Editor's note: When we first reviewed the iLoad in June of 2007, it was only capable of ripping and transferring music. One month later, iLoad added the ability to rip and transfer DVD movie content. We have revised our review and our rating to reflect this significant new feature.
While many of us are content with using a personal computer to rip video and music to our iPods, there are those who simply can't accept the notion that a computer needs to be involved in that process. The iLoad is a desktop box that allows you to rip DVDs and audio CDs directly to a compatible Apple iPod MP3 player (no iPhone support yet) without having to use your home computer as a middleman. It is a product intended for people who love their iPods but hate using computers. The idea of avoiding a computer may seem like a strange concept to most CNET users, but we all know someone who just can't seem to get onboard with the digital revolution.
If you're reasonably OK with using your computer to rip and transfer your movies and music to your iPod, then there's no incentive for you to spend $300 for this product. The value of a product like iLoad is directly proportional to the user's hatred of computers.
The iLoad looks like a bloated knockoff of a Mac mini. It measures 7 inches wide by 8 inches deep by 3.5 inches tall, and features a slot-loading CD drive on the front, a two-line monochrome LCD screen on the top, and an array of connection ports on the back. The user interface is on the top of the box, surrounding the dimly lit 0.5x2.5-inch screen. The controls are basic (part of the product's whole concept) and include tactile buttons for power and enter, horizontal arrows for scrolling through the iLoad's menu, and vertical arrows that baffled us for quite some time (read the Performance section below).
Looking at the back of the iLoad is like pulling the curtain from the Wizard of Oz. With two USB ports, an Ethernet connection, VGA monitor output, peripheral connections, and audio ports, it looks like the back of a computer. Don't tell Grandma, but the iLoad actually is a computer (albeit a very basic one). Of the 13 connections found on the back of the iLoad, only five of them are actually used by the device. For a product designed for technophobes, the inclusion of eight useless and confusing computer connections runs counter to the iLoad's philosophy.
The iLoad can serve several functions. Its main purpose is to allow users to turn on the device, connect their iPod, insert any CD or DVD, press a few buttons, and rip the content directly to their iPod. The iLoad rips movies to iPod-ready MPEG4 files with a selectable resolution quality of 320x240, 240x180, or 192x144. Music rips to an MP3 file format with a bit-rate quality that can be adjusted from 32kbps through 320kbps (default is 128kbps). The iLoad is also capable of transferring existing files from one iPod to another (although DRM-protected content will be crippled), and can back up or restore your iPod using an external hard drive or flash drive. While these last two features are useful, they also point to one of the weaknesses of the iLoad system--ripping files directly to your iPod leaves you vulnerable to losing your whole digitized music and video collection if you lose your iPod. Ripping media to a computer before moving it to an iPod creates a backup library on your computer that will still be there even if your Nano gets abducted by the family dog. Archiving your music and video collection using iLoad and an external hard drive may give you the same results, but it starts getting complicated. One has to wonder if buying an inexpensive laptop might be a better option.
While the iLoad works as advertised, using an off-the-shelf computer would get the job done just as fast, or faster. A computer would also give you access to album artwork, music videos, lyrics, podcasts, and a whole universe of information. Still, presuming that for some reason a computer is simply not an option (let's also forget for a moment that the iLoad is, in fact, a computer), the iLoad does what it says, with results comparable to what you'd achieve using software.
However, even after suspending our computer-loving sensibilities, there were some frustrations we encountered with the iLoad that are worth mentioning. For starters, there's no clearly labeled Eject button. Let's say Mom puts her John Denver CD into the iLoad, only to suddenly realize that she already has it on her iPod. Naturally, she would look for the Eject button. Try as she might, she likely will not find it. Maybe (like us) she'll try powering the iLoad off and booting it back up (wrong again). To eject a CD or DVD from the iLoad, you will need to press the Down arrow to the right of the screen. The Up arrow will eject your iPod.
Another potential headache is the iLoad's built-in music and movie database, which it uses to match CDs and DVDs with their appropriate title information. While the iLoad uses a database of nearly 2 million entries, it doesn't have everything, and to keep it current you must either connect the iLoad to the Internet using its Ethernet connection or subscribe to periodic database updates that arrive on CD by mail. If you're using the iLoad to rip a collection of oldies but goodies, you should be fine. However, if the CD you're ripping is hot off the charts, or worse, a mix CD given to you by a friend, you'll need to find an Internet connection or make peace with the idea that the songs will display as "Unknown Artist" on your iPod.
If you're considering buying an iLoad specifically as a standalone DVD-ripping machine, there are two main drawbacks to consider: encoding time and video resolution. We used a handful of different DVDs, ranging from Hollywood hits like Gone in 60 Seconds to the Japanese anime series Rahxephon. In every test we ran, the total time it took for the iLoad to rip the DVD and place the encoded video onto the iPod was roughly double the length of the film it was ripping. For instance, it took the iLoad 45 minutes from the time the DVD was inserted to the time the iPod was ejected to rip a 23 minute episode of Rahxephon at a 320x240. Surprisingly, lowering the resolution down to 192x144 did not make the process any faster.
Even if you have all the time in the world, the main reason why the iLoad makes an unsuitable choice for archiving your movie collection is that it only supports a maximum resolution of 320x240. Sure, the iPod's screen only supports a maximum resolution of 320x240, but having the option to rip video to a TV-quality 640x480 resolution would be great for archiving movies to a hard drive. Regardless, the video quality produced by the iLoad, even at low settings, was more than acceptable for the iPod's screen. The iLoad digested every DVD we could throw at it and produced crisp, artifact-free video able to withstand small-screen scrutiny.
Last but not least, we have to mention the iLoad's fan noise. The first thing we noticed when we powered up the iLoad is that the interior fans used to cool the computer put out a constant and unusually loud noise. After using the iLoad for a few weeks, we started to cringe and apologize to those around us before turning it on.
The iLoad concept poses an interesting question: do we need to use our personal computer to mediate the transfer of music and movies to an iPod? I believe there is probably a great solution out there for computerphobic iPod fans, but sneaking a noisy, crippled computer into a lunchbox-size enclosure with a small display is probably not the best idea. Still, it is the only off-the-shelf solution we've seen so far, and despite its flaws, it does work as advertised.