Enter the eyeProd

Preamble

Even though I hail from the Walkman era, until recently, I had never owned a personal/portable music player. I toyed briefly with the MP3 player facility on my mobile phone but found it a shocking piece of software and an absolute pain to use. Back last November, for some reason I cannot recall, my wife decided that she needed a personal MP3 player. After a quick read of some Choice (the Aussie version of ‘Which?’) reviews, it appeared that the most appropriate unit would be the Apple iPod Nano.

We quickly decided that such a device would also take care of my Christmas present, so a his’n’hers pair was ordered. And no, we did not wait until Christmas to open them; our Christmas was actually over by the end of November.

The big worry – are forty-somethings too old for such things?

Small, But Not Fiddly

I was not quite prepared for how small the iPod – or eyeProd as I decided to call them – was. With my less-than-nimble fingers, I was a little concerned as to whether I would be able to operate such a dinky device. However, my fears were ungrounded; the ergonomics of the controls are better than they look although I would have preferred a more tactile interface.

The screen, whilst a tiny 2 inches in diagonal, is clear and bright.

The only aspect that I do find a little fiddly is plugging in the USB cable – I think that the body of my eyeProd may be slightly distorted so there is something of a knack getting it plugged in.

Ear Cruds

Ear bud type phones have never appealed to me; I have fairly small ears and every type I have tried have a tendency to fall out unless I hold my hands over my ears. The Apple ear bud phones were no different in this respect from others of previous experience. Whilst in the right position, the sound quality was suprisingly good. However, having to sit or lie still without breathing was about the only way that I could prevent them from shifting and thus changing the sound.

In my mind, these ‘ear cruds’ detracted somewhat from the overall product so I was little disturbed when fate struck them a fatal blow.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I was sitting down listening to my eyeProd through my ear cruds when one of the dogs wanted to go out. I stood up and somehow the cord got caught around the dog and eyeProd and all got dragged across the room. Luckily, I keep the eyeProd in a plastic safety-case so no damage was sustained there. However, that was the end of the left channel of the phones. A quick poke around proved them to be anything but maintainer-friendly, so no repair was possible.

Bereft of the Apple phones, I tried my ancient, beloved and much-repaired Yamaha YHD-3’s. Much to my horror, the sound was absolutely ghastly. Fiddling around with the equalisation settings (sadly all presets) on the eyeProd just yielded various different forms of ghastliness – nothing that I would want to listen to. The next test was a pair of recently-acquired Jabra C820s noise-cancelling phones. (I got these for when I really need to concentrate on my work.) The sound from these was consistently boomy, irrespective of EQ setting, but I think that is a characteristic of these phones.

This left me with only one solution – to buy a new set of phones.

Sennheiser – We Make Speakers, Not Computers

A couple of hours Googling and reading reviews persuaded me that the Sennheiser PX200’s were the phones to go for. Whilst I did need to make an EQ tweak (I am using the ‘Acoustic’ setting) on the eyeProd, these phones proved to be a good match.

I suppose that it is inevitable that headphones made by a manufacturer of loudspeakers should sound better than those from a strangely cult-ish computer company. The PX200’s are everything that the Apple ear cruds weren’t: they are the most comfortable over-ear phones I have ever worn (better even than my trusty Yamahas), sound excellent (even when moving), have a property called ‘build-quality’ and look like they are the result of some fairly serious design work.

The PX200’s fold up very cleverly and can be stored in a plastic case which even keeps the cord tidy. The case is very similar in size and appearance to a spectacles case – see the photograph for comparison. Initially, I thought this was just a gimmick but this storage system is very practical and, once again, shows that some fairly serious design went into this product. Insert obligatory comment about German engineering if you will.

eyePrunes – Filling Up the eyeProd

The part of the whole eyeProd thing that makes me unhappy is having to use Apple’s iTunes (or eyePrunes, as I call it) software to get media on and off the device. This software is available only for Windows and (of course) Macintosh, which leaves those of us who use other operating systems rather out in the cold. I think that the main reason for this is DRM – Digital Rights Management. This is the means by which Apple can sell you encrypted music that can’t be shared illegally (unless you decrypt it – also illegally). DRM upsets some people terribly to the point of foaming at the mouth. I don’t really care about DRM myself – I just object to Apple’s monopolistic attitude. I’m surprised that they even condescended to provide a Windows version of eyePrunes.

