Bruised Apple: The iPod on Windows Experience

Posted on February 1st, 2005 in Music,Product Reviews,Technology by mynagirl

Don’t Stop the Music

I am a listen-to-music-at-work kinda person. Ever since I’ve had a job with enough autonomy and desktime to allow it, I listen to music via headphones while I work. And since I don’t like to have any extraneous apps running on my workstation (much less keep music on a corporate machine), I like to have my music on a device that is disconnected from my actual PC, so I always have something to play my music with. Also, as a former runner, I used to take stuff with me on the hoof. So, I’ve had a few MP3-playing devices in my day.

My most recent device was an iRiver — most specifically, an iRiver 400-series CD player that will play MP3s burned onto CD. (I also have some familiarity with the iRiver solid state MP3 players, having bought the G-I-R-L one for running). The iRiver has a somewhat daunting and extremely tiny interface, but it’s highly customizable once you figure it out. The CD player has limitations, though — a CD can only fit about 200 or so MP3s on it, and after having that same CD at work for a few weeks you get pretty tired of that same mix. Plus, if you buy a new CD and rip those songs into MP3s, you have to re-burn a new MP3 mix CD just to add the 1 or 2 new songs you want to add into the mix. It can be a drag.

Before that I had (and actually, prior to the iPod, still used for exercising) an ancient RCA Lyra device and it’s really unusable — MP3s have to be custom-encoded with specific software in order to get transferred onto the Flash memory through a parallel-port flash reader that’s REALLY SLOW. It’s literally a 30-minute process. You can imagine how often the songs get changed on THAT device… not much incentive to do a 30 minute session on the elliptical when you’ve got the same 15 songs you had 6 months ago waiting for you and your workout.

Under My Thumb

At Christmas, the G-I-R-L (whose Indiana parents use a Mac) came down to visit with an Apple iPod in tow. Although we often had to pry the earbuds out of her ears to get her to actually join family events, I eventually asked her for some details on the little machine and (despite myself) got intrigued. I mean… 20 GB of music right there in such a tiny package is pretty enticing. Plus, we have an auxiliary jack in our Honda Element and the iPod hooks right up to it to put tunes into the car. (The iRiver CD player can do the same thing but it’s much more cumbersome to try and stuff the CD player into the glove box and hook up a power cord, etc).

And I gotta give it to Apple, the clickwheel is a really innovative interface. It feels a bit like an Etch-a-Sketch at first, but it’s a GREAT way to turn the volume up and down, to just be able to run your thumb in a little circle. Plus, when you’ve got 20GB of songs (or even 1/4 of that), you need a FAST way to scroll up and down — something where you’d be clicking or even paging down would get very old very quickly. The fast scrolling action that you can get with the wheel is very nice.

People Are Strange

But, c’mon… it’s an Apple. I wasn’t really going to seriously consider buying consumer electronics from… uh… Apple, right? Apple people are generally a different breed and, well, buying any device with the intention of using it on its non-native platform is generally a risky move. And there are several choices for large-drive MP3 players out there. However, iPod was clearly the market leader. It’s fine to be quirky and iconoclastic in fashion or other things, but in matters of things automotive or electronic, I believe in buying where the market goes and looks to be reasonably supported. That way you’re not stuck with something really random with no accessories later. Remember DIVX? (If you don’t that just proves my point).

Plus, the Apple Bastards won me over with the truly powerful weapon, the one that was actually guaranteed to get me as a consumer — the iTunes Music Store. If I can legally buy one song for $1 and put it on my iPod or burn it to CD, and they have the industry support to have a decently broad range of music I might want to buy, then I’m sold. Because I love instant gratification, and Engineerboy and I have a million songs that we love that are onsie-twosies from this artist or that. I still buy CDs and rip the whole thing, but there are just tons of songs that we want to have. And if we can buy them as one-offs then that’s exactly what we want.

It’s Your Thing

The iPods can even come engraved, which I thought was tremendously cool. The Apple store online was offering engraving for free along with free shipping. How could I resist? I was in love!

Simply Irresistible

So, I hemmed, hawed, waffled on price, hemmed some more, decided I had to have one, and bought one. I bought an orange iPod sock on eBay (I was too cheap to buy the whole pack of socks from Apple). I even talked my dad into an iPod Shuffle before I’d even bought my own iPod! I eagerly awaited the arrival of my blessed purchase! I envisioned the ability to listen at work all day without having to plug it into the charger, the ability to have our entire family music library with us wherever we drove, and the ability to [angels singing] buy a song legally here or there from the iTunes Music Store. All of this and it would run on the PC as well as the Mac!

