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Margin note: iPod review

Margin note: iPod review

By MacFixIt Editor Robert DeLaurentis

Nothing I read beforehand fully prepared me for the experience of using an iPod. I've seen it described as everything from awesome to outstanding: everyone seemed to agree that it was the best MP3 player in existence. MacFixIt has noted the good press heaped upon the iPod several times. However, reading about it is a pale substitute for the real thing. What follows is my personal experience with this delightful little gadget.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture: potentially interesting, but ill-suited to describe the topic. Just as blueprints are the best way to depict a building, listening to the music is the best way to learn about the iPod. Nearly everything you need to know is delivered though the tiny white earbuds. Unfortunately, I can't recreate the sound over the Web, so I'm left with words.

The first thing that I noticed when I held an iPod in my hand is the size. Not only is it small, it is light. It is so unobtrusive that it seemed to disappear in my pocket. I would not have noticed the earbuds in my ears had they not been cranking out Mark Knofler guitar riffs. The "physical interface" of the iPod is practically transparent; it is one of the few gadgets you can wear and nearly forget.

The photographs I've seen so far almost do the iPod a disservice. Not only do they fail to illustrate its relative size and light weight, they also do not convey a clear sense of the exterior fit and finish. The iPod is like an alien device from a science fiction movie. You know the one: it works perfectly when someone picks it up, but no one can figure out how it was built, or what powers it. The iPod gives a vague impression that instead of being assembled, it was carved from a solid block of some future crystalline-metallic material.

I've never used a personal stereo that sounded better to me than an iPod. The sound rivals my trusty full-size Sennheiser headphones and a high-quality amplifier, A subjective opinion? Absolutely. However, I found that the iPod delivers nuance and sublime musical elements that took my breath away. Passages from Copeland’s Rodeo came alive. Carmen McRae took advantage of me, and Dave Koz took me for a drive down a Cuban Highway. In nearly every song I tested, I could detect sounds that had been stripped away by lesser players. I have owned some of the cheapest, most disposable Walkman devices ever shipped out of a knockoff factory. I have also been fortunate enough to use some of the best as well. (The Sony D-10 was one of the first portable CD players, it was as heavy as a brick and skipped when you breathed on it. Nevertheless, it sounded - and still sounds - wonderful.) Simply stated, the iPod has to be heard to be appreciated.

My only one and only iPod complaint is that the earbuds tend to fall out at inconvenient times. Especially when I'm doing something active. It might just be my ears, but I found that playing with the placement can make a big difference. And if I really need to hold on to them, slipping a pair of conventional headphones over my ears will hold the buds firmly in place.

Learning to navigate the iPod's menu structure takes moments. It was certainly inspired by iTunes, but it has a unique character of its own, and like everything else on the iPod, is free of compromise. Its predictable, stable, persistent, and discoverable. It is also fast. I've got 887 songs installed right now, and can find and play any song in less than 10 seconds. (The songs – most of them encoded at 160 kbps – require about 4 GB of space, which leaves plenty of room for a basic Mac OS 9.2 System Folder along with DiskWarrior and Norton Utilities.) The 887 songs add up to over 3 days of playing time, and include the entire unabridged version of “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It is not an exaggeration to claim that you can take your entire music collection with you.

Little touches of engineering brilliance can be found wherever you look. The volume is strong enough to overcome most ambient noise. Adding songs to the iPod via iTunes and FireWire worked flawlessly with my Pismo PowerBook. It is possible to choose which songs are copied to the iPod, so you don't have to transfer them all. When the iPod is being charged from a wall outlet, the animation changes speed to provide a rough approximation of how long before its fully charged.

The big question now is one of durability. How well will the iPod stand up over time and heavy use? I don't know the answer yet, but I expect to have a very enjoyable time finding out.