Review: Wingspan Partners iLoad - Copy CDs to iPod Without a Computer
Pros: A standalone device capable of converting CDs into iPod-ready MP3 files, tagged with album, artist, and genre information, without requiring you to use your computer. Rips discs at 3-5 times original run times, drops files right onto your iPod. Software and database upgrades will be offered to update its features and song database.
Cons: Runs louder, slower, and with less additional file detail (album art) or format support than low-end computer running free iTunes software; has out-of-box compatibility problems with current iPods and certain prior models*. In addition to 30-second boot process, must re-install software every time you connect a new iPod if you want to tag files. Unlike iTunes, offers no direct-to-DVD backup burning solution for ripped music; must use separate software or buy and attach an external USB hard disk to this device. High price for limited functionality.
Updated: We’ve added new sections (and unfortunately boring videos) to our review explaining in greater detail our prior test results, incorporating some of the information found in our Backstage article on iLoad. Portions of the original review affected by the updated text are indicated with asterisks (*).
If you believe the statistics, roughly 97% of the music on the average iPod comes from CDs rather than the iTunes Store, so unless you’ve pirated all of your music, you’re probably familiar with ripping CDs. Thankfully, the CD ripping technology built into Apple’s free iTunes software for Macs and PCs works very well: even if you don’t adjust any settings, iTunes can now transform your music into great-sounding MP3 files with a single button press after inserting a CD, properly identifying its songs, adding album art, and leaving it in your iTunes library for transfer to any compatible device you may have.
Are there other options? We’ve previously reviewed a number of professional CD ripping services, which for roughly $1 per CD will transform your discs into MP3 files and back them up on data DVDs. Now there’s iLoad ($299), an hardware alternative Wingspan Investment Partners began to develop back in 2005. Housed in a white plastic shell, the CD drive-laden iLoad was designed to handle the entire ripping, identifying, and iPod transferring process without requiring you to use your computer. All you need is an iPod, its USB cable, a wall outlet, and a pile of CDs; iLoad does the rest.
As easy as iTunes is, iLoad arguably has a couple of advantages if you have a huge CD collection: you can avoid wearing out the DVD/CD drive on your PC or Mac, and even at this price, you might pay less in total than it would cost to ship all of your CDs out to a professional CD ripper. But it also has a number of serious disadvantages. It’s significantly slower and noisier than ripping using a decent computer, has compatibility issues* even with current iPods, and requires you to spend extra cash to secure something you’ll most certainly need: a backup of your ripped music. For these reasons, it’s not a product we’d widely recommend to our readers, but as a first-of-its-kind accessory for iPod owners, we still consider it worthy of a comprehensive review. Read on for the full story.
The iLoad Hardware and Setup Experience
Though iLoad isn’t as small as an Apple Mac mini, it’s fairly small by most computers’ standards: it measures roughly 8” x 7.25” x 3.5”, and there’s a two-line text display and six total buttons on its top, so it doesn’t require a monitor, mouse, or keyboard. Presently unused keyboard, mouse, S-Video and Composite Video, audio, monitor, and serial ports are found on the back, alongside an Ethernet port and two USB ports. When the included power supply has been plugged in, you can connect an iPod—or two—to the USB ports, and charge them regardless of whether the system’s power is on or off.
Pressing the power button results in two somewhat unpleasant and always repeated experiences. First, iLoad will start to sound like a small vacuum cleaner, thanks to three always-on fans inside the chassis. Second, you’ll wait through a 30 second boot process—again, always—before fulfilling a six-minute requirement that you install iLoad software onto your iPod from an included CD. Notably, if you switch iPods, you’ll need to run the setup CD installation process again to dump the database onto your new iPod. Assuming the installation process goes well, iLoad’s simple left and right arrow buttons will let you choose from 12 different options, only two of which are important at first: the system defaults at “Read CD,” but you’ll first want to select “Set Bit-Rate” for a one-time setting to create better-sounding tracks. Up and down arrow buttons should be labeled “abort” and “eject CD,” as that’s what they do; a “Go” button selects menu items.
