Sunday, October 24, 2004

The joy of a toy

Apple iTunes is the doorway to discovering the joy of an iPod

Many of us have gone through several portable mp3 players as they move up the ladder to market acceptance. As an early adopter I’ve used Rio, iRiver and others and received decent performance at a marginally fair price. At the same time the Apple iPod was in my mind an over-hyped, gold-plated extravagance. It seemed overpriced and out-of-reach to most of us. Plus, who wants to buy music that can only be used on one player. Buy iPod, I thought, and you're stuck because you can’t copy your music back to the computer or another device.

But along the way I began to use iTunes, Apple’s music management software, mainly for the radio streams it had. The station streams connected with ease and played without interruption. The ones I enjoyed were usually commercial-free and, while at work, I could leave it on all day. The next thing I discovered was the iTunes import feature. Simply put in a CD, iTunes searches for the song titles and then awaits your command to “rip” the songs to disc. You are given choice of formats including the universal mp3. No need to rip them to some exclusive format like WMA which will not play on every device. I can make up to 320 kbps files which is more than I need. Apple offers its own AAC format which some reviewers say is better quality than MP3 with smaller files sizes.

To many users, who are experienced with a many of the popular MP3 players, this doesn’t sound like a big deal. I used Winamp for many years and then switched to RealPlayer because I wanted a full-featured system. With iTunes you get a player, importer, radio streamer, music store and device manager, all–in–one. And it handles multiple audio formats.

After using iTunes for about six months I realized its software was intelligent, intuitive and laden with unique features like SmartPlaylists, song group editing and audio file editing. In order to take full advantage of iTunes, especially its music store, I needed to take the plunge and purchase an iPod.

iPods have gone through four iterations in the few years it has been on the market. The latest, called Fourth Generation iPods, have returned to the simple, but vastly improved click-wheel system found on early models. These full-size units, as opposed to the popular mini-iPods, hold either 20 or 40 gigs of files. The price for these units are $299 and $399 respectfully. After doing some analysis the 20-gig unit seemed to be the best value and I plunked down the $300 plus tax for it at the local Apple Store.

The unit comes in a carefully designed package. Apple views the entire customer experience as important. I removed the iPod and the sheets of plastic used to protect it. Holding it in my hand it took on a sense of elegance and preciousness (I know, its just a hard drive with a headphone jack). With its gleaming, pearl-white cover and high-polished base my first inclination was to find something to cover and protect it (the 20-gig version doesn’t come with a case). Already a return trip to the Apple Store had to be planned.

I connected the new iPod to my laptop using the USB cable Apple provides. They also ship a Firewire cable as well for Mac users. My laptop runs high-speed USB 2.0. Immediately iTunes detected the unit and showed me a directory of its contents. As expected nothing was in it so it was time to load it up with tunes.

iTunes gives you the option of either matching the audio files registered on iTunes to the iPod or allowing you to manage the iPod yourself. I choose the latter because of my concerns of loading up the iPod with lots of junk. About a month later I changed direction and now iTunes controls the content of the iPod. The reason was it was hard to manage two systems, one was plenty, and if there was any junk files I could simply weed them off of iTunes. So now my iPod has a exact duplicate set of audio files found on iTunes.

Using the iPod for the first time was fun. The click wheel, like using a touchpad for the first time, took some practice. Maybe the better word would be exploration. The click wheel zips quickly through menu after menu so what I was really doing was taking an inventory of what was already on the iPod. All my audio files were correctly stored and easy to find including all the playlists I created on iTunes. Plus, menus for artists, genres, albums and other categories were also built and ready for use.

There are many more features on the iPod itself including an alarm clock, games, even a contact manager. Recently Apple announced a new tool to store photo files. I’m sure more is on the way.

iTunes is the doorway to discovering the delight of owning the iPod. If you use iTunes now without an iPod and you're feeling restless for the ultimate portable music player, the iPod is worth the coin.

Copyright © 2004 James D. Fisher.
All Rights Reserved.