Tainted Love

So, all the Mac-heads I’ve ever talked to have always waxed poetic about how easy it is to set up anything Mac-related. It all just works! You just turn it on! You just don’t have to worry about a thing! Well, I wasn’t expecting anything quite that wondrous — as I said, this was using the iPod on its non-native platform, so I was prepared for a little more work during the install or even a few hiccups.

Try headaches. First off, the iPod has to be formatted for either the Mac or the PC. It ships (of course) formatted for the Mac, so if you install on a PC, you have to re-format it. There’s no indication in the documentation or on the install screen itself of how long this process should take, so I didn’t really think anything of it when it took a few minutes. I got a bit curious when that stretched into 30 minutes. I was really concerned when it stretched into two hours. The Apple support site had no information on how long the PC install process or reformatting process should take (at least none that I could find with my search terms) and so Engineerboy ended up finding use-at-your-own-risk advice from someone on a newsgroup about how to shut down the hung re-format process and continue with the re-install and then go back and reformat the device. Seriously irritating — I wasted hours waiting on that stupid install.

Finally the install completed and I went about the process of loading iTunes and synching my iPod for the first time. It still didn’t go smoothly after that — at first it wouldn’t let me undock the iPod if iTunes had any songs that were on a network drive (a reboot solved that problem, as it isn’t a system issue with the iPod, so that must’ve been first install hiccups). I had to shut down my PC entirely before the iPod would even let itself be detached from the PC. The next day my iPod quit responding to any click input at all and had to be reset (that’s where you have to plug it into the wall charger and hold down two buttons at once for six seconds and all your customized settings are then lost).

After working out the network drive issue and loading up the iPod with the entire library of our music collection (and adding quite a few new ones from the iTunes Store), I proceeded to use the heck out of the iPod… in the car every morning on the way to and from work (via the auxiliary jack) and at my desk for headset motivation while working. I loved it! I had so much music at my desk — all of the songs I could possibly want! And in the car we could have any song that Scott or I could possibly want to hear — it was great! One pesky problem kept cropping up, though — the iPod would repeatedly pause in the middle of a song when we were in the car. Over. And over. And over.

We were actually in the car with the entire shipping box packed up to take back to the Apple store when we realized that the pause behavior was actually standard behavior for the when the headphones (or auxiliary cable) is removed from the device — or when it thinks it has been. Apparently the new, longer aux cable we’d bought wasn’t as snug a fit as the shorter one we already had. So the new cable’s imperceptible (to us) jiggling was triggering the iPod’s auto-pause feature when the output line is removed. The auto-pause is a nice feature in some contexts (I guess) but man I wish I could turn that off in a configuration setting. Speaking of…

Cry Me a River

The list of usability and configurability gripes on the iPod device itself is tremendously long, especially for someone coming from the ultra-customizable iRiver.