Since iLoad rips only in MP3 format, and at bitrates of 32, 96, 128, 192, or 320Kbps, it defaults at 128Kbps, acceptable for listening with Apple’s packed-in earbuds, but not quite CD-quality. Though we prefer 192Kbps MP3s—a format supported by iLoad—some will prefer the AAC or Apple Lossless formats favored by Apple, options not offered here. For better or worse, iLoad is a MP3 creator, so you’ll need to use iTunes if you prefer other formats or bitrates. Users obsessed with encoding technologies should note that LAME 3.97 is the system’s encoder of choice.
iLoad’s 10 other options are “Identify Songs,” “Download DB (Database),” “Update System,” “Delete Music,” “Get System Info,” “Backup iPod,” “Restore iPod,” “Delete Backups,” “Transfer iPod,” and “System Test.” In addition to its CD ripping and tagging features, which be updated or tested with four of these options, Wingspan has also enabled iLoad to serve as an iPod-to-iPod copying device, an iPod file deleter, and a conduit for backing up an iPod’s music en masse to a standalone hard drive. We’ve seen similar features in devices such as Sima’s Hitch, and though we didn’t think they were worth paying $150 for last year, they’re fine features to include as part of this package.
Generally, we found that iLoad’s initial setup and menu navigation process wasn’t too difficult. The company has kept its cables and instructions fairly simple, and though the integrated display is far from beautiful, it’s pretty easy to pop in a CD, press the Go button, and watch as the software gets installed and CDs rip to your iPod. Noise level aside, and with several other caveats, the system does what it’s supposed to do.
An Initial Hiccup: Current iPod Incompatibility*
Unfortunately, at least one of those caveats is more than trivial. When iLoad initially boots up and wants to begin the software installation process, it requires you to first connect an iPod, which it uses to store some of its CD-based software. We were surprised when iLoad couldn’t recognize* the first iPod we tested - a so-called enhanced fifth-generation model - and failed on subsequent attempts to recognize it and another enhanced 5G iPod we tried. Then we had the same problem with a second-generation iPod nano, and one of our 1.2 firmware first-generation nanos; when these devices were connected, we couldn’t even install the software that came in iLoad’s box. This is a fairly serious issue by any standards, as the device was unusable until we connected older iPod models, including two original 5G iPods and a firmware 1.1.1 nano unit, which worked without complaint.
At this point, it bears mention that Apple doesn’t seem to like devices - except for very limited exceptions - that write to the iPod’s hard drive without using iTunes as a synchronization conduit. In fact, the company has suggested in the past that unauthorized devices might just stop working with future iPod firmware updates or hardware designs, and the fact that iLoad works only with certain 5G iPods and nanos seems to bear this out. Whether you like or dislike Apple’s policy, it presents a formidable obstacle to iLoad’s “ease of use” proposition, requiring Wingspan to upgrade its own software in a cat-and-mouse game with Apple, and users to follow suit whenever there’s a change. All we can say at the present time is that our iLoad didn’t ship with the ability to work with our latest iPods, and we hope this will be fixed in the future.
CD Ripping and Transferring Performance
We found iLoad’s CD ripping performance to be acceptable, but less than mindblowing. For reasons we can’t explain,* the unit’s raw ripping and iPod transferring speed varied from 11 minutes to 17.5 minutes with 60-minute audio CDs we tested, a rate of 3-5 times realtime. The same discs and same 128Kbps MP3 encoding required between 8 and 9 minutes with iTunes running on a first-generation Mac mini, for a rate of around 6.5-8 times realtime. These times include the 30-second post-rip iPod transfer process, but not the 18 seconds iTunes took to add album art to each disc, a feature missing from iLoad.
