 3.18MB per second, and all compatible file types--SBR and VBR MP3, WAV, AIFF, and Audible--transferred without a hitch.
Sonic imaging was clear, and all frequencies were crisp. The included earbuds sound great, although they might be too large for people with small ears. Don't worry about this, though, as you can swap in your own headphones and still use the in-line remote since it has a standard 2.5mm jack. Battery life remains the same as with the original iPod: 10 hours on a charge, either from your Mac's FireWire connection or via the small, square wall adapter.
Don't fool yourself--the iPod doesn't come cheap at $399, and Apple resellers tend not to cut too far below the retail price. If you're a Mac head looking for a more inexpensive way to carry around tons of tunes, check out the original 5GB iPod, which ships sans remote. But if you want the best player available, rest assured that you won't be wasting your money on this latest iPod, which is worth every penny.