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Tech 101 | Mac Focus

Innovation Pulsatesin iPod

November 01, 2001|JIM HEID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last week, Apple introduced the MP3 player for the rich of us. At $399, the new iPod portable music player is more than twice as expensive as most MP3 portables. On one online discussion board, a disappointed fan theorized that iPod is an acronym for "idiots price our devices."

But the iPod isn't just another MP3 player, and although it may not be the "breakthrough digital device" that Apple was promising in its pre-announcement hype, it does combine several innovations into a small, albeit pricey, package.

That package is a beauty--imagine a deck of cards clad in stainless steel. On the front, a backlighted screen shows song and artist information; at 2 inches diagonally, it's larger than the screens on most MP3 portables.

Below the screen is a set of buttons that illustrate how Apple's interface-design skills go beyond software. The contraption looks a bit like the front of a loudspeaker: a round button sits in the bull's-eye position, a large wheel surrounds it and several smaller buttons ring its outer edge.

The large wheel is the star attraction--it doubles as a volume control and as a method of scrolling through lists of songs and menu options. These tasks are cumbersome on most MP3 players, requiring you to grapple with buttons that are often the size of Tic Tacs. With the iPod cradled in your palm, you can rotate the wheel with your thumb--much as a gambler might caress the front of a silver dollar before dropping it into a slot machine.

Its exterior is unique, but the iPod's innards are what set it apart from the pack. Most MP3 portables rely exclusively on flash memory to store your music.

Flash memory, which retains its contents even when the power is off, is ideal for portable music players and digital cameras, but it can't compete with a hard drive's capacity.

The iPod contains a tiny hard drive that stores 5 gigabytes. This translates into a capacity of about 1,000 songs, many times that of conventional MP3 players.

The iPod also contains 32 megabytes of memory that hold about 20 minutes of audio. When you play a song, the iPod loads it from its hard drive into its memory and plays it from there. Apple says this makes the iPod immune to playback interruptions caused by jostling.

Innovation No. 3: The iPod connects to the Mac's FireWire jack, not to the Universal Serial Bus ports that other MP3 portables use. FireWire is far faster than USB connections, so songs take less time to transfer. (I'll have specifics on this next week, after I've tested a pre-production unit.)

The iPod also can double as a portable hard drive that enables you to shuttle documents between home and office. Portable FireWire hard drives are commonplace and store far more than the iPod's 5 GB. But they can't play MP3 tracks.

Hard drives use more power than memory chips, but Apple says the iPod's built-in battery can deliver 10 hours of playing time between recharges. Part of the iPod's long-playing talents come from the battery: Its lithium-polymer design packs a lot of power into a small package. The iPod squeezes more juice out of the battery by spinning down its hard drive after music is loaded into the device's memory.

One of the most innovative aspects of the iPod has nothing to do with the device itself but with the software it talks to: Apple's iTunes2, which will be a free download available in about a week. The new iTunes works intimately with the iPod, synchronizing your music library between the Mac and the player. More about the iPod-iTunes connection next week.

Is the iPod a breakthrough digital device? Maybe. Is it a superbly engineered portable music player? Definitely. Will it help fuel Apple's holiday sales when it ships Nov. 10? Quite possibly--but the fuel would burn hotter if the iPod weren't so pricey.

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Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine. He can be reached at jim@jimheid.com.

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