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Ten-Foot Experience, Two-Inch Screens?

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Friday, March 3, 2006
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I’ll blame the Reality Distortion Field. You know, Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ vaunted ability to sell something so convincingly that a person needs some time for the effect to wear off and objectivity to return. Perhaps it doesn’t work as well when you’re watching keynote video over the Internet, but when you’re in the room listening to him, something about the man’s aura just makes you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even when he’s talking about providing a ten-foot listening experience (read: iPod Hi-Fi) for audio devices with two-inch (well, 2.5-inch and 1.5-inch) screens.

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Everyone knows that Apple is the king of user-friendly, often revolutionary interfaces. The original Macintosh, the iPod, Newton, OS X, iPhoto, iTunes - the list goes on and on. By tradition, Apple products are easy on the eyes, simple to interact with, and actually fun to use. They dispense with unnecessary clutter and make important features quickly accessible.

Though I didn’t get into it in our review, that’s part of the reason iPod Hi-Fi seems so glaringly incomplete. Once your iPod’s in the dock, its best features become inaccessible from a distance; Apple’s frequently brilliant minimalism strips away the famous features of its interface. At a distance, your Gigabyte-plus jukebox literally becomes little more than an iPod shuffle, as you’re frequently reminded by the six-button Apple Remote. No matter how simple and easy the control scheme may be, it just doesn’t feel right, or really iPod-like. In essence, your ten-foot listening options are basically “shuffle,” “squint,” or “stand up, walk over, and use the iPod itself.”

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As this suggests, there are times when Apple’s penchant for simplification can go too far. Consider the beautiful glass elevator in Apple’s Ginza, Japan store. There are no floor selection buttons, only lighted numbers. The elevator stops at each floor for a few seconds, then moves on to the next. Sure, that’s easy. But do you really want to step through every floor when you just need to go to the building’s fifth or sixth floor? Next to the iPod’s Click Wheel, stepping through songs with the Apple Remote’s track forward button has similarly little appeal; it’s tolerable, not preferable, to full control.

It’s true that couple of other companies have released iPod speakers that could be placed at the other end of the room, and they haven’t addressed this issue, either. But Apple’s different - after the nano and 5G iPods (say nothing of most of their predecessors), we’ve come to expect “impossible” levels of brilliance and innovation with every new release, guidance to the rest of the industry as to how things should be done. Adding a second, larger LCD screen to the front of iPod Hi-Fi might have qualified as impossible given Apple’s profit margins. But adding a video-out port to Hi-Fi, plus on-TV menuing firmware for the iPod? Or wireless access to your iTunes music library? Either solution would have been reasonable, and more than enough to blow away most people.

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Ultimately, the ten- or ten-plus-foot iPod listening experience should be better than we’ve come to expect from single-disc CD players and stereos over the last two decades. It should embrace, rather than hide, the key features that distinguish iPods from their predecessors: LCD screens with easy access to your choice of hundreds of songs. Thankfully, iPod display remotes already in the works now guarantee that this will happen in some way during 2006, but will they do well enough to moot the need for an alternate Apple solution? Keep your fingers crossed.

[Incidentally, as a final note on iPod Hi-Fi: the mark of a really great iPod or accessory is that we fight over who’s going to keep it around when we’re done reviewing it. Everything else goes into our storage facility. Despite its price and high-volume performance, Dennis and I both passed on keeping Hi-Fi in our homes, so it’s going into storage - one of very few Apple-branded accessories to do so. I’m as surprised as anyone about this.]

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Comments

1

I’ll be happy to take care of that Hi-Fi for you guys!

Posted by Shahid on March 3, 2006 at 4:35 PM (PDT)

2

Putting a click wheel on a remote would be awesome!

Posted by Xenious on March 3, 2006 at 5:04 PM (PDT)

3

So am I correct in understanding that you can navigate the menus with the remote?  Will there be firmware released so you can do this with the universal dock?

Posted by crazybrit4967 on March 3, 2006 at 6:29 PM (PDT)

4

I’ve got a perfect storage spot for you guys.  I’ll provide it free of charge too!  Just send me an email and we’ll coordinate!

Posted by Matt on March 3, 2006 at 7:09 PM (PDT)

5

Jeremy,

thanks for this. Having been to a many a keynote myself I can attest to this affect myself. At first it is the home stereo reinvented. And when you get home it is a speaker from your basement with a hole hacked into the side of it for an iPod.

I do find it dismaying that Apple would make such a big deal out of this metoo product, particularly when there are companies like Sonos out there who have been runing circles around them for well over a year.

What is interesting is that truthfully the stealth home stereo redefined announcement was the Mac mini.

