Getting Rid of iLoad and Wingspan: The Full Story
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2007
When we reviewed Wingspan Partners’ $299 CD-to-iPod ripper iLoad (iLounge rating: C-) last week, we were pretty sure that most of our readers wouldn’t even click on the link: ever since Gizmodo noted in 2005 that iLoad’s inventor, previously convicted of theft and securities fraud, was trying to get a court’s permission to travel to China to “market” the device, people such as us haven’t been quite sure what to make of Wingspan. Some have suggested that the very idea of iLoad is “silly,” given that your computer does all the same things as iLoad, only for free. And we passed when the company wanted us to pre-announce something early last year called “iLoad-c,” a second device the company claimed would download music from Verizon, Sprint/Nextel, Cingular and T-Mobile’s cell phone networks, then save it on an iPod nano. It felt to us like the company was trying to get publicity so that it could raise funds to try and develop its products, and since we prefer to cover only actual news, we held off.
Fast forward to this month—around a year and a half since iLoad was announced. We were sent a unit for review. And, as with all things iPod, we tried to approach the product as objectively as possible, regardless of whatever Wingspan might have going on behind the scenes. We read the instructions, tested it with a variety of iPods, and published the majority of our findings in our review. In quick summary, we said that we didn’t think it was a smart buy, and that we experienced some hiccups during our testing.
After that, all hell broke loose—if you can say such a thing about a YouTube video that fewer than 50 people cared to watch. The full story, an excerpt from which now appears as an update to the iLoad review, can be read at Read More.
Wingspan was unhappy with the review, and contacted us to contest two of our findings, namely:
(1) That we reported experiencing connectivity problems with some of our iPods, including so-called “enhanced fifth-generation” models released by Apple in late 2006. An iLoad representative told us that, “[n]aturally iLoad works with all current iPods and will work with the iPhone,” a claim which is repeated on the company’s web site.
(2) That we reported that iLoad was ripping our test CDs at speeds between 3-5x realtime, versus 6.5x-8x realtime with a two-year old Mac mini computer. iLoad’s PR firm claimed that we “misrepresented” the speed, and hinted that our CDs might be unclean or scratched.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that we can tell you exactly what the issues are with both (1) and (2). (Skip to the boldfaced sections at the bottom of this piece, inserted as an update to the iLoad review, if you want to read them.) They—along with other problems we experienced with iLoad—could have each been the subject of separate articles. But when we publish our reviews, we prefer not to go on for paragraph after paragraph about little oddities we’ve noticed, problems we’ve experienced, or the great times we’ve had using iPods or accessories. Most of the time, we try to make our reviews comprehensive enough to provide key details, without cataloging every little thing we see, and we don’t have time to provide comprehensive bug testing reports to startup iPod accessory companies.
So we responded via e-mail to the company’s PR firm about our connectivity issues and the transfer speeds, noting that we believed our results were accurate, and specifying why. Then, for some reason, possibly to generate additional publicity, Wingspan opted to take the dispute public. That’s when things turned stupid. Wingspan started to spout conspiracy theories about non-Apple USB cables, take our quotes out of context, and even claim that “there is no product called or referred to as an ‘enhanced iPod’.” We felt compelled to respond, and did so, with additional photography and a video (below) showing just one of the 5G iPod connectivity problems we’d experienced. In retrospect, the video could have been four times as long, for reasons noted under section 1 below.
Wingspan said it was going to declare “war.” And we received laughable comments from “iLoad users”—laughable in that one person, for example, wrote three separate comments that varied in tone from “blatant advertisement” to “eBay-style auction testimonial” to “impartial customer.” He posted the “impartial customer” one without realizing that we’d logged his prior advertisements for reference. And so on. We’ve seen this sort of stuff before, called it out as viral marketing/astroturfing, and told companies we’d ban them from the site if they engaged in it. The comments on iLoad were so ridiculous that our moderator didn’t know whether to close them or leave them up for the amusement of our way-smarter-than-that readers.
Our desire was not to see this devolve into a “he said, she said” battle, a fact which we communicated to Wingspan, but the company clearly wanted to continue and drag things out. Its representatives posted inflammatory comment after comment to iLounge, then released a video that showed iLoad connecting to an enhanced 5G iPod (after the company figured out what an enhanced 5G iPod was). So we’re posting a new video of our own, and the following details, to flesh out the remainder of the iLoad story. Take them for whatever you think they’re worth.
