Apple IPod 20GB
The latest generation of Apple's sleek, white IPod has a slimmer body and a brighter display than the previous iteration. The $400 ($20 per gigabyte) 20GB version I tested is considerably pricier than the other hard-drive players I reviewed. For example, the Nomad Jukebox Zen N holds 30GB and costs $300, which is $100 less than the IPod--and at $10, half the cost per gigabyte. (Apple also makes a $500 40GB model, which drops the per-gigabyte cost down to a more-reasonable $12.50.) In the end, you pay a premium for Apple's cool interface and streamlined controls.
On-the-run types will love the IPod's simple one-handed operation. In fact, the controls are so easy to use once you're familiar with them that you'll be able to simultaneously walk and change songs or albums. Like the original IPods, this model features a touch-sensitive scroll wheel for navigating your song library or zooming through menu items. On-the-Go playlists let you select tracks and cue them up on the player in any order (older IPods required you to first save songs in a playlist on your PC and then transfer the playlist to the device). You can also use the IPod as a storage device for data and notes.
All sorts of music, from jazz to rap to classical, sounds clear on the player. The IPod supports MP3, Audible, and .wav formats; it doesn't support WMA. Swapping out Apple's earpieces for a better-quality set of headphones alleviated almost all of the distortion I encountered at high volumes. The 20GB player fits about 5000 average (4-minute) songs ripped at 128 kilobits per second.
Inside the box, in addition to the earphones, Apple supplies an AC adapter, a FireWire cable, a PC FireWire adapter, a wired remote (so you can stow the device and still stop playback, rewind tracks, and adjust the volume), a carrying case with belt clip, and an IPod dock. If your PC has a USB 2.0 port and no FireWire connection, you can buy the USB 2.0 dock for an additional $19.
Setting up the player is simple: You just install MusicMatch and the driver software, and then plug the IPod into your PC's FireWire port. The installation went smoothly for me, but Apple's registration routine requires quite a bit of personal information, including how you plan to use your device (at home, school, or business), and what your occupation is.
I tested the Windows version, which includes Musicmatch PC software for organizing your music and loading it onto the player; you can also use Musicmatch to rip songs from CDs. Musicmatch is easy to install, but it adds icons to your taskbar, desktop, system tray, and anywhere else an icon can go. Once I deleted the many icons scattered all over my screen, I simply imported music from my PC into Musicmatch and synced with the IPod. Music transfers quickly, thanks to the FireWire connector.
Recently Apple announced ITunes software for Windows, which includes Apple's ITunes Music Store online service. Previously only Mac users could run ITunes (in conjunction with the Music Store).
The IPod's streamlined design makes it one of the best MP3 players, yet it's also one of the most expensive.