Impressions of a First Generation iPod

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Steve Jobs introduced the iPod to the world in October of 2001. It was an amazing device at the time. The iPod’s 5 GB of storage allowed its owner to place 1,000 of their favorite songs in their pocket, as Steve famously enthused at its launch. Shortly thereafter, still in 2001, a 10 GB version was introduced, raising the capacity to an impressive 2,000 songs.

The iPod was a device that changed the world of music players forever, and Apple’s fortunes with it. Despite being introduced to a rather tepid response in 2001, it took off with a vengeance several years later when iTunes 4.1 became available for Windows in late 2003. This key event increased the iPod’s addressable market from just the Mac-owning elite to almost all personal computer users everywhere.

Surprisingly, fan reactions at launch were something less than positive. Consider the following vitriolic comment, taken from a 2001 MacRumors message board:

“I still can’t believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player? I want something new! I want them to think differently! Why oh why would they do this?! It’s so wrong! It’s so stupid!”

The author of that particular comment has hopefully reconsidered since that time! At any rate, that was yesterday and this is today, a world forever different as a result of that “stupid” and “wrong” device. I recently acquired one of those first generation iPods as part of the background research for a post I am preparing for a later time. Surprisingly, there are still lots of them available today on eBay, ranging from $10 to $10,000!

2014-07-02.02, My New 2nd Generation iPod for Use With 7300-200

Looking at this seminal device through the eyes of today, it seems surprisingly chunky. We are used to our iPods being sleek and svelte, along with their iPhone and iPad brethren. By contrast, the first iPod was really quite thick, weighing in at a hefty 6.5 ounces, and sporting dimensions of 4.02 x 2.43 x 0.78… Yes, that is 0.78 inches – nearly a full inch! Imagine that in today’s world, where the bulk of Apple’s introduction of its latest iPad seemed almost unnaturally focused on how thin it is!

The display was Black and White, 2” square, and had a resolution of only 160×128. Connectivity options were limited to Firewire, then (as now) not the most popular choice in a world dominated by USB.

The click wheel was a revolutionary concept and surprisingly, despite the passage of time and the evolution of iPods, the controls ALL worked pretty much as they do on the iPod Classic of today, even though the wheel structure was quite different.

Another revolutionary concept was the idea of keeping the device simple, and offloading the heavy lifting to a separate device, in this case an iTunes equipped Mac. Far ahead of its time, this arrangement was not unlike a lot of the cloud supported devices of today – keep the device simple and place the intelligence in the cloud. The first generation iPod was supported on Mac OS Classic from Mac OS 9.1 through Mac OS 9.2.2, and required iTunes 2.x and above.

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The experience of using the first generation iPod was not unlike the experience of using a current iPod Classic today (of course, I use the word “current” advisedly, as Apple has recently discontinued the venerable iPod Classic line once and for all). Like so many Apple products before and since, the first generation iPod had excellent build quality and felt solid and comfortable in the hand. The click wheel was intuitive and easy to use, and the iPod responded with no apparent lag to finger motions. The user experience, and the (at the time) enormous capacity, delighted users worldwide, and the iPod juggernaut quickly gathered speed and crushed its meager competition.

From a subjective perspective, as a current user of the final generation iPod Classic, I can report that I was immediately at home with the first generation iPod, easily navigating the slightly different menu setup and finding and playing music with no issues whatsoever. The device was easy to use and the sound quality was very good, although this is perhaps as much a function of the earphones I used as of the device itself.

To our modern sensibilities, none of this sounds very revolutionary though, so what of the competition that the iPod so effortlessly disposed of after iTunes for Windows released it from its Macintosh-only confinement? I will highlight what I consider to be the two major competitors of the era, the Diamond Rio and the Creative Nomad. At the time, Diamond was a well known purveyor of graphics and multimedia cards for PCs and Creative had given the world the nearly universal standard for PC sound cards of the era, the Sound Blaster series.

The Diamond Rio was of similar dimensions to the iPod, at 3.5” x 2.5” x 0.625”, and contained a small LCD screen which displayed only the track number being played. Contrast this to the iPod, which displayed all of this and artist and song information. The Rio also had a variety of controls to support skipping forward or backward, repeating songs, random play and so on. It was not an unattractive device, but what really hobbled it was capacity: the Rio shipped with only 32 MB of memory, vs. the iPod’s 5 GB of disk. That translated into a capacity of only 10-15 songs vs. the iPod’s 1,000 songs. A later upgrade to 64 MB (perhaps 30 songs at most) did very little to improve its competitive position. It is easy to see why the Rio was quickly trounced by its new competitor from Apple.

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The other competitor highlighted here, the Creative Nomad, also suffered from the Achilles heel of capacity. It shipped with 64 MB of memory, again 30 songs or so at most, and like the Rio, it featured a small monochrome display. Unlike both the Rio and iPod, it came with both a voice recorder and FM radio. Still, 1,000 songs vs. 30 songs was a compelling difference, and more than enough to power Apple’s iPod past the Nomad with zest and authority.

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The rest is history. The iPod went on to become Apple’s largest consumer success of all time (to that time), and the iconic white iPod headphones became THE symbol of modern music for a decade or more. The iPod’s extended market run was eventually curbed only by Apple itself, with the release of the iPhone. The introduction of the iPhone and the accompanying field of smart phone competitors marked the beginning of a slow but irreversible decline for standalone music players. Today, while iPods continue to sell reasonably well, they no longer command the premium market position they once held.

As an interesting side note, the above is not ENTIRELY true. Clearly the public at large retains a serious fondness for the iPod Classic. Apple discontinued the last iPod Classic model, by then delivering a 160 GB capacity, in September of this year (2014). Now available only on eBay and similar locales, the price of an iPod Classic has tripled and even quadrupled, with prices now ranging in the $800+ region. Thank goodness I purchased one new early this year, while they were still an active part of Apple’s lineup, reasoning at the time that Apple was bound to discontinue such a “long-in-the-tooth” design in the near future. My instincts were correct. I only wish I had bought several – it would have been an excellent investment!

So, that’s it for impressions of the first generation iPod, a chunky device that delighted its owners, powered Apple’s meteoric rise and still performs like a champ to this day. In my next post, I will examine the process of moving a modern day iTunes library to Mac OS 9.2.2 and iTunes 2.0.4, and then loading the result onto a first generation iPod. Stay tuned!

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