Apple iPod Nano: A Critical Review

I’ve been fussing about getting a new MP3 player to replace my ailing Daimond Rio MP300, with it’s parallel-port interface and 32 megs of on-board flash. I no longer had a parallel port on my main machine, transfers were slow anyway, and the approximately one album it held at 64kbps required swapping out after each use. And lo, one day, I get an iPod Nano, 4 gig version, as a gift. The worst other reviews could find to say about the Nano is its screen scratches — ha! I won’t mention the thing’s screen scratching.

Battery Life: Compared to my MP300, the iPod’s battery life is just sad. It’s supposed to do 16 hours, but I’ve seen it do as little as 6. If you’re doing something like skiing, you’ll find your battery going dead on you. A single double AA in the MP300 would keep it going for a day. Considering Apple replaces the battery in the Nano for the cost of the Nano and the little lithium ion pack is the size of a finger tip, I feel ripped off.

Apple has been in hot water over premature battery failure before, where listening time rapidly drops off as too small of a battery is worked too hard, so I’m surprised they’re still riding the line, seeing exactly what they can get away with in this department. Every other manufacturer with a rechargeable battery offers better life (in terms of total lifetime and in terms of each use) than Apple. Hello everyone — here’s a very important aspect in which Apple comes in dead last. I know the thing sells because it’s small, but this is serious step back from what we had with early MP3 players, which were already a step back from two-AA cell cassette tape players.

Screen Readability: The MP300 didn’t have a backlight. Its simple black and white segmented LCD screen was far more readable in indoor and outdoor conditions than the iPod’s color screen when the iPod’s backlight is *off*. Most of the time, the iPod’s backlight is off, so the MP300 wins in daylight conditions and the iPod wins in dark conditions by virtue of offering a backlight. When the backlight turns out, you can’t see, unless you’re in bright daylight or you walk over to a lamp and point the iPod directly at it, so I find myself tapping the clickwheel a lot just so I can see what track is on. I was never unable to read the display on the MP300. I guess I personally spend more time in some level of illumination than “complete darkness” and the MP300 is optimized for that usage pattern.

Expandability: The MP300 accepted some cheap, junky format of Flash card whose name I forget, and they inserted in a little slot. This way, the storage could be expanded. I never bothered to actually do this as the format only offered limited upgradability (the Rio wouldn’t actually understood cards larger than 64 megs, I think). However, I was severely tempted to. I never would have stopped using the MP300 if it used a flash format that let me buy multi-gig flash cards for it. The iPod has no built-in expansion, but apparently, if you pay a bunch of money, there’s an accessory that you can hotsync from.

Uploading: The MP300 didn’t exactly sport a filesystem but the format the tracks were stored in was quite simple and well-documented, supported by third-party and freeware programs for Unix, Linux, Windows, Mac, and so on. The iPod uses HPFS and/or VFAT filesystems which are reasonably standard (well understood, well documented, well supported, even if not patent free) but it won’t automatically make available tracks you copy onto it. You’re supposed to run Apple’s iTunes software, which tries to sell you stuff and maintains the iTunesDB file. So you must run special software. A third-party program exists to rebuild the iTunesDB file on an iPod from the tracks on the thing — because I wrote it. So, both devices are in the same classification — requiring some sort of software to write data in the device’s special format so they’ll actually work. This one is a tie.

Size: The iPod is exactly the wrong weight — it’s light enough that the weight of headphones cords dangling off the edge of the desk or table is enough to pull it off the table, but heavy enough that it pulls itself free from the cord once the slack is taken up. The result is that I cannot leave it on the desk and listen to it. I must put it in my pocket. Otherwise, it just falls off the desk, pulls free of the cord, lands on the floor, and bounces off under a pile of cables. It’s extremely annoying. So everytime I want to skip a song, I have to straighten my body, reach down in my pocket, pull it out, turn the hold switch off, push the forward button, turn the hold switch on, ram it back in my pocket, move my arm free of the headphones cord, and sit back straight again. The smallness is fun, but the significantly larger MP300 was plenty small for running or throwing into a pocket full of the basic pocket-stuffings.

User Interface: I wanted a portable MP3 player primarily for biking, inline skating, and the like. Setting out to bike with the thing, I go about a mile before I get it on. It takes a good long time to boot up, and it seems to completely turn off its DRAM banks and power itself off cold after it sits for a while. Navigating the menus takes a while too — there’s no button you can push to instantly get music, unlike the MP300. I know Apple likes a spartan physical interface coupled with a flashy graphical interface, but this is too far in the extreme. An extra “play some God damned music right the fuck now” button is highly in order.

