--SO WHY DID I BUY AN IPOD?--
With as much music as I listen to, and as much time as I spend in front of a computer, most people who know me probably wouldn't expect me to be one of the last holdouts who stuck with lugging a huge CD wallet to and from the car each day and carrying around an antiquated Discman as his preferred options for music on the go. I'm just quirky in that way, I guess - I adapt to new technologies slowly because I tend to grow comfortable with "whatever works" and run it into the ground until it's obsolete enough to work no longer. Then I sort of catch up to technological trends, only to grow comfortable with whatever new thing I happen to buy at the time, and stick with that for several years. So it wasn't until this year, when the old portable CD player finally crapped out on me and I got the hint that my wife was starting to get sick of flipping through my big heavy book of CDs whenever I asked her to play DJ on long road trips, that the thought finally dawned on me, "Hey, maybe I should get an iPod".
Now I'm not really much of an Apple guy - I've sworn up and down never to purchase one of their computers, and I've been slow to warm up to any software they've designed to be PC compatible. (Not that I'm particularly in love with Windows; it's just technological inertia on my part.) So you'd think I'd make the more generic statement: "Hey, maybe I should get an mp3 player." But "iPod" seems to be the first and last word in the discussion of portable music players nowadays, and besides, those folks at Apple are insidious, bundling iTunes with some QuickTime upgrade that I made a few years back, knowing that this would encourage me to check it out and that ultimately, their free music player would win out over WinAmp and whatever else I was using previously. I just couldn't help it - I got sucked in by "the pretty". I liked seeing all of the album art up there on the screen, the smooth way I could scroll through it, and the myriad ways that I could categorize and label the music in my collection. I had invested enough times into making iTunes my personal shrine for all of the music I listened to, that it seemed logical enough to use the portable version of the same interface. iPods were commonplace enough on the market that I figured I could snag one of the more economical models for under $200, so this summer, right before one of the aforementioned long road trips, seemed like as good a time for the upgrade as any. I sprang for one, and within the hour, I was back at my desk, shiny new Green iPod Nano hooked up to the computer (thankfully the USB hookup used to charge and sync music, and the headphones, unlike other accessories that might come in handy, come standard), loading 16 gigs' worth of my favorite mp3s onto the thing (well, actually 15 given the miscellaneous stuff that apparently takes up the other gig), and having fun experimenting with all of the new features. It was a rare geek moment for a guy who usually only geeks out about the technology in someone else's possession. --SO WHAT DOES IT DO?--
The advantages of owning this particular model of iPod should be easily apparent. The ability to load several thousand songs means more music options than I could ever need at my fingertips whenever the mood strikes to listen to something. Its small size (slightly longer and wider than a cigarette lighter, a bit thinner, and not much heavier) makes it easy to store (or conceal) in my pocket, which is not something I'm sure would work as well with the original recipe iPods, and certainly not with those old clunky Discmans. (Discmen
? Whatever.) The ability to manufacture custom playlists and to put the entire collection on shuffle are nice bonuses - I'm normally a "listen to the album straight through" kind of guy, but it's nice to not be limited to the linear track order of a physical CD. And the ability to sync with iTunes (while it creates quite a learning curve if you've never used the application before) is a major
game-changer. I love that it keeps track of what I've listened to and when, updating iTunes with the cumulative play count from both devices whenever I sync it with my computer. I pretty much never use iTunes for video, podcasts, or for storing my photos, but if I did, carting those things around on the iPod would be similarly easy (space issues aside - I didn't spring for the 120 GB full-size model for a reason!) Much of this is old news to long-time iPod users, but for a total noob, I found the setup to be thrillingly intuitive - not quite plug-and-play, but not far from it, either.
Owners of previous generation iPods will note a few interesting features that are apparently new to the 4th generation Nano, thanks to the inclusion of an accelerometer. For those who own, or at least have played with, an iPhone, you'll recognize the iPod's ability to detect a "tilt", which takes you to and from the cover flow, from which you pick an album to play. They've also added "shake to shuffle", a bit of a novelty feature that will cause the iPod to jump to a random song (and remain in shuffle mode thereafter until a sepcific song or album is dliberately chosen from a menu) when it detects the unit being shaken. These bits of functionality inspire "oohs" and "aahs" at first, but they beg the question of whether we're too lazy to simply pick these options from a menu, and they can be all too easily triggered by an unintentional turning or jostling of the iPod, which is quite an annoyance when you're trying to browse a menu to get to something else. (More on that in the "What's Wrong" section below.)
