iPod: The Designers Got This One Right

Apple's digital music player is a cinch to use, has lots of memory--and it looks great

What makes a high-tech product really good? I have been pondering this question since I started using Apple Computer's (AAPL ) iPod digital music player several weeks ago. I liked it at first sight, and my affection has grown with use--a reversal of the usual pattern where the more time I spend with a product, the more annoying flaws I discover.

I think the secret of the iPod is simple: an elegant design by the same in-house team responsible for the Titanium PowerBook, a well-executed user interface, and a single-minded focus on doing one job extraordinarily well.

The iPod is a diminutive 6.5-oz. box. It's 4 in. long, 2.4 in. wide, and 0.8 in. thick, a bit bigger than a pack of cards. Inside is a 5-gigabyte hard disk that holds the equivalent of about 100 CDs digitized for high-quality playback and a lithium-polymer battery that easily beats its claimed playing life of 10 hours. iPod's minimalist good looks give it instant appeal, with a face made of clear polycarbonate over white plastic--a hallmark of recent Apple products--and a polished metal back.

But Apple itself has proved that eye candy does not make a good or successful product. The Macintosh Cube, released in 2000, got plenty of oohs and aahs for its sleekness but flopped in the marketplace, largely because its poor design left no room for expansion.

So while looks are important, usability is paramount. Here the iPod overcomes the two biggest liabilities of portable digital music players: capacity and user controls. The 64 megabytes of storage in many music players--about $50 worth of flash memory at current depressed prices--is barely enough for an hour of play. That assumes recording at 168 kilobits per second, the lowest rate that allows reasonable, though not quite CD-quality, reproduction. Apple opted for a hard drive with massive storage by music player standards. That made the iPod relatively expensive, at $399, though I believe the capacity to store that much music in a tiny package makes it an excellent value. The 6-GB Nomad Jukebox from Creative Labs costs less than $200, but it's much heavier and bulkier than the iPod and gets only four hours of battery life.

If you offer a device that can hold the equivalent of 100 or so CDs, you have to make it simple for people to find and play the music they want. Here's where iPod shines. Getting music onto the gadget couldn't be simpler. It uses a high-speed FireWire connection to link to a Macintosh. As soon as it's connected, iPod synchronizes its content--music, playlists, and information on artists, albums, and tracks--with a library you assemble on the Mac with the help of software that comes with the iPod. Although iPod currently works only with Macintoshes, Apple is considering a Windows version. Meanwhile, a company called Mediafour is readying software that will allow any FireWire-equipped Windows PC to work with an iPod.

The controls for selecting and playing tunes from your iPod are ingenious. It's confusing to have too many buttons, but making one button perform multiple functions can also be perplexing. Apple solves the problem with a circular control panel that fills much of the face of the iPod. An outer ring comprises four buttons: forward, back, play/pause, and a menu button that turns the iPod on or takes you up one menu level. For example, if you are displaying song information, clicking the button takes you back to the album or playlist from which it was selected. In the center is a round button that you press to select a menu item. Between them is a ring that turns to scroll through menus or adjust volume once music is playing. You can select music by playlist, artist, album, or individual song.

My only complaint is that the controls respond to a very soft touch, and it's too easy to accidentally turn the iPod on and drain its battery while it is in a pocket or bag. You have to remember to slide the "hold" switch that disables the controls.

I look at dozens of hardware and software products each year: An amazing number of them include serious flaws in design or execution. Sometimes the problems are the result of compromises forced by a need to hit a price, or keep weight down, or ensure compatibility. But sometimes, the choices are so bad that all I can do is wonder, `Why did they do it?' The iPod is proof that with enough care and concentration, designers can approach perfection.


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