Review: Apple 3G iPod 15GB
Pros: I firmly believe that this is an excellent update from the old version. While Apple did not go out and break new ground with this unit like they did with the first iPod, what they did accomplish is make an excellent portable music player that is easy to use, very stylish and just plain fun. If you are new to iPods, you are in for an absolute treat, as you will quickly fall in love with one and wonder why you never got one in the first place. The iPod is a very well executed product and I give two big thumbs up to Apple for a job well done.
Cons: The only real negative aspect to this product is that it does indeed have quirks that may be annoying to some. So far, I’ve had to reset it several times, because it seem to be locked-up or unresponsive. I’m not sure if this will be addressed in future software releases, but some of the complaints some have had with the unit were very easy to spot and should have been caught by the Apple Quality Assurance department. Another thing to note - The included Windows software is absolutely a disgrace to the Windows community. The included Musicmatch software, is horrible and clunky to use. I can’t wait until Apple releases iTunes for Windows.
Since its introduction in late ‘01, the Apple iPod has been regarded as one of the best HD-based MP3 players. Not surprisingly, it has outsold all other hard drive-based MP3 players despite its higher price tag. Simple user interface, small footprint and fashionable styling made it what it is. When Apple announced the newest generation iPod, I didn’t think they would drastically move away from the basic design. Many felt the button placement on the old one and ergonomics was unbeatable. I would have to agree on that one, as I found operating the old iPod an easy and intuitive function. Once I saw the 3D renderings of the new iPod, I was shocked to see that the button layout had been changed and in favor of placing the four main function buttons across the top of the scroll wheel. I thought this had to be a joke, as the old layout was far superior. Apple likes to surprise us with strange designs, but always placing usability first.
Enter the new iPod which was officially introduced by Steve Jobs on April 28th, 2003. As usual Apple style, the shipment of the product after announcement would be very short. It shipped in just four days.The new iPod was officially sold on May 2nd, but many retailers such as CompUSA sold them a day in advance. This is where I bought mine on May 1st. From what I can tell, the Apple stores stocked many iPods, and there were no shortages to report. I actually picked up a second unit for my girlfriend on May 3rd, and my local Apple store had plenty in stock. It really looks like Apple went all out to make this as easily available as possible. Gone are the long delayed shipment and shortages. This is in my opinion is an excellent execution and a great launch by Apple.
Price wise, Apple actually lowered the MSRP of all the units relative to older models. The new versions come in 10, 15 and 30GB flavors at $299, $399 and $499 respectively. The ‘base’ model 10GB lacks the docking station, case and remote control. By all means, it looks like the 15GB may be the darling of the bunch, offering large storage space, all accessories and a relatively reasonable price tag. I will also note that the 30GB is also a bit heavier and thicker in size compared to the 10 and 15GB offerings. But, the size difference will be hard to discern on such a small unit already. I believe Apple has uniquely positioned itself with pricing. The nearest competitor, the creative nomad Zen, comes in 20GB but at $299. People looking for a portable hard drive-based MP3 player will most likely compare the 20GB Zen with the 10GB iPod based on the same pricing. But if dug deeper, you will find the Zen a much heavier and more difficult device to use. But the fact remains, that Apple and Creative have a product with the same MSRP, and most likely the battle will be fought there. I believe only iPod fanatics will splurge for the 30GB model. I bought the 15GB version, and this review is based on that version.
This new version of the iPod marks the first signifigant update and design change, since the first generation iPods were introduced. The updated list of features is quite impressive. And updating an award winning innovative design such as the first iPod was not an easy task for Apple.
Out of the box experience
I entitled this the, ‘out of the box experience’ because when you open your first iPod, there is no other sensation quite like it. It was very similar to driving my first hi-powered sports car. From the moment you slip in, you know you’re in for a treat. The box is unusually designed, as it is a perfect cube, and the outer cover slips off to reveal the clamshell style package that folds open from the middle. Great care was taken when designing the package as Apple has always been about details, details and more details. After opening the box, you will begin to ‘peel’ off layers of products and begin to notice the little details Apple has used designing and engineering each product. The FireWire cable is not thick and bulky, but rather thin, light and elegant in design. The dock is very heavy, and the whole bottom is made out of non-slipping rubber. The remote looks like a piece of art. Overall, you just get the impression that you get what you paid for. It’s the details that count when looking at the big picture. Interestingly enough, the iPod itself is covered in a plastic wrap that says: ‘Don’t steal music.’ in the front.
Whats in the box (15 and 30GB versions):
- iPod unit
- Docking station
- Wired remote control
- Proprietary FireWire cable that plugs into either the dock or iPod itself
- 6pin to 4pin FireWire adapter
- Software and instruction manual
- Port Covers X 2
- Power Adapter
First impressions and installation
This review will focus on using my iPod 15GB on a Windows PC.I don’t have a Mac, but I would be very interested to try iTunes 4 with AAC encoded song files. Perhaps I will add an addendum to this review later.