Having got that minor rant out of the way, I will go on to say that there is software available that will supposedly let you use your eyeProd with Linux, but the one I tried (can’t recall what it was) trashed the database on the eyeProd causing me to have to do a factory reset and then load everything on again.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was having to reboot my laptop into Windows XP every time that I wanted to add or change anything on my eyeProd. Unfortunately, as the laptop normally runs Linux, which keeps time as UTC rather than local time, the clock on Windows is always incorrect for my timezone as it assumes that the system time (in UTC) is the local time. This means that in a dual-boot situation, the clock on the eyeProd always shows UTC. Having recently deleted the Windows partition from my laptop and installed Windows XP under VMware instead, these issues are things of the past. I can now fire up eyePrunes in the Windows virtual machine – no reboots required and no issues with the clock being out-of-whack.

With the eyePrunes software, one can ‘rip’ CDs (even my modest collection took a fair while to transfer – a friend with a large collection has been at it for a couple of months) or purchase music downloads from Apple.

Buying Music From Apple – the iTunes Store

Through the eyePrunes software, one can search and purchase music directly from Apple. It really is a quick and simple process, given a decent Internet connection. I have started to try to rebuild much of my old music collection that got left in England due to it being on vinyl or cassette (well, the bits I still like, anyway). Purchasing from Apple is not only quicker, but also marginally cheaper than buying CDs. I still have to buy some CDs through Amazon, as some of the more obscure stuff (like early Kraftwerk) simply isn’t available from Apple. Say what you like about the DRM issue, but the eyePrunes Store works for me.

I have a long-held belief that you can only really judge the quality of a vendor or service provider after something has gone wrong. It just so happened that I had purchased the album ‘Foxtrot’ by Genesis from Apple and found a digital ‘blip’ a little way into the first track. (For those who still use vinyl, that’s like a bad scratch.) Using the appropriate mechanism on eyePrunes (another reboot!), I reported this and the very next morning received a very snotty e-mail from Apple along the lines of ‘tough luck, no refunds, read the terms and conditions.’ I wrote back pointing out that I didn’t want a refund, just an uncorrupted copy of my music and that, by the way, we do have such things as consumer laws in Australia. The next mail from Apple was of an altogether different tone, apologising profusely for the first e-mail (I have a mental image of someone at the other end being given a whack round the back of the head a la Basil Fawlty and Manual), refunding the purchase price and giving me some extra credits to use as I wished.

To conclude on this issue, Apple appears to have some excellent customer service staff – I just happened to stike a complete pillock first time round who is now probably cleaning the staff loos rather than being allowed anywhere near the helpdesk again.

Whilst I am more than happy to buy music from Apple, I am delighted to learn that Amazon will be extending its MP3 download service to countries outside the USA later this year (or so they tell me). Competition is a wonderful thing.

Back It Up!

The only option in eyePrunes for backing up ones music is to do so onto CD. No, I can’t find any way to make it work with a writeable DVD and there is no way that I want to be backing up several gigabytes of data onto CDs. My usual way of backing things up – in the Unix world – is using rsync. After some thought, I installed Cygwin on my Windows partition and set up a little shell script that could be invoked through a Windows batch file that would rsync my entire eyePrunes directory onto my file server. It works like a dream, all done over the network, no fiddling with blank media. My article on VMware describes this further, including how I was able to reverse the process to get my old eyePrunes directory onto my new Windows virtual machine. I’m sure that there are other ways to do this, but this works best for me. (Works best when plugged into my Gigabit Ethernet backbone rather than trying to do it over a wireless connection – that’s just a bit slow.)

Conclusion

Whilst I was able to get the bulk of my CD collection into the eyeProd’s 8Gb memory, music purchased from Apple means that I now have somewhat more than will fit on so a certain amount of juggling is required. It was quite impressive when I had all my Wagner operas – including the entire Ring Cycle – on there, but I now have to be a little more selective and only keep stuff on that I am likely to want to listen to before I next plan to plug into the computer. Not that plugging into the computer is the big issue it once was.

Now that I have a decent set of headphones to go with it, I have to say that I am very pleased with my little eyeProd. There are a few issues that I would like to talk to the software interface designers about, but these are things that I have got used to. It sure beats having to lug a laptop everywhere, which was how I listened to music before.

I give the iPod Nano 3rd Generation experience, including iTunes Store but excluding the Apple headphones a Smiffy Score of 8.5 out of 10.

And no, I’m not to old for one of these things.