I can easily imagine a scenario where an obnoxious suite type person starts yammering at me and the effect would be completely lost if I couldn’t just put my headphones on and push one button to shut them up. Fumbling for upwards of half a minute just doesn’t have the same effect. Hell, even tape players had a “Play” button. I’m sure I’ve seen cartoons or shows where someone sat there with big headphones on and when someone started talking at them, they reached into their pocket and mashed that Play button. The iPod is a step backwards from the cassette tape in one very important, very real way. Until I learned to just start the thing before riding off, I relived the same little drama over about a dozen times. I’d start off with the headphone cords threaded through my jersey, then reach into my jersey pocket and grab the iPod on the first straight stretch and try to dial in some music. I’d flip the hold switch and mash the center button, and after a few seconds, the Apple logo would come up. It would go back into the pocket to finish booting.

Next straight stretch, I’d fish it out again, and trying to keep one eye on the road and keeping neither hand on the handle bars, rotate my way down to “Shuffle Music” and hit play. That took just long enough that I’m in a big hurry to stuff it in my pocket and grab the handle bars (I’m about to be cut off and need to break, or I hit a hill and I need to downshift before I loose momentum and fall over). Stuffing in my pocket in a hurry, the headphones cord yanks free. On the iPod, this is a special event. Flat, straight stretch number three, I’m fishing the fucker out again, plugging the headphones back in — but having the headphones come out implies a “stop” operation. So I hit play again. And put it back. And hope to God I don’t have to touch the motherfucking piece of shit again the rest of the ride. The entire time is about two stressful minutes of fussing with the thing and about 10 minutes of riding.

Sound: It has trouble driving big headphones. It sounds okay, but it’s clearly having trouble. To be fair, most portable devices do, but back in the days of tapes, I’d pick up tape recorders rather than tape players. Those are designed to drive an external speaker and as such had the balls to drive some nice big cans and power deep bass. The iPod does okay with the right pair of headphones, but driving bass plays hell with the already barely adequate battery. Of course, I’m giving my crappy little battery premature battery failure by forcing it to try to power the headphones, so after a couple of months of use, I’m going to have a $250 repair bill with Apple. I think I’m going to enjoy my tunes a lot less knowing I’m paying by the minute. And of course, the little white headphones are wretched, tiny, distorted, high-pitched pieces of crap that resonate at all of the wrong frequencies just like all “earbud” headphones, but they’re white. I don’t expect Apple to pack nice big cans with the thing, but I hate that the iPod movement implies an earbud headphones movement. I’ve been told by people I trust that the iPod is actually among the best of portable players available in the DAC department, but the MP300 wins this one too.

Linux: When I see a new device, I’m ashamed to admit, the first question through my head is “does it run Linux?”. And an affirmative answer carries a lot of points. The iPod runs Linux — not natively, but a port exists. Doom isn’t the only thing they got going — you can write memos, there’s a nice Tempest clone, there’s a MacPaint like paint program, you can make Podzilla look like almost any desktop machine you’ve used (C=64, Apple ][, Apple OS 1, Amiga, etc, etc), and best of all, you can do your own ideas rather than just being a worthless vacuum of a brainless consumer. What good is life if you can’t participate? This was the major, major selling point for me for the iPod, thought I admit I was intrigued by the praise for the things user interface and it’s small size, both of which I’ve long since gotten over. The MP300 does not run Linux.

Summary: The iPod is like a skinny, young, dumb blond. Hanging out with it makes you popular by appearances, and it’s pretty, but it gets on your nerves like nuts, especially if you’re older and you’ve had others before and aren’t automatically ready to accept the charms as the end all and be all and you’re vaguely miffed why everyone else thinks they’re the end all and be all. I find myself wanting to physically abuse the device. But it runs Linux. Here’s the score: MP300 scored 5 points. The iPod scored 1. One point was a no-takers.

Summary 2: Apple had a chance to improve on other mp3 players; they did when it comes to style and flash but not in usability, with the sole exception of the touchwheel for quickly seeking through long lists. In many ways, it fails to improve on horrible shortcomings of early MP3 players, and in other ways, it’s a step back. I’m not sure who gave them the awards they’re always boasting about the thing having won, but it was obviously fellow idiots who granted them. Perhaps other MP3 players really are better but somehow I suspect not, as people tend to immitate suckage.

Obviously you’re not going to go get a used MP300 because the iPod comes up short by this stacked comparision. So the question is which of the current geration of player to buy. If you want extreme smallness, the MobiBlu puts the Nano to shame — the iPod is *not* small.

Other options include Archos’ machines and the Playstation Portable. But, of the current generation, the iPod may well be the best.

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