(1) What’s the extended version of the issue with newer iPods, iPhones, and iLoad?
For the past year or so, we’ve been told that Apple isn’t supporting unauthorized third-party devices that treat the iPod like a hard drive, reading from and/or writing to its hidden media library folders without using an iTunes-equipped computer. Through firmware updates, hardware redesigns, and of course new product releases, accessories like iLoad are all subject to “breaking” at any time for past, current, and new iPod models. And they may also work differently on various iPods, as is the case with iLoad, though the differences may be subtle.
We knew that we were having problems under certain conditions with iLoad, but because of some issues we didn’t get into in the initial review, it took us some extra time to figure out why. As it turns out, iLoad reacts differently to original (late 2005) 5G iPods and enhanced (late 2006) models. Let’s say that you take iLoad out of the box, follow the directions—running the included Setup CD, which you might guess is setting up the iLoad, not the iPod—and connect it to a 2005-vintage 5G iPod. Bam, iLoad works, just as we mentioned in the initial review. Now let’s say you start fresh with iLoad and no setup CD. Plug in the 2005 iPod, and again, iLoad works—it just doesn’t know how to name your tracks, but it rips CDs.
When we repeated each of the same tests with a late 2006 iPod, iLoad had problems, but for different reasons. Without installing the setup CD first, we couldn’t get iLoad to recognize the enhanced 5G iPods at all, even though this worked just fine with original 5G iPods. Connected to an original 5G iPod, iLoad lets you know that the setup CD wasn’t installed when you go to rip an audio CD, but with an enhanced 5G iPod, it just refuses to connect.
You might ask at this point, “why try iLoad without the setup CD?” The answer’s on page 6 of the iLoad manual. “If you’re already familiar with using an iPod,” it says, “here are the easy steps to using iLoad.” Bad idea: if you skip to these expert instructions, you won’t learn that iLoad will fail to connect to some iPods if the setup CD hasn’t been loaded first. And if you were working under the assumption that the setup CD was needed for iLoad’s benefit rather than the iPod’s, you’ll need to have read a parenthetical reference on another page to get a hint at what’s wrong.
What about with the setup CD? We had mixed results, some positive, some negative. Sometimes, iLoad gave us an iPod not found-style error and refused to read the setup CD—this was the problem we dealt with initially. Several other times, iLoad randomly shut down mid-connection, either hanging while reading the setup CD or losing power altogether. We can’t explain why it hung, but we eventually traced the power problems to a loose power port on iLoad’s back. Even when iLoad was sitting in a stationary position, the power cord sometimes slipped out, a process that completely hung one of our enhanced 5G iPods during the connection process. After 15 minutes of a “Do Not Disconnect” screen and hard drive spinning, the iPod only recovered when we hard reset it. But on another attempt, we were able to get iLoad to work with a freshly formatted enhanced 5G iPod, just as shown in Wingspan’s video.
The bad news is that while the details of what works and what doesn’t are already complex and somewhat confusing, they’re most likely going to change in the future. Beyond the prospect of future firmware and hardware updates that may render iPods even more problematic with iLoad than they already are, there are no guarantees whatsoever that iLoad will work with iPhone. Based on Apple’s avowed distaste for all iPod writing solutions, including prior products such as iLuv’s i182, and past occasional signs of sudden, firmware-related accessory incompatibilities, we wouldn’t bet on it; actually, we’d bet heavily against it.
(2) What’s the story with iLoad’s ripping speeds?
Our review stated that we were seeing transfer speeds through iLoad that ranged from roughly 3x-5x realtime, versus speeds of 6.5x to 8x on a computer. To avoid technical jargon, let’s explain what that means.
If a CD is 60 minutes long, a true 2x CD ripper will have it on your iPod in 30 minutes.
If a CD is 60 minutes long, a true 3x CD ripper will have it on your iPod in 20 minutes.
If a CD is 60 minutes long, a true 5x CD ripper will have it on your iPod in 12 minutes.
If a CD is 60 minutes long, a true 7x CD ripper will have it on your iPod in 8.6 minutes.
If a CD is 60 minutes long, a true 10x CD ripper will have it on your iPod in 6 minutes.
