Like a Hollywood summer blockbuster, the Apple iPod is a marketing institution in itself. Devotee websites like iPodlounge.com and tens of millions of discussion forum threads, a global industry in accessories that seem to get more outlandish (but which — each time we see them — make us ask ourselves why they hadn’t thought of it before), and several entire companies have sprung up around Apple’s simple but beautiful digital music player.
Eschewing the CD-player styling most other digital music layer makers went for, the clean white lines of the iPod assured it of quickly becoming one of the most recognisable products in the world. Like the movie at the centre of the licensing and merchandising orgy, the iPod sits smug and assured of its position as the epicentre of an industry.
But there are no flies on Steve Jobs and his gang of filthy rich designers and engineers. Not content with revolutionising the way we think about digital music, they produced the iPod mini in late 2003, (returning to the original iMac ethos of offering it in a range of colours) for the less demanding user who stayed away form the original iPods because of the price tag.
One feature that most impressed on the iPod mini was the new and improved click wheel. Front side real estate meant the four buttons that had graced the front of iPods since the first model had to go, and they were rather ingeniously incorporated into the touch-sensitive wheel used to scroll through menus or playlists.
And so the fourth generation iPod is here, with several improvements under the hood and the even less cluttered (if that was possible) face thanks to adopting the iPod mini’s click wheel.
The third generation, as the first one with a touch-sensitive chick wheel instead of the wheel plate you had to press to activate functions, was stunning in it’s design. Containing no moving parts, it was more like a tool out of a science fiction movie than ever, and watching your fingers race across the glassy surface making things happen seemingly out nowhere was fascinating.
Ironically, the grey click wheel on the new iPod is less attractive and looks cheaper than the totally smooth front of its predecessor. Functionality is improved — you can operate the iPod virtually without even looking at it, with only one area of activity for your finger on the front. The menu, forward and backward and play/pause buttons are now on the wheel itself, which still doubles as the volume and scrolling control, with the button in the centre still the erstwhile enter key.
The bad press Apple received throughout most of 2003 and 2004 about the iPod’s battery quality seems to have been taken seriously — although it’s too early for reports of batteries dying prematurely, Apple claim the 40Gb model offers up to 12 hours of battery life, a claim our test model lived up to.
Taking between 2 and 4 hours to charge and weighing only about 175 grams, it comes with the current release iPod software so the games, functions etc., shouldn’t be so different from the ones on a 3rd generation iPod. A long overdue addition, however, is the shuffle menu, which plays every track on board at random at the touch of a button.
The iPod comes with all the connectors and cables you’ll need to plug it straight in and start collecting music and files on it, although it’ll be a long time before you fill it completely. Our 40Gb review model took a little over 1000 songs (as the advertising says, it can hold 10,000, but who in their right mind would have 10,000 favourite songs?) and 2.4Gb of data and didn’t even fill a quarter of the disk space.
The reasons the iPod is the coolest digital music player on the planet are many, and it loos like Apple aren’t going to stop cramming it with even more any time soon. There are cheaper digital music players out there, but if you take into account the iPod’s data handling capability and seamless integration with your computer (regardless of whether you use Windows XP or Mac OSX), it’s in fact quite a bargain.
And all in the most attractive package to come out of the technology sector since the 20th century.