Hail the New Brick

“The war is over. We lost.” So said Laura Roslin in the pilot for the new Battlestar Galactica, as she tried to convince Commander Adama that discretion was the better part of valor, or at least survival.

The same might be said of the digital audio wars. I have pretty much limitless respect for the folks at Xiphophorous; I think that Ogg Vorbis is a textbook example of how a media format should be designed and implemented for the public good. Unfortunately, a solid file format alone does not guarantee victory in the marketplace, and it’s pretty clear at this point that Apple, with the iPod and iTunes music store, has won dominance over the digital-music hill through a combination of first-class product design and spot-on execution.

Having grown increasingly frstrated with the design flaws of my trusty iHP-120, and seeing that at least one artist I care about is now releasing iTunes exclusives, I decided that the time had come to take the plunge. So I followed my friend Greg’s lead and picked up the current top-of-the-line, 60-gigabyte, color-display iPod.

My initial impression: “Wow, this thing is everything it’s cracked up to be.”

To elaborate a bit: the device’s superficial appearance is minimalist and elegant, but that’s the least of it. Clean, refined design goes all the way to the core of the thing, from the intuitive controls to the user interface — and that doesn’t even begin to touch upon its seamless integration with iTunes.

Pros:

  • It powers up instantly. (Failure to do so was one of my biggest gripes about the iHP-120, which seemed to spend half a minute or so spinning up.)
  • Music is organized intelligently and intuitively. (The iHP-120 hewed strictly to the organization of underlying filesystem.)
  • The iPod doesn’t suffer amnesia every time it talks to the mothership, but remembers exactly where it was and what it was doing before it was plugged into a host computer. (The iHP-120 would revert to the same song after being detached.)
  • The scrollwheel — more a scrollpad, really, since it uses a solid-state touch-sensitive surface — is the way every portable player should implement its interface. (Yes, I’m aware that Apple probably has the thing patented out the wazoo. That does, unfortunately, not change the facts. The iHP-120’s stubby little joystick got maddening after a while.)
  • Apple’s designers devised the dock connector on the bottom of the iPod to handle everything: power, data, and a copy of the analog audio signal. Once upon a time I might have dinged them for using a proprietary connector instead of a series of standard ones, but that was before I grew tired of plugging multiple cables into different parts of the iHP-120 on a daily basis.
  • The iPod is able to sense when something is plugged into, or unplugged from, the headphone jack. It starts up in the former instance, and pauses in the latter. (This almost seems like frippery until you consider that I ran the battery on the iHP-120 down more than once by unplugging it and then forgetting to stop it.)

Cons:

  • iTunes, on Windows at least, seems to have some kind of seizure when you first plug the iPod into the USB port. It spends a few seconds thinking about something to the exclusion of all user input before proceeding with business as usual. Annoying, but tolerable.
  • iTunes appears to want its affiliation with a given iPod to be exclusive. In other words, if you’re in the habit of plugging your iPod into machine A, you should always plug it into machine A — plug it into machine B and the first thing the latter will offer to do is wipe the iPod clean of your music and playlists. This wouldn’t be so irritating if Palm hadn’t solved this problem a decade ago, but again, it’s tolerable.

    To be honest, I haven’t investigated this aggressively — since I have a laptop now, and carry it with me everywhere, I’ve just made that the sync machine and don’t mind. I could see this getting on my nerves in a serious way, though, if I wanted to keep music collections synchronized between a work and home desktop.

Looking at the above list, it would seem that all of my complaints are with iTunes, rather than the iPod itself. Even that’s not really an accurate picture, since there’s more about iTunes to like than dislike. Its mechanics for assembling and managing playlists, for example, are everything WinAmp’s aren’t, despite Nullsoft’s having a half-decade head start in which to get it at least approximately right. You just drag and drop to your heart’s content, and never see a playlist you spent days carefully tweaking obliterated because you accidentally chose to “Play” rather than “Enqueue” some random file. I’d praise iTunes’ mechanism for syncing those playlists down to the iPod, but it almost feels like there’s nothing to praise: as with the music itself, it Just Happens.

And then there’s the iTunes Music Store. I think that this one gets counted as a “Pro”, but I won’t be sure until I have a chance to see how much damage I do the bank account with music purchases over the next few months. iTMS is simultaneously the most gratifying and terrifying e-commerce experience I’ve ever had in my life. Gratifying, because the interval between thinking “I’d like that song” and actually having it in your posession is measured in terms of a single mouse click and a matter of seconds. Terrifying, because the whole thing is so unbelievably streamlined that you could very easily lose sight of the fact that you’re spending real money every time you click “Buy”.

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