Different needs, different capabilities, different iPods

After more than six years and four different models, I am not exactly an expert on iPods, but I have spent a lot of time with them and have come to appreciate their differences. I’d like to talk about them a bit and pass along some of the things I have learned about them.

My first iPod—the original model—was revolutionary. It completely changed the way I listen to music, which is something I can say without a hint of hyperbole. The sheer bulk of my cassette Walkman made it a deterrent to regular use. That plus the inflexibility of having only one cassette in the thing. If I wanted more choices, I had to lug more tapes around. The Discman wasn’t much better. But the iPod gave me dozens of albums to listen to and let me change from one to the other with minimal effort. And don’t even get me started on how iTunes and its smart playlists contributed to this personal listening revolution. I mix tape that once took hours to compile would now get done in minutes—often automatically.

Its successor, the 30GB “video” iPod, gave me options I never had before while increasing portability. Now I could fit hundreds upon hundreds of albums on a single iPod and bring along videos and video podcasts. I can’t tell you how many commutes were spent sitting on the train watching Channel Frederator. Again, I had a wealth of diverse music available to me at my fingertips. It became rare for me to leave the house without my iPod, just because it gave me so much to listen to.

The iPod Shuffle (in glorious orange) is a marvel, but works very differently from my previous iPods. I got it so I could listen to music and podcasts while exercising. Its diminutive size and sturdy, built-in clip make it ideal for that. You can clip it on and forget it’s there! I often clip it onto my cap for a near-wireless feel.

What used to frustrate me about it was that it would reorder my podcasts to play the latest one first, then the next latest and so on. Nice idea, but I liked to get caught up starting with the oldest podcast, then work my way up to the most recent. For a long time that was impossible to override, but it looks like a recent software update took care of that.

What continues to frustrate me, though, is that the Shuffle is monogamous with iTunes. It will sync with only one library at a time. My older, hard drive-based iPods had no problem with me plugging them in to my work Mac and syncing there. Not the Shuffle. If I plug it into my work computer, it wants to delete everything and start fresh. With its small (1GB) capacity that’s not always a problem, as long as I anticipate it. Still, it’d be great if it could be a little less faithful.

Which brings me to my newest toy, the iPod Touch. Oh, what a glorious toy. As a former Newton user and devotee I was holding out for a PDA that more closely resembled what the old Newtons could do. While the iPhone goes well beyond those capabilities, its exclusive deal with AT&T is a deal breaker, so I went with the Touch. This thing is so sweet. WiFi lets me get online at home, at work and many other places, and the apps that are available let one use it and customize it in myriad ways. While the task manager gets the most use during the day, the Facebook, Twitter and Google apps keep it busy at night as well.

As a music player, however, it doesn’t suit my needs very well. Its interface is almost completely visual. All my other iPods have tactile feedback which allows me to manipulate them without looking. The Shuffle can stay clipped to my collar or the video iPod can stay in my pocket and I can alter the volume and skip songs without looking. Not so with the Touch. If it’s something I can listen to straight through, it’s not a problem, but this morning I wanted to hear the same song over and over again. That meant taking the Touch out of my pocket every two minutes and thirty seconds and figuring out how to go back. Not a huge deal, of course, but with my other iPods I barely even have to think about it.

The Touch is also every bit as monogamous as the Shuffle. Maybe that’s a function of the solid state memory. I don’t know. The bummer there is that I don’t bring my enormous iTunes Library to work every day, so I can’t sync the Touch from there. If I want to sync my calendars I have to do it at home. Again, not a huge deal, but one that could probably be made easier.

Thus, I have four iPods now, each of which fills a certain need. Well, all but the original iPod, actually. That one has been retired. Still works! If I want a lot of songs available or need to move forward and backward within songs with relative ease, the video iPod gets the call. If I have a set of songs I want to listen to without me monkeying with things, it’s the Shuffle. The Touch serves my non-musical needs very, very well right now. It may even replace the clock radio on my night stand.