The Beauty that is the iPod Despite the Beast that is Mac UI Philosophy

The iPod, image from apple.com.So I finally broke down and bought an iPod. I’ve been thinking about getting some sort of mp3 player for some time, but I never felt like the expense was justified. I’ve been exposed to a fair amount of iPod hype lately through my work, and having to rely on our CD collection in the car has long been a problem (e.g. when we forget to take the CDs, or one of them is still in the CD player in the house). I’ve also been flying out to California a lot for my work, and it’d be nice sometimes to have music. I recently bought Wagner’s The Ring, for example, and though I understand about as much German as I read in an old Gary Larsen The Far Side cartoon in which a duck asks another duck in several frames if it speaks several languages (“Sprechen sie deutsche?” “Parlez vous fran&#0231ais?”) if I remember correctly, I’d sort of like to listen to the opera in the foreground rather than as a background as I’m writing code. A plane ride would be perfect for that (and on the plane ride I take on Monday, I’ll also be rereading the book — Gaddis’s J R — that prompted my recent interest in The Ring anyway). So I finally broke down and bought an iPod.

And it rocks.

It’s got a little finger dial thing, and the cardinal points on it are buttons that allow you to do things like play/pause, fast-forward/rewind, back up through the menu system, power the iPod down, etc. To select songs and navigate through menu options and change the volume, you whirl your finger around the dial-pad to produce a visual scrolling onscreen. You click the middle button to select, and you select the north button to back up in the menu tree. And that’s it. It’s very easy to use one-handed (while driving, for example), which is much better for navigating the 5,000 songs my model will hold than rifling through the 250 or so CDs it would take to hold the same amount of music. You can plug any standard headphones into it, and if you have a tape-deck adapter for your car (I already had one), that’ll work too. If you unplug your headphones or other adapter mid-song, the iPod’s smart enough to pause the song for you. There’s also a slider button on the top that you can toggle to deactivate all other controls, sort of the way you can lock your cell phone to keep the pencil in your pocket from dialing random phone numbers. And you can get a full charge, which is good for 15 or so hours of music, in five hours. It’s a very cool device.

One thing I noticed about it, though, which I’ve found to be true for me of Apple products in general, is that it’s very usable, but it’s not intuitive. That is, once you know how to use the thing, it’s very easy to use. But it’s not necessarily an intuitive device to use without a quick tutorial. I had to google how to change the volume, for example. I would have expected a setting you could navigate to through the menu system, but what actually happens is that while a song is playing, as long as you’re not lost in the menus somewhere (ie, you’re on the play screen, which the iPod reverts to after a few seconds of idle time in the menus if you jump out of play mode), you just whirl your finger around the wheel to adjust the volume. Now that I know how to do this, it’s very useful and very easy. It makes perfect sense. But it’s not necessarily intuitive because we’ve grown up in sort of a Windows world, where many settings require you to navigate out of your workspace to change them.

Which is not to say that the Windows paradigm is right or good. But for all the cool-factor that tends to be associated with Mac products, using them is sometimes like being forced to use metric in an English system world.

Another great case in point is Quicksilver. It’s a launcher application for the Mac. I’m sure it does much more than that (the shelf, for example, about which maybe more some other time), but I believe its basic function is that of a launcher. It’s sort of a way of using shortcut keys to get to applications and files. So you have QS running in the background. You type period-space (or something like that) to bring it to the foreground. This displays a nice rounded bubbly layer above everything else on your desktop that scared me off the first time I used it. Or it’s not so much that it scared me off as I simply didn’t know what to do with it. Was I to drag something onto it or to double-click somewhere or what? It turns out, I learned just recently, that you can type other special key sequences (holding down certain keys for a few seconds, for example) to provoke other actions. Or you can begin typing the names of applications on your Mac (“fir” is likely to make Firefox appear in the bubbly layer’s left panel, and “itu” is likely to make iTunes appear there, for example) and then tab over into the second panel to perform certain actions, such as selecting a site from your browser history to visit or a tune to play.

These shortcuts are all very nifty things once you know what you’re doing, but they’re not exactly intuitive to figure out. So I wouldn’t say that the software (which is admittedly not put out by Apple, but which is, I gather, in line with the whole Apple culture) is especially elegant or user friendly. It’s not something grandma’s ever going to use, and to me, elegant, user-friendly software is something that grandma and bleeding-edge-grandson can both use efficiently and with very little in the way of explanation.

So I think that Apple’s user-friendliness is a lot of hype (for another example, to install software, you download a disk image and double-click it to produce a window/icon that you can double-click to run the software in memory as a disk image from the desktop [wtf?] or that, to install properly, you have to drag into your Applications folder [wtf?] — wouldn’t the intuitive thing be for the software just to install and launch automatically, or at least for it to install and prompt for a folder to install into and then to launch?). That said, once you figure out the iPod, and it’s really not terribly difficult to figure out, it’s a really cool little device. I got the iPod Photo, which I won’t use for photos but which was the model available for the price I was willing to pay. It’s the 20GB device, and there’s a bigger one for $100 more, but I figured 5,000 songs was probably enough for my immediate needs. If you’ve got a little extra cash lying around and you like music and are on the move, I definitely recommend the iPod.

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