  • Picture this scenario: You’re listening to your entire library of songs on random play and a song comes up by a group you like but it’s not your favorite song by that group. It reminds you of your favorite song by that band, though. You navigate out to the menu and pick the song you want to hear. You play it. And now your iPod picks the next song to play… by the same artist you just heard. The following song is ALSO by the same artist. It’s shuffling, but no longer across all songs, it’s stuck just on that one artist. That’s because you chose to navigate to the song of your choosing via the Artist name (like, duh, that’s the easiest way for me to find the song I wanted). By choosing the song I wanted that way, I inadvertantly (to me), switched to only shuffling across songs by that artist. If I had wanted to stay in shuffle mode across ALL songs on the iPod, I would need to have navigated to Ad Hoc Song of My Choosing by the list of SONGS — a much more cumbersome way to go to the song I want, in my opinion.
  • Also in the above process, when I’m reminded of that other song by the band currently playing and I hit the Menu button, it doesn’t bring up the list of that artist’s songs (i.e., the Menu button isn’t context-sensitive to the song that’s playing). The Menu button simply brings up whatever place in the Menu I last was. I’d rather it take me to the list of Artist’s songs that’s currently playing so I can pick another song by that artist, or the list of songs as it was currently sorted. This was so easy to do on the iRiver (once you learned the interface) and I MISS IT on the iPod. If I’m listening to a Prince song and I hit the Menu button, I want to be taken to the list of Prince songs. Or at least let me configure the thing to have that be my choice. Now that I’ve used the iPod for a while, I sometimes like that the Menu button can take me back where it was, but often that behavior is mostly pointless. Overall, I’d prefer that it be context sensitive.
  • Songs are sorted by Album underneath Artist, and you cannot change this in a configuration setting. This means when you navigate through the list of songs via Artist and drill down through the list of Artists on the device to pick a song, you are then presented with a list of “All” and then the various album titles that your MP3 files may or may not be correctly tagged under (or, if you’ve bought the songs off iTunes, whatever random album the long was listed under when you bought it). This is incredibly irritating to me. I don’t generally know or give a sh*t what album a song came off of, and it drives me crazy that the device puts one extra click menu between me and selecting the song I want.
  • You can’t configure it to have crossfade between songs. If you’re going to connect your iPod to an external set of speakers and have it act as a DJ for a party, this sure would be groovy, especially given how much control they give you with Playlists. Jeez, you can do crossfade on iTunes, why can’t you do it on the iPod? I realize this is a large feat of engineering, but THIS IS A BIG ONE. I mean, this is the PERFECT device for aerobics instructors and the like. As a matter of fact, last week at my Nia class the instructor had a whole wonderful song list for us to dance to, and it was GREAT except for the 10 seconds of downtime where we were all standing there with no music to dance to, staring at ourselves in the mirror.
  • There’s a neat ability to add a song to the “On The Go” playlist just by holding down the select button for a few seconds. Only you’re supposed to do this when the song is selected in the list of songs, rather than when the song is playing. Gee, when do you think you’re more likely to be reminded that the song is great and you’d want it on your On The Go playlist? I mean, adding it from the list of songs is good, but I should be able to add it when I’m listening to it, too.
  • Hitting “shuffle songs” when I’m already listening to a song immediately switches me off the song I’m listening to. I hate that… some car CD players do that, too. As far as I’m concerned, “shuffle” should be a ‘mode’, not an ‘action’.
  • There’s no quick key for backlighting. You can configure a setting that says at all times a button press initiates backlighting for 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, etc, but you can’t click and hold down some hot key to randomly bring up backlighting on demand should you need it. This sure would be nice… having the backlighting setting on all the time wastes battery during your brightly lit office time, but if you turn it off all the time then you don’t have the backlighting when you need it in the darkened car.

Give Me One Reason

Okay, enough bitching. It does have some pretty cool features:

  • Once you go through the work of tagging all your files (and learn how it needs them to be tagged), the Playlists are pretty groovy. They’re primitive — you can’t use any OR’s in your selection logic, so my files have tortured grouping names like “BothMarie” or “BothScottMarie” to make sure that it will appear on the both a playlist that’s acceptable to both Engineerboy and me, and a playlist that’s just for me to listen to at work. But when you’ve got them grouped and star’ed appropriately (including the new stuff that you buy) you then have an auto-updating list that you barely have to manage at all (I check the limit length every couple days to make sure that it only includes files of a high rating, expanding the limit whenever we’ve added more songs to the library).
  • It truly is cool to have iTunes to buy their songs whenever you feel like it. It’s an expensive habit, even at $.99 a song, but boy is it awesome! Random songs from your college days, stuff you hear on the radio that you like, classic Funk that you love but never bothered to buy the CD, all of that you can add to your iPod if you feel like it and it’s available on iTunes. Engineerboy even got a wild hair to download the entire new Joe Cocker album and *bam* we had it within 10 minutes for our next car ride. Too cool!
  • It is really fast to update. One of the things I hated most about my iRiver was being stuck listening to the same 200 MP3s for weeks on end because I was too lazy to burn a new CD of songs. And even if I got one new MP3 from a CD I bought or something, I had to rip the MP3 and then burn a new mix CD of MP3s. Total pain. Updating the iPod is relatively pain-free and very fast (not as fast for me since I keep my files on a network drive and use Super G wireless, but still pretty snappy).
  • It’s very easy to rate a song while you’re listening to it, which is convenient if you haven’t rated all your songs through the iTunes UI. (I wish it would show you the rating on the iPod UI without you having to push another button first, but oh well).

Well Well Well

Overall, I like it. I’m glad I bought it and I listen to it every day at work and every time we’re in the car. It’s not a perfect experience. The install was painful and it still needs to be reset every so often, which is kind of a drag because my prefs get lost (the annoying click is turned back on, my backlighting preference is lost, etc). I do wish it were more configurable. Maybe it’s my UNIX bias, but I find the Apple “our-design-team-will-decide-how-your-interface-should-work” design paradigm frustrating. But overall it’s great and I love having it and it helps me work, having all the music I love right at my fingertips.

And it’s even let Engineerboy (not near the music-head I am) enjoy music more, since all of his music is now with us in the car — he drives the iPod when we’re in the car, playing Funk DJ. We even hear Weird Al not too infrequently. I still like the iPod.

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