Saturday, April 09, 2005

iPod Mini

After toying around with various lower-end portable music players, I decided to take the plunge and grab an iPod Mini today. Overall I am pretty happy with this little device and thought I would jot down a few initial impressions and experiences and see where things go from there.

UPDATE: My iPod Mini has been working very well. I use ephpod for my music transfers and have been storing lots of useful text files on the iPod for reading later. Of course somebody went a step further and enabled all of us to put e-books on our iPods for reading later. Way cool.

The Purchase

Being the sort that wants instant gratification on something like this, I purchased my iPod Mini from the nearest vendor I could, namely Circut City here in Portland Oregon. I like this particular store. It's close to the house, they offer new DVD's at a nice discount when you buy them on release day, have decent sales people and don't work too hard to upsell. (Hope they stay around because I appreciate that.)

Having said all of that, I must say I was surprised with my iPod experience there. They didn't have any models running for demonstration purposes. For me, this was basically a non-issue because I had plenty of time to sample players and had already decided on the iPod unit. Still, one would think they would have a couple of different units running. Same for the headphones too. How can anyone buy headphones without first hearing their performance, unless they know about that in advance?

Minor demo issues aside, I quickly pointed out the model I wanted. Surprisingly the sales person there didn't unlock it from the cabinet, but offered the Creative Labs Nomad to me instead. Lets just say that if one is in the mood for an iPod Mini, the Nomad is simply not the same kind of player and leave it at that. (Liked the Nomad, but just liked the Mini better.)

That conversation was interesting in that the sales people actually work pretty hard to sell against Apple iPod products. They brought up every showstopper possible for the Mini while positioning the Creative Labs product at the same time. I have asked which sold more and the answer has always been Apple though. Hmm...

Anti Apple Points:
-can't change battery easily or under warranty (true)
-does not hold as much music for the dollar (true)
-more DRM (debatable)
-have to use iTunes (true, but I just know somebody is working on this.)
-"The wheel Interface sucks"(True if you only want buttons, which I didn't!)

Pro Creative Points
-can change battery
-holds more music
-more industry standard (twisted truth in that it is a more PC like product, but false otherwise.)
-no wheel to wear out (True, but the buttons are going to see a lot more action too)
-less DRM (Don't actually know or care.)
-bigger (This is a downside for me personally.)
-better sound (debatable given the input source material.)

I was hit with all of those before bringing up:

-size and form factors
-user interface (hell yess!)
-industry standard (I don't see a lot of Nomads around, sorry.)

Let me say right out of the gate, the first two on my list are the primary drivers behind the iPod Mini purchase for me. (More on that in a minute) While the last is just simply obvious though not too important for me, in that I run Linux, use SGI machines, build my own stuff, etc...

Apple probably knows this, but still it's gotta be tough to have a winning product that your own distributors don't want to sell. Grade C

Out of Box Experience

I liked the packaging. It's small size and well thought out ongoing use makes keeping it good sense. The only throwaway is the thin plastic shrinkwrap. I am not used to this and I like it! Grade A+

Initial Installation and configuration could have went well, but I didn't quite do the right thing the first time through. There is clear instruction on the packaging that asks me to install software before connecting iPod. (I am using a win32 machine for the time being. Mac Mini is next for me though.) However, the program installation software suffers from the same problems most win32 programs do. I reached a screen that implied I should have the iPod connected, so I did. That ended up being a bust in that I had to uninstall, then reboot, then reinstall without iPod, then connect, etc...

That cost about an hour or so of futzing around with things. Other than that, everything else made good sense, happened quickly and seemed to work. Grade B

Note I did say initial above. To make a long story short, I quickly ran into problems with iTunes. Overall the application itself was decent. It did have the look of something written for the win32 environment that really didn't want to be there, but Apple computer is not the first company to do this and won't be the last either. Not a big deal.

So, what was the big deal then? In a nutshell, iTunes just didn't work well on my system. Without listing a bunch of specs, lets just say the machine is perfectly capable of handling iTunes and leave it at that. Using the music store was flawless, but using iTunes to handle other music sources was a mess. Importing CD media is risky and crash prone and so was managing mp3 files. Both tasks are crash prone and slow at times. This is enough of a problem that I chose to learn how to use my iPod without iTunes. Apple needs to put a bit more polish on iTunes for win32 systems if it expects to get all its new iPod users onboard. Grade F+

I know several happy iTunes users, so the application does work for people. It just doesn't work for everyone yet. In the end, I put together a CD Ripping program, mp3 encoder and iPod management tool that together replace iTunes quite nicely. After Apple has had another revision or two, perhaps I'll give iTunes another try.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, be sure and visit the ipodlounge. The forums are full of interesting and informative iPod related discussions. You will find solid answers there given some common sense and a willingness to look around. Highly Recommended.

