Ten-Foot Experience, Two-Inch Screens?

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.

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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