One interesting feature that I haven't played with yet is the "Genius" - a playlist generator ported over from iTunes, which will only work for songs that you've used this feature on in iTunes first. Through some sort of fancy heuristic algorithm, it compares your song data and preferences with other data from the iTunes store, and attempts to choose songs similar to the one you picked to kick off the playlist. I have my skepticism about how well this would actually work - it likely takes your preferences into account if you use the star ratings for songs at all, and there's probably some sort of aggregate data on "people who liked this song also liked this other one", plus considerations about the genre and so forth if you've got that data filled in. But I've got a fairly eclectic music collection, so I'm curious to see how well this actually works. Regardless of how effective of a function it might be (that's more of an issue to consider when reviewing iTunes, I guess), I think it's excellent that they brought it over to the iPod.
And then of course you've got your games, the ability to record and play back your own voice (if you've got a mic that can be plugged into the iPod, anyway), a stopwatch, a calendar, a contact list, and some other features that I'll probably never use, as they aren't music related. Nice bonuses, but they take up space, which irks me a tad - I'd like to be able to pick and choose what I want and download it to the iPod via a software upgrade, rather than have it on my iPod out of the box and not be able to get it off. But 15 gigs is honestly a good amount of free space. I can prioritize. --SO WHAT'S WRONG WITH IT?--
I was quite pleased with my new little green friend as I carried it around over the next few weeks or so. It gave me one less excuse to be lazy and drive to lunch during a typical work day - just put on the headphones and suddenly that boring walk becomes more tolerable! - and it really helped to brighten an otherwise frustrating couple of days of having to use public transit due to the car being in the shop longer than expected. It wasn't until later on that I started to discover some of the Nano's more maddening quirks. They're all things that you can get around with a little bit of ingenuity (or, failing that, if you finally give in and decide to RTFM), but since Apple as a brand seems to pride itself on its intuitive design, I feel that I have to knock off a point for some things that are a little less than intuitive.
The first thing that stymied me was the volume of playback, and the fact that it can only be changed when the iPod is in a certain mode. Since I planned to use the thing in the car a lot, but also knew I'd use it for walking and hopefully other forms of exercise, I switch back and forth between the headphones and the jack that plugs it into my car stereo's auxiliary output quite often. For whatever reason, I don't get nearly as much volume out of the car speakers when the iPod is plugged in (even though it's on a comfortable volume for CDs), so I have to crank the iPod to full blast to avoid having to turn the car stereo way up and risking blowing my windows out in the rare event that I forget to turn it back down before switching back to a CD! Which then means that I forget to set the iPod volume waaaayyyy
down before putting on headphones, and end up blasting my eardrums instead. When a song is playing and you're not
in a menu, the volume is easily changed by running your finger clockwise or counterclockwise around the click wheel, but this feature is also used to navigate menus, while the typical "back" and "forward" buttons you'd see on any media player always
go back or forward a track, instead of moving to the next option in a menu like you'd intuitively expect. So basically I've got to start playing a song before I put the headphones in, pause it, and then lower the volume. I've learned the trick to it, but I shouldn't have to trick my iPod, you know?
My aforementioned complaint about the accelerometer is kind of a biggie, too. It makes sense to me that a full-on 90-degree tilt should be enough to trigger the change from menu or song info view to cover flow, and back again. But I found that navigating cover flow while walking was damn near impossible - it'd pick up every little tilt and keep going to menu and back and then restart me at "A" when it returned to cover flow. Very irritating. Also irritating is the ease with which "shake to shuffle" gets triggered. I think that's actually quite a useful feature, especially when the last track of an album runs out and I'm in the car, and I don't want to either pull over to scroll through menus and pick another album, nor do I want to risk causing a traffic accident by doing it while driving! (I suppose that's technically not illegal, but here in California, after we passed the "No talking on your cell phone without hands-free while driving" law, we actually had to pass a separate law saying "And by the way, no texting either, you idiots!" The dangers of fiddling around with your iPod while driving should be self-evident at this point.) But in all other contexts, it can be quite annoying. Jogging or even brisk walking would be impossible without triggering this feature. Fortunately there's an easy way to disable both "shake to shuffle" and "rotate to cover flow" in the Settings. I've found that turning "rotate to cover flow" off altogether while leaving "shake to shuffle" works best for me - once I pick whatever I want to listen to, I simply use the "lock" switch on the top of the iPod to disable all of the buttons (which also disables the accelerometer). This leaves only one dilemma - I don't want to lock the thing while shuffling, because I want to be able to skip a song easily if I don't like what it picked. I'd have to unlock, skip, re-lock, so I just leave it unlocked in that case and hope I don't hit a speed bump too hard or something. I think a more logical approach would be for "shake to shuffle" to disable itself while you're already in shuffle mode. At that point I can just as easily jump to another random song by using the skip button.