Another way to say this is that a 3-5x CD ripper will keep you sitting around twice as long for the same collection of CDs as a 6-10x CD ripper. So hopefully, a device made just to rip CDs would be really fast—faster than a typical computer—because no one wants to sit around ripping CDs even longer than they would on a computer.
In our tests, iLoad ran at speeds around 3-5x. When Wingspan told us that we were incorrect, we knew we weren’t, and here’s why: iLoad rips at different rates depending on the bitrate you select. We compiled this chart of how the unit did with a 41.8 minute disc, multiple times at the following bitrates:
32kbps: 8 minutes, 9 seconds (5.12x - fastest)
96kbps: 13 minutes, 35 seconds / 13 minutes, 21 seconds (3.13x - slowest)
128kbps: 8 minutes, 13 seconds
192kbps: 8 minutes, 26 seconds
320kbps: 8 minutes, 42 seconds (4.80x)
We also ran the same tests with iTunes-equipped computers and the same disc. We didn’t use the fastest CD drives out there—some PCs have really blazing drives. We just wanted to see how a $299 iLoad compared to free software on our computers. There was no circumstance in which iLoad was faster. It was always slower than our computers, and in the case of 96kbps—a lower-than-CD quality rate some people (not us) might pick to stuff more content on their iPods—iLoad took more than twice as long. On this disc, iTunes was at 6 minutes at 32kbps, 6:03 for 96kbps, and 6:06 for 320kbps, or 7x regardless of bitrate.
But most CDs run for 60 minutes, not 41.8 minutes. So we put together a video showing how a 60-minute disc worked at iLoad’s slowest speed, as well. This disc, Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come, took iLoad 18 minutes and 22 seconds to rip and put on the iPod. By contrast, the same disc took iTunes under 5 minutes, after which we ripped a second 60-minute CD (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium), and still had time left over before iLoad was done with Kingdom Come. Here’s the video in 3 parts: our camera’s 2GB memory card ran out of space waiting for iLoad to finish, and YouTube doesn’t accept a single video that long, so the three natural breaks in the video are shown without editing of any sort.
For those doing the math, iTunes performed this task at around 12x versus around 3.25x for iLoad. Under its best performance scenario with this disc, ripping at 32kbps, iLoad would rip the same disc in roughly 12 minutes—still over twice the time required by iTunes.
Assuming that you’re still awake after all that detail and the videos—neither of which we really wanted to have to go through the trouble of producing—you’ve probably seen that it took about as much text to explain our testing results for just these two issues as it took for the entirety of the original review. While we can’t (and won’t) waste this sort of time for every product we’ve reviewed, we hope that these details provided you with a better understanding of our initial comments regarding iLoad, and what has taken place since then. Regardless of the comments that have since been posted to the iLoad review by “interested parties” (read: viral marketers, iLoad investors, employees, and/or their relatives), we believe strongly that our readers are smart enough to see through all of that, and understand the contours of the facts.
Tomorrow, iLoad gets returned in its original box (shown at the top of this piece in the form received) to Wingspan, and for obvious reasons, it won’t be missed. Based on Wingspan’s desire to turn a simple product review into a public circus, we’re closing the book on this product and this company, so you won’t be seeing more iLoad inventions in our pages any more. Don’t be surprised if we aren’t interested in giving its agents a soapbox in our comments threads, either. We welcome respectful, honest debate and discussion, but at some point, a line is crossed, and our moderators have to step in. That’s happened here, and we’re done with it.
As a final coda to this story, we wanted to expand upon something noted in the original review: for the cost of an $299 iLoad unit plus the $150 hard drive Wingspan’s selling as a way to back up your ripped MP3s, you’re $49 above the prices Best Buy and Circuit City are advertising in today’s newspaper for brand new, complete computers—with hard disks, CD/DVD drives, and monitors all included. Best Buy will sell you a $400 laptop, and Circuit City will sell you a $400 desktop machine, the latter with a 16” monitor, 160GB hard disk, and a DVD/CD burner built in. Of course, if you don’t want to spend $400 or $450, you can just rip CDs with your current computer and free iTunes software; chances are good that it’ll work faster and better than iLoad.
[Note: For the record, Wingspan’s repeated claim that iLounge “refused” to make any deserved correction is completely and patently false. As noted above, we were in the midst of corresponding with the company privately, reiterating our issues, when it decided to make claims such as that one, hence the videos.]
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