When you first plug in the iPod, windows will recognize the unit as an ‘iPod’ but will not be formatted for windows use. To do so, you will need to install the Windows updater software from the CD. For the sake of trying, I actually went through the whole ‘recommended’ install process. What happens is after plugging in the iPod, the windows installer will load the updater to format the iPod for windows use. At this point, you have to run through a lengthy registration process with no option to skip. I thought this was a very tasteless move by Apple. Forcing someone to register before continuing is very rude. At any rate, after the software is done setting the version of your iPod, it will start installing Musicmatch software for loading MP3s. Musicmatch was not developed by Apple, rather it was a widely used application for Windows users and Apple partnered with Musicmatch to provide support for the iPod. For most users, Musicmatch is a very confusing and bloated application to use. I don’t like how Musicmatch took over playing all my MP3 files without my consent. When it comes down to it, Musicmatch will work, but there is far better software for managing your music and syncing MP3s to iPod. I use EphPod, which is a free download you can get at www.ephpod.com. Installation and usage is very easy. EphPod can be used to transfer files, or it can be quite powerful, as you can edit ID3 tags with it as well. In my opinion, EphPod is worlds better than Musicmatch, and best of all, it’s free! There are of course, other options as well, such as Media Center 9, XPlay, etc. I have not used these, but to all that’s interested, you can find discussions about them on the iLounge forums.
A common misconception about the docking station when the new iPod was first announced, was that you had to use it in order for the iPod to transfer music or charge. That is simply not the case. Mostly, the only real difference between the older iPod and the new one, is that on one end of the FireWire cable, you have the standard 6-pin FireWire plug, and on the other end you have a proprietary plug. The proprietary end can be plugged directly into the iPod itself or into the dock. The only real feature the docking station offers, is a LINE OUT port (more on that later) and it acts as a stand for iPod. The new cable is a proprietary design, so you can’t use any off-the-shelf FireWire cable as in the past. First I felt; this was a drawback as I had multiple cables for each use. For example, I had a cable plugged into the charger, and one on the back of my computer. If I wanted to transfer music, I just unplugged it from the charger, and plugged it into the cable that’s plugged into my computer. With the new cable, and since I have only one, I had to unplug the cable whenever I wanted to charge or transfer music. It gets even worse as I occasionally use my iPod to move files from work and home and now, I would have to bring the cable with me. I’m sure one of the first accessories most will purchase will be extra cables. But at $19, it’s not as reasonably priced compared to a standard FireWire cable.
One of the most asked for options was the addition of a line out port. Headphone and audio enthusiasts alike have always wanted a clean, uncluttered output signal to connect to their own amplifiers. A line out will completely bypass the on board headphone amp providing for a much cleaner signal. This in turn will allow you to connect the iPod and use it as a source for a hi-end home amplifier or headphone amplifier. Since I’m actually somewhat of a headphone enthusiast, one of the first tests I did was to test the signal or quality of the line-out using my home-built Meta42 opamp based headphone amp and a pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones. The HD600s has an impedance of 300ohm, making a headphone amp a much needed tool to drive those headphones. Using just the headphone plug of the iPod, the HD600s can be driven, but very poorly. The sound is very thin and weak. While using the new line-out with the headphone amp, the HD600s sounded very good. On my 320Kps lame encoded MP3s, the sound was excellent. When I first listened, I swore I could hear the differences between the MP3s and the original CD.But, I think it may be due to the iPod being a slightly brighter source and revealed a bit more highs or treble than my CD source (Sony D-25S) Overall, I think the LINE OUT is nicely executed and very high quality sound wise. One thing to note, you do not need the FireWire cable plugged into the dock to use it. You can just plug the iPod directly into the cable and move it around to wherever it is needed.
I found the iPod to have excellent sound quality. The onboard headphone amp is plenty powerful to drive most of today’s portable headphones. I tested the iPod with various headphones such as the Etymotic ER-4S and a relatively cheap and inexpensive Koss KSC-35. The Etymotic headphones are very neutral and are somewhat hard to drive for most portable devices. Since I have the ‘S’ version, it is highly recommended by Etymotic for use with an amp. With my previous iPod’s, I had no problem driving the ER-4S headphones with great strength and ear bleeding volumes. The ER-4S headphones match up great with the iPod, as the quality is beyond excellent. The bass on the Etymotic’s will take some getting used to, as you can’t really feel it, but you can hear it. It’s quite the sensation. You will literally have a symphony in your head, and you will completely be cut off from any outside noise. I found this combo excellent for plane travel and general bedroom listening. With both the iPod and the ER-4 headphones, you literally have a world class music system that can fit in the palm of your hands! On the other hand, I also tested the iPod with the highly regarded under $50 headphone that is the Koss KSC-35. I must say, I was completely blown away by this combo. The Koss and iPod seemed to have a special synergy. I use this combo at work, and I couldn’t be happier. This proves to me, that the iPod is a great unit for driving different headphones at different quality levels and price points. The iPod exhibited absolutely no hiss and is dead silent. For the most part, I am very satisfied with the sound quality of the iPod, and I noticed no difference good or bad between the old units and the new ones. Unfortunately the new iPod carries over the EQ settings from the previous one, but is poorly integrated. Occasionally, when using the EQ, I will notice my MP3s will clip or distort. I never noticed this when the EQ settings are off, and I can only attribute this to the EQ algorithms that Apple has implemented. Rather than having a hardware based EQ, they probably use a software based solution that is highly inadequate for most usage.