Our two-year-old Mac mini isn’t exactly the fastest CD ripper we’ve used, so the fact that it runs at around twice the speed of the just-released iLoad doesn’t say much for Wingspan’s included hardware. There was also the fact that iLoad had a few small issues with CD tagging: though it asks you to verify the correct album title prior to starting the transfer process, and most often gets the correct title on the first try, a couple of additional button presses were needed when it didn’t, and if its database becomes out of date, you’ll need to update it or fix the tags yourself. Wingspan’s web site says that Internet updates for the database are free for the first year, but $10 per update afterwards, available monthly, yearly, or somewhere in between. iTunes always accesses the most current database from the Internet for free, almost invariably picks the correct album information automatically, and doesn’t take up iPod space doing so. iLoad’s a few steps behind here.
iPod-to-iPod transfers experienced similar results. When we could get iLoad to recognize two iPods of the same type, the transfer process worked, but slowly. The system reads the iPods’ serial numbers, asks which one is the source iPod, and requires explicit authorization to erase the other prior to starting the transfer. A percentage indicator appears on screen, moving in single digits as one iPod’s library gets duplicated to the other’s, a painfully slow process. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a nano to transfer its contents to a 5G iPod, or copy content from a recognized iPod to one that was in need of recovery, or one that wasn’t recognized by iLoad. In short, the transfer process worked fine with two recognized, healthy iPods of the same variety, but not otherwise.
Practicality, Pricing, and Final Thoughts
Let’s say you’re willing to deal with the aforementioned issues—you’re planning to use iLoad with an older iPod, or will go on the Internet and update its firmware to handle current ones, and you don’t mind the fact that it may take twice as long to rip your CDs as a budget-priced computer, doing so with loud fans buzzing all the while. There’s still one other caveat left to be mentioned: what do you do with the songs you’ve ripped onto your iPod?
iTunes doesn’t let you transfer anything other than purchased tracks back from iPod to your computer, so you’ll need to use one of the programs mentioned here, or the Backup and Restore iPod features built into iLoad. Using these features—along with a $150, 120GB disk drive sold by Wingspan for this purpose—you can transfer all your iPod’s contents to a backup drive, though not surprisingly, the copying process is slow. In our view, a Backup to DVD feature - using an integrated DVD burner - would have made much more sense, rendering most nanos, minis and shuffles restorable by one blank disc and typical full-sized iPods so through six. This is the method favored by professional CD rippers, and one that makes lots more sense than keeping a spare hard drive around.
All of the above should lead you to a fairly simple point: for most users, particularly those with new iPod models, a $299 investment in iLoad isn’t smarter, faster, or otherwise preferable to just ripping music with an existing computer. In fact, it’s likely to take longer, have more iPod compatibility issues, and leave you with files that aren’t laden with album art or the most current track details offered by iTunes. Plus, once you’ve ripped music from your CD to your iPod using iLoad rather than iTunes, you have no backup of your library, and no spare hard disk to store the songs on. Buying the spare hard disk brings you even closer to the cost of buying a full, dedicated computer solely for the same purpose.
As a concept, iLoad is far from a bad idea: had it been less expensive, faster, and fully iPod-compatible, a device that does nothing but rip CDs into iPod format quickly and accurately would be useful. But thanks to Apple, such an option exists already, and it’s called iTunes: the free PC and Mac software does iLoad’s job better in all regards than the $299 Wingspan box. If that sort of money’s burning a hole in your pocket and you need to have your CDs ripped, our recommendation is to put it towards a dedicated hard drive or a good CD ripping service; you’ll get superior, faster results and a better backup solution.
Update: April 29, 2007
As more fully discussed in this Backstage article, we’ve updated this review with additional details regarding two issues raised in our initial review: performance of iLoad with certain newer iPods, and ripping speed comparisons between iLoad and iTunes. These details along with other problems we experienced with iLoad, could have each been the subject of separate articles.
Generally, 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.
Unfortunately, in-between laughable comments from “iLoad users”—one person, for example, wrote three separate comments that varied in tone from “blatant advertisement” to “eBay-style auction testimonial” to “impartial customer”—Wingspan representatives posted inflammatory comment after comment to iLounge. To close the book on iLoad, we’ve added the details below. Based on abuse of our comments system, and misrepresentations of our actions by Wingspan representatives, we will be aggressively moderating further comments regarding this product and, regrettably, closing them.
(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 in the Backstage article, 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.]