Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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iPods today

560 words on

I wanted an iPod pretty much since the day I heard about it and it the took two years or so until I actually got one – with prices going down and capacities going up in the meantime. And now, more than three years later, everybody else seems to be catching up and the number of not-iPod owners goes down and down.

A friend of mine got himself an iPod last week which gave me the opportunity to have another look at the issue (well, I had to go to the store to get my MacBook repaired anyway). While I find those new iPod nanos really attractive as they combine the best iPod design – that of the mini in its distinct lack of crappy plastic materials – with an even slimmer form, I was quite shocked by the new packaging. Well, not shocked really, but not exactly thrilled.

It’s all a shiny plastic mess which the iPod is squeezed into. Making it difficult for my rather tall and large-fingered friend to get it out of the packaging and even more difficult to put it back in for transportation. Optimising the packaging design for shiny display rather than a good unpacking and storage experience? Where’s the user-friendliness in that?

But what I found even more shocking – yet somewhat reinforcing my prejudices about ‘good American engineering’ is that the iPod was completely discharged. So it couldn’t be used right away (and what about including one or two songs for instant gratification?). As my friend wanted to check whether the device is functional, we just put it into a dock right there at the dealer’s place. And that worked all right… although after undocking it with still no real power having made it into the battery in those few seconds the display went to an ugly state with some pixels not going back to the blank state. Not impressive.

Futhermore, the dealer told my friend that these new iPods can fall to a deeply discharged state where it’s possible that they won’t be revived when hooked up to a computer’s low-powered USB port. I first thought the guy was trying some unfriendly sales technique to get my friend to buy a separate ‘high-powered’ charger that can give 1A of current rather than USB’s standard 0,5A (that charger being a device which apparently fries iPod nanos when you plug them in because those can’t take the stronger current).

But it turned out the dealer was right. As we were standing there, a girl came in, saying that her iPod was broken and wouldn’t charge. Connecting it to the ‘high powered’ charger for a few minutes ‘fixed’ that problem. But it confirmed my prejudices about ‘great American engineering’. This is just a crappy experience for a rather expensive device. It should work just fine on any of the many millions of USB ports there are.

And no matter whether this is incompetence in engineering or an evil ploy of Apple’s marketing people (the current generation of Apple’s machines have USB ports which are easily able to provide the required power over the bus, while previous machines like my iBook had a much weaker power supply for USB) to make Macs look ‘superior’ to other computers, I think it is just bad design.

A shame, really, because the iPod is a nice music player.

March 23, 2007, 0:38

Tagged as apple, apple defect, broken.


Comment by Paul D: User icon

Weird, all the portable Apple products I’ve bought — a 4th-gen iPod, an iPod Mini, and a Macbook Pro — all came charged and ready to be used.

Apple’s switch to USB for the iPods was a technological error in my opinion. Firewire charges more reliably (it seems) and transfers data much faster. I’ve no interest in buying a USB-based iPod, so my current one had better keep going strong.

March 23, 2007, 9:39

Comment by Tobias: User icon

Though still right and justified, your posts have gotten to sound more and more whiny in the last weeks, making them less than fun to read. How about a more laid back style?

March 23, 2007, 10:20

Comment by Dave2: User icon

Funny. When my BMW motorcycle developed a leak, it never occurred to me to bash “German Engineering.” Heck, even when I was lamenting the totally stupid design flaw which dictates having to take apart the motorcycle to get to the battery I never thought to fault the entire country of Germany for the problem.

Like Paul above, every Apple product I’ve ever purchased which required batteries has arrived with at least a partial charge. Since every battery will eventually discharge over time, I can’t help but wonder if your dealer sold you one that had been sitting around for 9 months or something? Or maybe the manufacturer failed to properly charge a batch of iPods before shipment? But heaven forbid that the issue could possibly be attributed to Germany or China… far easier (not to mention “fashionable” now-a-days) to blame the entire United States. I mean, it’s not like anything good has ever been engineered there (as you were not so subtle in declaring… twice).

But what really puzzles me is how you feel that an older-generation iBook which won’t wake a fully-discharged iPod makes Apple look superior? Isn’t the older generation iBook a Mac too? Or did you buy one of those Dell iBooks? Inconceivable to think that Apple was just following design specs for USB voltage requirements, but bumped the voltage a bit when they realized it would be helpful for USB devices that like to have more power. How insidious! Of course, I suppose if Porsche or Sennheiser or Siemens were to revise one of their products to better adapt to the requirements of their accessories, they would be lauded as progressive geniuses! Apple, being an American company, is simply evil and incompetent… there just can’t be any other explanation.

Yes, it’s bad that the iPod might not be able to be awakened from full-discharge by many USB ports out there (including those on most Macs), but to think that Apple purposely designed a product this way makes no sense at all. You think they like having angry customers storm their Apple Stores to complain in front of potential customers? Gee, not only are those Americans crappy engineers, but they’re stupid businessmen too!

On top of being evil, of course. :-)

March 23, 2007, 13:30

Comment by ssp: User icon

Dave2: The bottom line is that Apple do sell iPods which can get to state where many computers are not able to recharge them. And that with a frequency that the problem was immediately familiar to the dealer in our small town.

Thus, this is either bad design or Apple liking to have unhappy customers. At least those are the only options I could come up with. If you know a better explanation, please let me know.

I surely do appreciate Apple bumping the power supply capabilities of their current machines. It’s the iPods sometimes needing more power than what most computers deliver to start charging again what is the bad thing.

Similarly, I don’t think the iPod being sold with a discharged battery is the biggest deal. And each of the Apple machines I received had enough charge for a test ride when I got it. Which is why I expected that for my friend’s iPod as well and suspected there could be a problem with the device because when it wasn’t charged.

Just imagine me who raved about his iPod for years, telling people how great it is for the music and how it’s even fantastic down to the unpacking and telling everybody how things ‘just work’. And then see me standing next to my friend when he bought his iPod and specifically asked me to join him on the trip. The experience of which was that the iPod was difficult to unpack as you need to bend fiddly plastic which looks like it might break if you touch it too roughly, that the iPod didn’t turn on and that we learned it’s not uncommon that you can’t charge when it has been deeply discharged. Frankly, I felt like an idiot in that situation as a good part of the joy I told people about the iPod just wasn’t there.

Finally, on the engineering stuff. This is a tricky topic and I don’t understand it completely. But from the observations I made and people I have spoken to I have the impression that in the English-speaking world the balance between engineering and management / marketing is shifted further to the latter in comparison to Old Europe. This also seems to affect the way engineers are educated.

As a consequence, I’d expect quicker innovation and marketing leading to the more exciting products at the top end in the English-speaking world while I expect a higher average quality over here. Which in many areas looks about right.

And good luck with your motorcycle… just as the car industry in the US isn’t the one that attracts the brightest lights, I’m pretty sure the same can be said about the car industry over here.

March 23, 2007, 14:42

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