This review will be the first of a series of two reviews, covering both the 3rd Gen Apple Ipod (15gb) and the Creative Zen Xtra (30gb). Not only do you get a full review of each product, but also special 'shootout' sections where I compare and contrast the iPod and Zen.
Preface and Useless Patter
I'll admit it. I'm a hopeless tech junkie. If I see some little box or piece of plastic that does something cool, my mouth starts watering at the possibility of owning one. I'd followed the ipod's development with some interest, as the 1st and 2nd generation ipods had a reputation as excellent, if pricey players. The 3rd gen player really piqued my interest, but was just a bit out of my price range. I instead settled for a Creative Zen as a stopgap solution until the ipods dropped to a more stomachable price range.
With the release of the new 4th generation ipod, the 3rd generation (3G) ipods dropped to well within my price range.
I immediately schlepped down to the nearest Best Buy, and lucked upon an open box 3rd gen model for the (comparitively) paltry sum of $209.99 US. I'm a hardcore windows user, so I'll be pretty much ignoring any Mac docking information in these reviews. Anyway, enough yapflapping, on to the meat n' taters of this review...
Apple Ipod 3G
Price: $229 - $299, depending on retailer
Capacity: 15gb, 3,700 songs est'd
Dimensions: 4.1" x 2.4" x 0.62"
Weight: 5.6 ounces
Battery: Lithium Ion Polymer (non-removable) 8 hours est'd playtime.
Connectivity: Apple Dock connector, Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 capable.
Included software: Apple iTunes.
Form factor/Size/Weight The iPod's tiny size came as a pleasent surprise to me. I've owned solid state players that dwarf the 3G ipod. The dimensions are similar to a deck of playing cards. I instantly fell in love with the ipod's compactness and feel.
The 3G ipod positively drips of Apple's design philosophy. Compact, slick, overengineered to a fare-thee-well, and cool as hell. The player fits comfortably in a shirt pocket, and is light enough that you forget it's there after a while.
The odd thing about the ipod is that it's feel is sort of a contradiction in terms. It's a positive featherweight (only 5.6 ounces) and tiny, but the unit still feels substantial and solid in your hand. The unit feels very well constructed overall.
Control and screen layout is excellent, with the player being dominated by a good sized screen, and a touchwheel. Four buttons nestle between the screen and wheel. A hold switch (the only mechanical control on the player) and headphone/remote jacks live on the top edge of the player, and the dock connector is relegated to the bottom.
Overall, the iPod presents the best possible face, with top notch engineering presenting all the necessary controls and connectors on a small, compact unit. My biggest problem with the iPod so far is the fact that the metal parts of the case are absolute fingerprint magnets. It's worthwhile to invest in a case (no longer included with the ipods) to keep the iPod free of dust and scratches. Score: 10 out of 10. The iPod is well-nigh perfect in the size and form category.
Shootout: As far as form and size considerations go, the iPod smokes the Zen hands down. The iPod is far more compact and lighter than the Zen, plus has a more intuitive layout for controls. The iPod beats the Zen hands down in the size/form areas.
Controls and Navigation
Again, top marks for the iPod in this department. When I first picked up the iPod, I decided purposely not to look at the instruction manual, and see how long it took to pick up the interface through trial and error. It took me all of about 2 minutes to scamper up the learning curve, and I was slapping playlists around and navigating like a pro.
The screen is good sized (2" diagonal), crisp, and has a good backlight. The contrast left something to be desired however, as it was rather ghostly looking until I cranked the contrast level up, and it still suffered some ghosting when marquis scrolling long song titles.
Controls are also excellent, though do require a look at the manual to learn all of the functions. The combination touchwheel/select button is a godsend, and makes life very easy when navigating menus and adjusting settings. The touchwheel is highly responsive and smooth, but can be a little too touch at times. Control buttons are also very responsive. The player provides handy click noises when using controls, to make up for the lack of any tactile feedback.
Overall, controls and navigation score an 8 out of 10. The annoyances with the controls and screen were minor, but should have been fixed with the obviously huge amoung of engineering that went into the iPod.
Shootout: The ipod again licks the Zen in the controls and navigation department. However, the Zen's screen is superior. Where the iPod suffered from a lack of good contrast at normal settings, the Zen was clear as a bell. Also, the Zen's backlight is blue, as opposed to the iPod's white, which made the Zen's text that much more readable in the dark. The ipod wins again, but the Zen comes on stronger in this category.
Care and Feeding The iPod handles data transfer and charging through a 'Dock Port' on the bottom of the player. The iPod comes stock with a Firewire 400 cable, an adapter for charging from a wall socket, and adapter dongle for pc Firewire ports. You can also purchase a combo Firewire/USB 2.0 cable that will allow you to transfer (but not charge) via USB 2.0. I really like the 1-cable-fits-all approach, since I can just toss my ipod onto the dock connector, and load it up with juice and fresh files. You can even use the USB/Firewire cable for charging and transfer by hooking the firewire portion up to the wallsocket adapter and the USB cable up to your PC. Very slick.
Itunes is the bundled software for managing your data, and does a very good job. The iPod will automagically synch up it's contents to whatever you've got residing in your iTunes music library, plus you can rip and/or purchase additional songs off of the internet. It'd be nice if the iPod could interface directly with Windows Explorer, but unfortunately you still need iTunes or other management software to rebuild the iPods song database. (The iPod can talk to Explorer, but simply putting a song into the iPod through explorer won't update the iPod's internal database, and won't allow you to play the song.)
The battery life is the one thing that I'm not terribly thrilled about. Apple advertises an 8 hour max life under the best of circumstances. I'm averaging about 5-6 hours under the same conditions. Not a huge drawback, but a drawback nonetheless. Plus of course, there's the specter of the dreaded replacement of the battery. The battery is rated for 500 full charge/discharge cycles, but then the iPod needs to be serviced to have the battery replaced.
Shootout: Overall, I'll give the iPod the win here again. Creative's software is nicer in some respects than iTunes, but only marginally. iTunes does a respectable job in performance and is very easy to use. The Zen has better battery life, and a user-replaceable battery, but with the long life of LiIon batteries, this is again a marginal advantage. iPod wins again. Score: 9 out of 10
Shootout Summary Overall, the iPod is the clear winner here. Better performance in pretty much all aspects that it's compared to the Zen. The only thing that really kept the Zen in contention was it's large storage capacity and cheap price. However, with the recent drops in price for the 3G ipod, the Zen's advantage in cost/storage capacity is reduced to the point that the iPod's superior features well outweigh the advantages of the Zen. The Zen is still a pretty good player, but the ipod is downright awesome.
Review Summary All in all, I'm very happy with my iPod. Intuitive navigation features, low price, decent battery life, and almost no design flaws make this thing about the best you can get. The newly lowered prices are really the icing on the cake. Before, the ipod was a premium player at a premium price. Now, with competitive pricing, it's pretty much a no-brainer as to where to spend your jukebox dollar. Overall I'll definitely recommend the iPod to anyone looking for a good HDD based player, as this little beauty is just pants. Overall score: 9.5 out of 10.
Stay tuned for the next exciting installment, where I take a look at the plucky challenger to the crown, the Creative Zen Xtra (30 GB).
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