Without the Apple iTunes2 software, which requires a Macintosh running OS 9.2 or 10.1, you may as well use the iPod as a doorstop. (That effectively leaves out the 95% of us who are Windows shut-ins, but considering Windows XP's native support of FireWire and the pull of the marketplace, it's hard to imagine that we'll be left out for long.) Like the PlayCenter 2 software Creative Labs bundles with its much bulkier Nomad Jukebox, iTunes2 is an all-purpose MP3 encoder that also retrieves CD track/disc information from the Internet, lets you organize playlists, and transfers music into the portable.
Apple lent me a PowerBook G4 laptop for this evaluation, and I was soon ripping American Hi-Fi's self-titled debut CD at the default "medium quality" setting of 160 kbps (which is higher than the 128-kbps rate used for most downloadable MP3 files). Under Preferences, you can choose among 17 settings ranging from low to high quality, with a maximum of 320 kbps (generally indistinguishable from the original). You can even save uncompressed copies in Apple's own Audio Interchange File Format or as .wav files.
The iTunes2 default is to synchronize songs on the computer with those on the iPod so that your takeaway music matches the library on your desktop. In my case, this presented me with a tough choice: Apple had graciously transferred some 20 CDs to the iPod from a PowerBook, which was then whisked back to headquarters in Cupertino, California. The PowerBook later loaned to me recognized that the iPod I'd just attached was associated with a different computer. As far as I could tell, if I downloaded my newly ripped American Hi-Fi tunes to the iPod, all of the music already loaded on it would be obliterated. In order to time the download speed (and knowing I was handing the unit off to technical editor David Ranada, who has completely different musical tastes), I bit the bullet. Perusing the iTunes2 onscreen help 15 minutes later, however, I discovered that I could have turned off the auto-sync feature in Preferences and selectively added new songs to the iPod without committing hard-disk hara-kiri. Timing is everything.
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