Speaking of shuffle, there's a "Shuffle Albums" option that is somewhat obscure, but you'll find it if you keep clicking the center button while in single song view. The thing is, it doesn't work. It purports to be a version of shuffle that will play an album straight through, and then pick another album for you and play that one straight through. But other than the little "shuffle icon" being lit up on my screen, it behaves the same as normal mode and just stops playback altogether at the end of an album. That's annoying. (It will skip any track marked "Skip while shuffling" in iTunes, though. Which is also non-intuitive if your intent is to play through an entire album.)
I also found a strange anomaly that occurs when two albums have the same name - in my case, unrelated albums both entitled Home
by the Dixie Chicks
and The Corrs
. When selecting one or the other to play, the iPod decided to methodically play track 1 of the Dixie Chicks' album, then The Corrs, then track 2 from each, etc., all the way to the end. I have not yet figured out how to make sure the iPod understands that these are separate albums by different artists, even though the cover flow lists each under the respective artist name, and this has never been a problem in iTunes.
And while it seems silly to complain about the size of the iPod Nano when that's the thing they successfully made into such a selling point, I will say that owning one can feel at times like that project many of us had to do in high school, where we carried around raw eggs and pretended they were our babies. Maybe it's just me, being the paranoid and forgetful person that I am, but I'm constantly checking my pocket to make sure I didn't mistakenly set it down somewhere and then forget to pick it up again, and worrying that I'll accidentally crush it, drop it, get it wet, etc. (Protective cover sold separately. See my "What's the Catch" section.) --SO WHAT'S WITH ITUNES?--
It's ironic that my positive experience with iTunes was one of the big factors that prompted me to buy an iPod, because owning an iPod has actually exposed a lot of my biggest pet peeves with iTunes. It's free software that runs on your operating system, so I honestly wouldn't complain about iTunes here if it wasn't such an integral part of life with an iPod. Apple's expectation is clearly that you will use iTunes to move files to your iPod - you can go without it and use the iPod like any removable drive if you want, but I can't guarantee that all of the information you've tagged each song with, and the album art and so forth will be readable by the iPod. Album art seems to be a bit of a sticking point, actually - I've found that nearly every time I sync files to the iPod after downloading or updating the album art, it shows as the default "two-note" icon on the iPod despite displaying properly in iTunes, so I'll have to replace the album art and sync again to get it to show up. It's an aesthetic issue at best, but especially if I downloaded an album cover from the iTunes store, there's no reason why this feature should be buggy.
One thing I've really enjoyed about the iPod is that whether you're on "linear" play mode or on shuffle, when you turn the iPod off or it turns itself off after being left on pause for long enough, it'll remember exactly
where you where during the playback. That's a feature that's kept me from sitting in my car for a few minutes after parking, waiting for some long Weird Al
song or something to finish so that I wouldn't have to fast-forward back to where I was later on. But re-sync your files from iTunes, and even if the file you paused in the middle of hasn't been removed or changed in any way, it'll forget your position. I can understand not being able to play or access the menus while it's hooked up to your computer and syncing files, but at the very least, can't it hang on to that little bit of data that indicates where you left off? (Then again, have you ever browsed the folder structure on the iPod when it's attached as a removable drive, and seen the random filenames that get created? Yikes.)
If your iPod doesn't have room for your entire music collection from iTunes, picking and choosing what goes to the iPod (to stop it from just grabbing things in random order) can be a bit of a challenge, too. Whenever I put new music into my iTunes library, I like for it to be automatically synced to my iPod the next time I plug it in, without having to remember to dump it into a special playlist. But playlists are the only way I can see to specify what goes onto the iPod and what doesn't. So I've got this cumbersome list set up where I actually use an unused section of the tag data to indicate what tracks should not
be synced to the iPod, and then another
smart playlist that basically says "include everything not in that first playlist". (I've got more than 16 GB of music on my hard drive but less than 32, so it's easier to be exclusive than inclusive). This may not be an issue if your music collection is small enough to fit on your iPod in its entirety, but if not, be prepared to fiddle around in iTunes for a while, or just be happy with whatever it chooses for you.
