Review: ETCHamac iPod Etching Service
Pros: A service offering safe post-purchase laser engraving or marking for virtually any iPod. The engravings are detailed and highly permanent, and the company’s staff is flexible with artwork choice. Several ancillary services are offered at reasonable prices.
Cons: Even without shipping costs included for either direction, the service is expensive. Alignment of our sample graphic was a bit too high.
As we’ve seen over the past four years, there are many ways to decorate and customize an iPod. While cases and stickers have always been the most popular options, the more permanent engraving option - also called “etching” - has become increasingly common over time. Other than Apple’s free laser text engraving service, perhaps the most prominent etching service available to iPod owners is ETCHamac, a service provider owned and operated by Phoenix, Arizona-based MacMedia, Inc.
ETCHamac offers a variety of etching services and related add-ons. There are two distinct etching processes for the iPod mini, each with a different look. For the first option, a conventional “etching” (a metal removal process) is conducted with a safe, low power CO2 laser, giving the engraved image a white color similar to that of Apple’s own engravings. The second option, pictured below, is an additive process called “marking” that results in a matte black color. Although marking is essentially precision drawing rather than engraving, we tended to prefer its look: you can view it more easily from multiple angles.
Full-sized iPods and the iPod nano are only able to use the marking process, due to the capabilities of ETCHamac’s low-power laser. Thankfully, the marking doesn’t rub off; it is most definitely permanent. In testing samples given to us by ETCHamac, we found that only very strong, deliberate metal-on-metal scraping can begin to mar the black design, and even this still fails to remove it entirely. (It’s worth a brief additional note that ETCHamac can perform a foil-application process on the iPod shuffle’s plastic surfaces, rather than etching or marking.)
To begin etching, you need to use the company’s online form to send ETCHamac a graphic in one of two formats. A vector-format graphic is preferred, with EPS as the best file type. But bitmaps (standard pieces of art edited in Photoshop or other programs) can be used as well, provided they have a resolution of at least 300 dpi. Prices for the etching procedure vary between $20 and $50 according to three factors: the type of iPod to be etched, whether it’s purchased new from ETCHamac or mailed in, and whether the material to be engraved has images, text, or both. The complete table of prices is available on ETCHamac’s website.
Although they aren’t mentioned on ETCHamac’s website, the company also offers additional services for iPod etching customers. For example, you can request that an InvisibleShield (iLounge rating: B+) be applied immediately after the process is complete, to protect the artwork. This service costs $10, only half the retail price of the InvisibleShield itself. Also, ETCHamac can perform a scratch removal process prior to etching, also for a $10 fee.
Because one of our editors lives near ETCHamac’s Peoria office, we opted to obtain our etching in person. As such, we didn’t test two parts of the company’s service: turn-around time and shipping costs. Clearly, most readers will need to ship their iPod to ETCHamac; unfortunately, the shipping costs for both directions of travel are the customer’s responsibility, and not included in ETCHamac’s quoted price. Turn-around time is quoted by ETCHamac to be between one and three business days.
How did our etching look in person? We were a bit on the fence, but mostly pleased. Our logo was sized well, and the engraving itself looks great: the contoured edges of the logo and text are only very slightly grainy when viewed from a very close distance. Otherwise, they look extremely smooth. However, we were immediately unhappy with the engraving’s placement on the iPod’s back. To our eyes (and best shown in the photos below), the engraving is a few millimeters too high on the iPod, with the logo’s top meeting and even spilling slightly over the beginning of the iPod’s contoured top.
From the samples we’ve seen at ETCHamac’s offices, awkward placement isn’t at all typical, but we’re still not as happy as we could have been. In our view, there should have been a way to specify position (lower) and size (smaller) in advance to avoid disappointment with the final result.
Value and Conclusions
Value is a difficult issue for purely decorative services such as these. Apple offers text-only engraving on new iPods for free - a service ETCHamac will perform on any full-sized iPod you bring them for $30, or any iPod you purchase from them for $20. But ETCHamac has virtually no national competitors for full-graphic iPod-specific engraving services. Is the price they ask reasonable?
Let’s consider a typical ETCHamac customer, who already owns a full-sized iPod and wants to add an image to its back side. Etching a small image onto your existing full-sized iPod costs $50 - the same price as a 3” x 3” engraving on a PowerBook. After shipping in both directions, the cost to this user is approaching $70, without scratch removal or a protective covering. Whether or not the company’s target market is “high-end” users, the total cost is on the high side of what we’d be willing to pay, especially considering the misalignment of our logo. (Editor’s Note: ETCHamac offers large quantity discounts and special services for corporate giveaways and promotions; our comments are based only upon individual-user pricing and services.)
Taking all factors into consideration - the positive visual quality and permanence of the ETCHamac solution, as well as the overall price and imperfection of our sample - we offer our standard recommendation for ETCHamac’s service. Our feeling is that readers who see this review will be highly likely to obtain proper graphic alignment, but price remains a barrier. Those who are willing to pay the premium to have their favorite complex image professionally etched or marked are likely to be pleased by the quality of the final product.