Apple Computer's latest addition to the digital universe is a portable music player with voluminous capacity, long battery life and lightning-fast transfer speeds.
It's called the iPod, and Apple's claim of a thousand songs in your pocket is not hype. In fact, the iPod can store hundreds more if compression is ratcheted up.
At 6.5 ounces and about the side of a sardine can, this silver-and-white gadget - due in stores Nov. 10 - exudes classic Apple panache.
But all this comes at a price: a hefty $399.
To justify the cost, Apple says the iPod is much more than just another MP3 player. That's true. It's smaller, transfers music faster, lasts longer between recharges and is more easily navigable than the competition. It also doubles as a portable hard drive.
Unlike most MP3 players, the iPod stores songs on a 5 gigabyte drive rather than flash memory. In fact, the iPod incorporates 32 megabytes of flash memory - an amount standard on the many basic portable digital music players.
On the iPod, that flash memory acts as a 20-minute buffer to prevent skipping when the unit is jostled. It worked as promised for me during a treadmill workout.
Other manufacturers also sell digital players with hard drives, notably Creative's Nomad Jukebox and Archos' Jukebox 6000. They offer more storage at a lower price, but they're also bigger and transfer files more slowly, using 12-megabit-per-second USB cables.
Data screams to the iPod from a Mac computer across a 400-megabit-per-second FireWire connection. A CD worth of music can be transferred in 5 to 10 seconds, compared with 5 minutes on a USB-linked competitor.
On the downside, FireWire support is found in only the newest Macs. During the product announcement, Apple said it was exploring ways to make the iPod compatible with PCs that run Microsoft Windows operating systems - but it's not expected anytime soon, if ever.
The FireWire cable also supplies power to the iPod, so whenever it is hooked up to a Mac, it's recharging its batteries.
My iPod ran continuously for 13 hours before finally petering out - that's three hours longer than Apple claims. It took about 2 hours to recharge fully.
The iPod also includes a large liquid-crystal display, with backlighting if desired. Playlists, artists and songs are easily browsed by pressing buttons and spinning a dial that also controls volume.
Then there's the music itself.
To put it simply, it's crystal clear with no distortion beyond what was on the original recording. In some cases, thanks to signal processing in Apple's new iTunes 2 software, music may even sound better than the original.
In Glenn Gould's landmark 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, the pianist's humming comes through just as clearly as it did on the original CD. And the digitally processed music of 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and other popsters sounds even better, with all the booms, bumps and thuds.
My biggest complaint is that there's no way to adjust treble and bass on the unit - something Apple says it plans to address in future software updates.
In the meantime, such adjustments and many more can be made through iTunes, which is closely integrated with the iPod.
The software also automatically syncs songs stored on the Mac with the iPod's hard drive. Music-sharing, however, is discouraged both by "Do Not Steal Music" labels and by the fact that music stored on an iPod can't be transferred to a Mac.
The iPod can also serve as a portable hard drive, storing other sorts of data. So it could be a handy way to transport a presentation, sharing the storage space with your music.
It's not clear whether the iPod would work with the variety of copyright protection schemes now being tested.
Given the price, Apple should include a carrying case to protect against sweaty hands and, worse yet, butter fingers.
A car adapter and FM radio tuner also would be nice additions.
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