But these annoyances are all small potatoes compared to the big one - the one that was almost a show-stopper that tempted me to return my iPod until I realized iTunes was the culprit. It's obscure enough that most iPod users may never come across it, but I'll attempt to explain anyway. See, before I went on my big long road trip, I realized that a large number of files that were stored in my iTunes library had been ripped at the very low bitrate of 96 kbps, which is good for saving space, but bad for sound quality. Since these mp3s were all from CDs I owned, I went through the painstaking process of re-ripping them all at 192 kbps, using an application other than iTunes because I'm a bit of a control freak about the way mp3 files are named and where they are stored on my hard drive. I would simply delete the old files, rip the new ones to the same location with the same file names, and just click "Get Info" with them all highlighted in iTunes, watch it pick up that the bitrate of them all had changed, and then re-download the album artwork since that data wasn't included in the newly ripped files. All straightforward stuff, if a bit time-consuming. But then I discovered, after dumping all of these songs onto my iPod and leaving on my trip, that the vast majority of these higher-quality songs would play only halfway through and then suddenly stop. The iPod would act confused for a few seconds and then just skip to the next track. So basically about half the albums in my collection wouldn't play back properly, and here I was, having just put my faith in the iPod as I left all of the actual CDs back at home. (Hell hath no fury like an audiophile scorned, I tell you.) I was eventually able to deduce that the problem was not iPod's fault - it just took what iTunes sent over to it. When I got back home and tried to play some of the same files in iTunes, they had exactly the same problem (despite these mp3's playing just fine in other applications). I eventually found that completely wiping these files from my library and re-importing them fixed the problem, but that wiped out all play count data and personal ratings assigned to the individual songs. So I had to do a lot
of work to get everything back to normal on both iTunes and my iPod. I called Apple to gripe about that one, and I was finally able to get a web address out of them where I could file a bug report for the iTunes developers to see. They'd better have that one fixed in iTunes 9, but in the meantime, I guess I know what not to do!
But despite all those complaints, I've yet to encounter any issues with battery life, the screen getting scratched or otherwise obscured, or the overall structural integrity of the device. They built this sucker to last, from what I've observed so far, and that's a good thing, because if there's one thing I really can't stand, it's when electronic devices crap out on you for no apparent reason.
--SO WHAT'S THE CATCH?--
One important thing to consider if you're in the market for an iPod is that you might think you're just buying a single product, but by the time you figure out all the myriad ways that you might use the iPod, you're shelling out upwards of another hundred bucks on accessories. I certainly wouldn't expect it to come with everything I could possibly need all packaged together, but since I've had to go back looking for an adaptor cable for my car streo, a car charger, a dock so that the darn thing doesn't slide around in the car, and a protective cover, it would be nice if Apple made a few "bundle" options available for folks who knew they wanted to get these things all in one shot. Just be aware that you're likely to be making an investment above and beyond just the raw price of the iPod itself. It's not an astronomically high price, but it's something to factor in if you're on a tighter budget.
What's most baffling in the area of accessories is how an upgrade from the third to fourth generation Nano seems to have left a lot of folks high and dry, with docks that will no longer charge the latest iPod and so forth. So if you're an older generation iPod owner who expects the new one to be 100% backwards compatible, you might want to do some research to find out if you'll render any of your accessories into dead weights by replacing your iPod. This has apparently infuriated a number of people.
Also keep in mind that you can't use the iPod for easy transfer of your entire music collection from one machine to another. While you could technically use it as removable storage to move whatever files you want from one computer to the other, anything that the iPod recognizes as playable music, it will intentionally obscure for you, making it close to impossible to reconstruct a list on the other side if you tried to copy that data off onto another computer. If you have an iPod synced to iTunes on one machine, and you plug it into another machine that has iTunes installed, it will ask you if you want to sync to the new machine. DO NOT DO THIS UNLESS YOU WANT ALL OF THE MUSIC ON YOUR IPOD TO BE ERASED. Copying music to an iPod is a one-way transaction, likely to cover Apple's butt on copyright issues. So you can play that sweet new album for your friends at a party, but you can't give them a copy (unless you decide to get sneaky about it).
--SO WHAT'S MY POINT?--
My point in going on and on about all of the iPod's various features and foibles is to say that it's a remarkably inventive device that still has some inventions left to be thought of. It's worth owning one if you've got a lot of music that you'd like to have available on the go, and 99% of the nitpicks I reported will likely be of little concern to the casual user. Life with an iPod has generally caused more convenience and less hassle for this particular fan of music who practically eats, breathes, and excretes the stuff, so it's been totally worth it for me. But it's a paradigm shift, even from some of the older generation models. So be encouraged if you're thinking about getting one, but be warned that there's a learning curve. (Even if you did