Posted by Hadley Stern on March 3, 2006 at 11:11 PM (PDT)

6

Agree that something is missing.  But can’t you connect the iPod Hi-Fi to the mac mini (or any Mac/PC running iTunes or Front Row), or to a Mac/PC via an Airport Express?

The point is that the iPod Hi-Fi does not have a digital processor to decode Fairplay or the Airport Express Apple Lossless encryption. It needs an iPod or Mac/PC to do the Fairplay, or Airport Express to do the encryption.

We’ll just have to wait and see where Apple takes the Airport Express AirTunes in the future.

Posted by mark on March 4, 2006 at 12:06 PM (PDT)

7

Crazybrit: No menu navigation with the remote.

Hadley: It seems like a frontal challenge to Bose. We’ll have to see how it works out for Apple - the profit margins on speakers are traditionally huge, so even if they don’t sell many, they’ll make a lot of money.

Mark: Remember that something as cheap as the iPod shuffle can decode Fairplay; nano can do Apple Lossless, and the memory chips continue to be a bigger expense in these (inexpensive) products than the processors. And there are already more chips in Apple’s docking accessories than most people realize…

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 5, 2006 at 9:07 PM (PDT)

8

I think a lot of people are missing the point.  I am not here to defend Apple by any means but I think Apple would like to simplify Home stereo equipment by reducing wire, buttons and other things that might be distraction from just playing regular music.  Same as they have always been, with their other product such as iTunes, Powerbook, iPod and other things.

Posted by Oliver on March 6, 2006 at 10:07 PM (PDT)

9

Jeremy: no menu navigation with the remote? Then why is there a “Menu” button on it?

Of course, even if you could navigate the menus with the remote, without some way to see what the menus are doing, it’s useless.

Posted by Dan on March 7, 2006 at 2:49 PM (PDT)

10

The remote is the same one Apple packages with its Front Row-ready computers, and the “Menu” button - at least for now - does nothing more with Hi-Fi than flip between audio sources (see the review for more details). On Macs, it goes back a level in menus, like the iPod’s Menu button.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 7, 2006 at 2:52 PM (PDT)

11

People forget the simplicity of an apple remote from day one. The first remote they added to an ipod was simple, fast forward, rewind, play/pause and vol up and down. That’s all you need to do when you’ve picked your playlist and are on the go. Do you want to be staring down at a one line bar of text and trying to figure out what that means while you might as well take the ipod out of your pocket and use the clickwheel.

Or in the homestereo situation. You have it hooked up to your home stereo, you walk away. You can stop your stereo, you can skip a song that’s boring you, or you can turn the volume down if someone calls. Why on earth would you want to go back up in the menu system? Do you have hawkeye vision and can see the 2.5 inch ipod screen from 10 feet away? Are you superman?

Now maybe one day, they’ll build some sort of front row like capability into a video ipod so you can use it to navigate the ipod’s menu being projected onto a TV screen, but until that happens people have got to stop treating the menu button as a feature that Apple is promising you. No where in the manual does it say you can push menu and go search for your playlists.

People forget what playlists are for.

Posted by someguy on March 8, 2006 at 4:54 PM (PDT)

12

someguy makes a valid point, which reminds me of Walt Mossberg’s negative review of Apple’s Airport Express—he criticized it for lacking a remote with which you could navigate through iTunes.

As someguy noted, if you carefully create your playlists, you only need a remote (such as an Airclick USB) with volume, pause, play, next, previous, fast forward, rewind. For example, if you’re having friends over, you’d create a 5 hour mellow playlist and just let it play out, perhaps adjusting volume with your Airclick.

Here’s the problem—in my experience, many people don’t use playlists. Even my very well educated friends (JDs, MBAs, etc.) don’t use playlists. Instead, they just use the built-in Artists, Albums, Genre, Shuffle, Purchased Music, etc. lists. Walt Mossberg probably had these people in mind when he criticized the Airport Express.

That said, I don’t think Apple could have hit the $129 price point if it included a remote with a screen. Ditto for the $349 iPod Hi-Fi. After all, look at the price of the Sonos system—the remote alone sells for $399.

Posted by Rockr on March 10, 2006 at 10:54 AM (PDT)

13

I suggest a raffle - a dollar a ticket anything you raise over 350 goes to charity. It’d make a great press release!

Posted by pilotmedic on March 12, 2006 at 5:56 AM (PDT)

14

>Here’s the problem—in my experience, many
>people don’t use playlists.

So why doesn’t the ipod default to shuffle when you turn it on or when it is finished synching so you can start using the remote as a shuffle accessory? Dumb, Apple.

Posted by ilounge@bitmead.com on March 16, 2006 at 9:48 PM (PDT)

15

Settings > Shuffle > ON

Done. Dumb, you.

Posted by someguy on March 16, 2006 at 11:38 PM (PDT)

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