I’ve never been a big fan of the wired remote, and this new remote is exactly the same as the old one. The only difference is that the plug to the iPod features two plugs; headphone and remote plug. I believe Apple stated that this will make the new remote sturdier to connect. Users reported the tiny contacts on the old iPod headphone port were breaking while trying to make sure the wired remote plug was properly ‘seated’. There have also been some reports that there will be a new recording mic option that uses those two extra prongs as well. In time, we’ll see what exactly Apple has in store for us.
The power adapter is also exactly the same as the old models and is interchangeable. I used my old power adapter (for charging in a wall outlet) with the new iPod and it worked without problems. I’m glad to know that Apple did not change the things that were functionally perfect.
UI = User Interface
One of the best features and selling point of the older iPod was its GUI, or graphical user interface. It was very well designed and easily enough to use but powerful enough to satisfy all the techies. It was truly one of those designs that were absolutely easy and intuitive to learn, and doing anything requires very few button presses. The new iPods use iPod Software version 2.0. Those of us familiar with the old version will be immediately at ease with the new version. The first things I noticed is that you can now customize the ‘Main Menu’. What that means is that if you don’t want a certain option or feature to appear on the ‘Main Menu’ screen, you can turn it ‘Off’ or ‘On’. For example, don’t like the calendar and game functions? Just select ‘Off’ in ‘Settings’ > ‘Main Menu’.
We now have an ‘On-The-Go’ playlist. You can create a playlist within the iPod. It’s very easy to use. While playing a song, browse to whatever song or playlist you wish, hold the center button, you’ll see a quick flash highlighting the item, and now the song or playlist has been added to your ‘On-The-Go’ playlist. You can access this playlist by browsing playlists again and select the on the go playlist. It’s really easy to use and a much needed addition to the iPod.
Among the numerous additions, Apple provided two new games; solitaire and parachute. It was in no way a selling point for me. What I want from an MP3 player is the ability to play MP3s well and with no fuss or hassle. I know Apple tried to be true to this first and foremost, but the games are a nicely added touch.
Old vs. New
While the old iPod was in no way outdated, there were little quirks that most didn’t like but lived with. When doing a direct comparison between the old and new you can see that Apple addressed some of the quirks and finally fixed or updated them. On the old iPod, when you manually shut down or put the unit to ‘sleep’, the next time you turned it on, it would forget the last song where you left off. With the new iPod, it will return to the exact song that you left with.
Although the unit itself and the UI are different from old vs. new, there were things that were not improved. Much has been discussed about the reduced battery life, and although I have not done any long term testing, I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I’ve rarely been away from my power adapter long enough to drain the battery, but I can see why others may have this concern.
The new iPod is much thinner and sleeker than the old model. I never thought the old design was obsolete, but when doing a direct comparison, the new design looks just that much better. Of course, this is subjective, but if you place an old iPod and new iPod side by side I’m sure you’ll agree.
The old iPod’s headphone port had a small white collar with tiny contacts for use with the wired remote. The new headphone port is now embedded into the unit along with a new, separate port for using the wired remote’s combo plug. The remote’s combo plug and new ports provide a secure connection and minimizes the chances for breakage.
The back of the unit is the same exact polished metal as the old iPod, and is still very prone to scratches and fingerprints. The front cover of the unit is made of Lucite, as are old model iPods.
The touchbuttons on the new models are questionable as well. Although I found it suitable, I’d rather have mechanical buttons. But, it does allow Apple to design a thinner iPod, without any moving parts. Often I pressed the touchbutton and it did nothing. Time will tell whether this will become annoying. The touchbuttons are backlit in an unusual orange/red. The touchwheel is smaller in diameter, and smooth to the touch.
The LCD has been upgraded with ‘higher resolution’. From what I can tell when doing a direct comparison, the new LCD offers more pixels so the resolution is a bit higher. The new bluish tint backlight is a welcome addition as well. It looks absolutely mesmerizing when operating the new iPod in complete darkness. Overall, the new iPod offers unparalleled styling that is unique, fun and fully functional.
I think, the new iPod is a worthy upgrade to the excellent older iPod. For people new to iPods, skip the older one and go straight for the new one. Although you may not notice all the little improvements of the older one, what you will get is a cleverly designed unit that does an excellent job for what it is: An MP3 player like no other.