'eLLO iPod

Thanks to a generous loan from Apple Computer, I've been playing with an iPod since yesterday morning. It comes in a fascinating cube-shaped box that not only firmly protects the iPod with inches of foam, but splits in half in the middle to reveal components on on side and the iPod on the other - reminiscent of McDonald's failed McDLT. (There's a tape drive format known as DLT, but I'm not making the MacDLT joke here.)

It's a nifty toy with all the features Apple claimed for it. It's not entirely silent, but it's not far off. You can hear the tiny hard drive whirr from time to time. The interface takes 20 to 60 seconds to learn based on my experience in showing it to four computer-oriented folks in my office.

Some early praise: it really does take just a few seconds to transfer a 160 kbps stereo encoded MP3 album. My initial attempts with my G4 Cube were oddly slow, but testing it with an iMac and a Titanium iBook revealed the true speed. The integration with iTunes 2 is optimal, making it seamless to manage lists.

Some displeasure: My girlfriend is deaf in her right ear, and there is no balance control, not to mention no equalization or other features. I expect these will show up in firmware upgrades, as most of this has to do with controlling an addressable DSP and processor, not in the hardware design. (The number of firmware upgrades will be interesting).

I managed to crash the unit already by stupidly plugging in the extra-long iBook A/V plug. The dual-USB iBook has video and stereo audio out through a single micro-RCA connector. If you plug a regular stereo plug in, you get audio. If you plug the special cable in (about $15 extra), it's got an extra centimeter or so to it that sucks the video off the end. This doesn't interface well with the iPod. Fortunately, the iPod has some kind of automated recovery circuitry because after a while of acting slow and funky, it rebooted itself and acts normal. That's insanely impressive.

(I've often through that Macs should come equipped with a micro-boot kernel in firmware. If the machine was really hosed, the machine would have some extra monitoring circuitry that would reboot it into this mode, run the latest firmware updated version of Apple Disk Tools or other recovery software, and attempt to fix problems and run diagnostics. If that failed, it would enabled simple Ethernet (DHCP-based), AirPort (DHCP-based), or a simple internal modem configuration to dial into an Apple automated help desk.)

Another small complaint: random shuffle play seems to be an overall setting across all songs on the device.

I'm about to take a short trip in a car (about 10 to 12 hours of driving over a couple days), and I'll see how it functions as a road warrior tool. Apple has strangely not promoted this as a portable auto audio device. They could release a translucent white cassette tape with the stereo plug as another design item.

The synchronization features, by the way, are highly interesting. You can sync your whole collection, which won't work for my 25 Gb of MP3s (all ripped from legal albums, by the way). With 5 Gb on the iPod you have to be somewhat selective, even though it will fit 1,000 160 kbps encoded songs. You can create playlists and automatically sync those, too. Or, you can manually synchronize. If you choose that last option, this means that you can use the iPod with many machines. You can also overcome what was advertised as a deficiency: you can copy songs from the iPod back to a computer, even one the song didn't come from. But you can't synchronize both directions automatically.