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Apple Brings Its Flair For Smart Designs To Digital Music Player

Portable digital music players are frustrating gadgets. These hand-held devices, which play songs in the MP3 format, seem like a great idea, but they are hobbled by major drawbacks.

Some can hold only a scant 10-20 songs on little memory cards too expensive to buy in quantity. Others include built-in hard disks that can hold hundreds or thousands of songs, but are large and bulky with lousy battery life.

For the past 10 days or so, however, I’ve been testing a terrific digital music player that solves all of these problems. It has massive storage capacity, is small and light enough to slip into a pocket and can be run nonstop for an impressive amount of time. Its controls are simple and clear, and it downloads music from a computer at blazing speeds.

It’s no surprise that this new music player, called the iPod, comes from a company with a long history of great engineering and user-oriented design: Apple Computer. This is Apple’s first noncomputer product in years, and it’s a design home run. The iPod is simply the best digital music player I’ve seen. It costs $399, and will be available Nov. 10.

The one serious drawback of the iPod is that, at the moment, it only works with Apple’s own Macintosh computers. To fill it with music, you must use Apple’s latest Mac-only jukebox software: iTunes 2. You also need an ultrafast FireWire port, which all Macs have. FireWire also exists in the Windows world, where it’s usually called “1394,” but relatively few Windows PCs include the port.

That should change soon. While Apple is being coy about it, I expect the company to produce a Windows version of the iPod by next spring. And if the iPod succeeds, I expect it to be just the first in a new line of noncomputer products from Apple.

The iPod is about the size of a deck of cards, weighs just 6.5 ounces and sports a clean, simple white front with a roomy screen and a circular button array. The back of the unit is stainless steel.

Inside is a nearly silent five gigabyte hard disk and a small but high-capacity battery. Apple makes strong claims for the iPod’s storage capacity and battery life, but this is one of those rare products where the manufacturer’s claims are actually understated, not overstated.

Apple says the iPod can hold 1,000 songs. But the company is basing that claim on an assumption that iPod users will create MP3s at a higher-than-average quality level, which requires more disk space. My own calculations, based on the lower quality level most commonly used by listeners, shows that the iPod can hold about 1,300 songs, equal to more than 100 typical CDs.

As for battery life, Apple claims 10 hours, but in my tests the iPod repeatedly got nearly 12 hours.

Sound quality is excellent. I tested it with the included earbuds and with larger noise-canceling headphones. I even plugged it into an automobile speaker system using a cheap cassette adapter from Radio Shack. The iPod sounded great in each instance.

The uncluttered, high-resolution screen displays song title, artist and album, assuming your MP3 files contain that information. You navigate through directories of artists, albums, playlists and songs using a wheel on the front of the unit that speeds up when scrolling through long lists.

Like most other MP3 players, the iPod must get its music from a computer, but it’s cleverer and faster at doing so. Most other players connect to a PC using the USB port and require you to manually select which songs you want to transfer. But the iPod uses the far faster FireWire port and automatically synchronizes itself with the music library on the computer, just like a Palm synchronizes with a PC.

A few seconds after you first plug the iPod into the Mac using the FireWire cable, the iTunes 2 software automatically copies its music library, including songs and playlists, onto the device. If you later add or delete songs from the music library on the Mac, the changes will be duplicated on the iPod the next time you plug it in. And this process is fast. I moved 763 songs onto my test iPod in well under 10 minutes. That would have taken hours using a USB connection.

You can turn off synchronization and manually move the songs you like onto the iPod. While the iPod is plugged into the Mac, it’s also recharging. You don’t need a separate power cable.

If you have room left over on the iPod after transferring your music, you can use it as a portable hard disk, manually copying any computer file to its hard disk to back up files or move them to another Mac.

The only problem I ran into with the iPod was that, in some cases, there can be a long pause between songs. Apple claims this will be less noticeable in shipped iPods than in my test unit.

At $399, the iPod is also a little expensive. Other hard-disk-based players, like Creative’s Nomad, offer about the same capacity for $100 less, or greater capacity for the same price. But they are inferior designs. All in all, iPod is a great product, and I recommend it to anyone who loves music.

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