The iPod Mini Itself

Software issues aside, the iPod Mini is just great. I find the package stylish and highly functional too. I have no complaints, only a suggested improvement on the overall screen latency. The display, while crisp and legible, does suffer from blurry moving images. A faster screen would help this, but might cost more in terms of power too.

How come we don't have a black iPod yet? With all that power in such a small package, I would think a black model would be a great complement to the other colors. iGoth! (Hehe)

There are plenty of hardware reviews on the net, full of screenshots and glowing praise, so I'm not going to go there today. Lets just say I'm fairly picky about these things and am quite happy with the iPod Mini from a hardware standpoint.

That leaves the little extras and some observations to cover before wrapping this whole thing up.

If you are planning to use your iPod in the car, I would not bother with the FM modulators because they degrade the sound quality too much, in my opinion anyway. Depending on the radio you have, the number of and proximity to your local FM stations, you might actually experience additional noise when using the FM modulator with your iPod mini.

I found the inexpensive ones also pass along the internet iPod RF noise and suffer from pretty bad EQ as well. The one more expensive, "designed for use with iPod" unit did a fair job of keeping noise to a minimum, but didn't improve much where EQ is concerned. FM is limited in almost every way when compared to the iPod. Overall frequency response is only 15Khz, dynamic range is in the 70's on most gear too. While I don't have the stereo seperation specification handy, it goes without saying the iPod is superior there too

Put simply: Don't expect to hear the quality iPod audio through an FM adapter.

Since my particular car radio does not have an external input I can use easily, I chose one of the cassette adapters and was quite happy with the performance. The cassette adapter was up to the task in every way but overall noise. It's easy to have the iPod turned down too low and not realize the problem because the cassette input adapter seemed able to handle a wide range of inputs without any significant clipping or distortion at all. Given a good high setting on your iPod, you can expect to get some very good sound from one of these little adapters. Recommended.

The few CD tracks I was able to import into iTunes encoded very well. The Apple format is very good compared to your average mp3 encode. Bit for bit, the Apple format is better. If you are planning to use iTunes, the 128Kbps encode default will work for most people. If you are a bit picky about your audio, I would suggest either the 160 or 192Kbps settings. There is plenty of room in the player either way.

If you are planning to stick mostly with mp3 files, I would suggest getting a copy of LAME to do your encodes with. This encoder beats the Fraunhoffer reference encoders hands down. A good balance for everyone is the -q3mix quality settings that are part of the LAME defaults. (~160Kbps) My personal experience with the two (Apple and LAME) is a wash with both encoders having their strengths and being capable of enough quality. Sadly, most mp3 software encoders shipped today do not do the format justice. That's an advantage for Apple in that their format works very well out of the box.

And that's about it really. I'm a happy iPod owner that isn't going to be using iTunes for a while just yet. The application shows promise, but just isn't cooked well enough for my tastes yet. If I can get it to install properly, I'll probably keep it around for the occasional download, but that's about it for iTunes.


4 Comments:

Anonymous Fin said...

"It did have the look of something written for the win32 environment that really didn't want to be there..."

I couldn't agree more. I get mine delivered tomorrow - 4gb Green. Looking forward to it!

April 17, 2005 6:08 PM  
Blogger Doug Dingus said...

You are going to be pleased for sure. It didn't take very long for me to get hooked on mine.

I bought it to begin to sample the podcasts. Radio these days is lacking in depth and selection. The ability to cache a lot of good tunes for boring times beats a CD changer hands down.

The podcasts are going to be a big hit. I've found my favorite talk programs online for listening on an iPod. Being able to skip completely transforms the format from a moderatly informative and entertaining experience into a fairly great one.

Also, the various music podcasts appearing are a solid way to experience new music without having to resort to P2P or a lot of risky new CD purchases.

Very cool!

Nice site, BTW. I'm eager to try a couple of the podcast links you have there.

April 18, 2005 1:06 AM  
Anonymous Fin said...

Thanks very much - Radio Clash is fantastic.

I've had it for a few days now and I absolutely love it! I'm a bit worried about the casing getting scratched or chipped by the belt clip (and I think I would have preferred one with very slight foamed grips or something), but otherwise, I'm delighted.

Although, I installed it with USB 1.1 as standard on my laptop, got a USB 2.0 PC card for it, and it won't connect though it at all, even though it looks like the pc card is fine. Do you think I need to reinstall the ipod drivers or something?

April 20, 2005 10:35 AM  
Blogger Doug Dingus said...

I would remove the iPod software and the USB 2.0 card drivers, reboot, then install the card, reboot again, then install the iPod software then finally connect the iPod.

It gets confused if the pod is connected while the software is being installed.

Good Luck, be sure and check out the link you will find here for the ipodLounge. Lots of great answers there!

April 20, 2005 5:43 PM  

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