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iPod sans Apple

You don’t need the Mac to use the best handheld digital music player. It will work with Windows.

I had been planning to buy some type of MP3 player for the past year but couldn’t quite settle on any particular model. Last October, Apple debuted the iPod and I knew I wanted one. The interface was vintage Mac, and the sound quality and design are brilliant. I had just one problem: I don’t own a Mac, so ostensibly I couldn’t use an iPod.

I don’t have anything against Macs per se; I just don’t need one. I am a PC person. I perform all my work on Linux or MS Windows. I have supported Macs for years as part of my IT duties and, like most people who are not emotionally invested in the platform wars, I see the various computer platforms as toolboxes. Macs do have a place in my business, but not in my personal life.

At first this lack of Mac was a hindrance to iPod acquisition. I considered the Archos 6000 and the Rio Riot but they just weren’t enough. The iPod has a lot going for it, not the least of which is the choice of Firewire as its method of both battery charging and data transfer. Firewire is fast, much faster than USB 1.1; the transfer method employed on all current Windows-based MP3 players. Filling the iPod’s 5GB or 10GB via Firewire takes about 5 to 15 minutes, while filling 10GB via USB will take at least an hour, probably longer. I leave the math to you for 10GB and 20GB USB-based MP3 players. To quote Indigo from “The Princess Bride,” “I hate waiting.”

Last month, I began looking around for some sort of progress on MS Windows software for the iPod. While Steve Jobs has made vague references to releasing iTunes–Apple’s MP3 ripping and organizing software–for Windows, I am not holding my breath. In all fairness, if I were Apple, I wouldn’t want to start offering tech support to the countless varieties of PCs in existence. The next logical option for Apple would be to release a Windows Media Player plug-in for the iPod. These plug-ins exist for some existing MP3 players and would allow Windows users to use Windows Media Player as their primary iPod conduit. There are other roadblocks to this approach–HFS+ (Mac file system) drivers for one–that would also require various degrees of support from someone.

But have faith, gentle reader, for there is hope. I have found two MS Windows products for the iPod and the remainder of this column will discuss them. They are EphPod and xPlay.

EphPod (EEF-pod) is being written by Joe Masters, a senior at Williams College. It is remarkable software in that it works very well and offers many if not more features than those found in commercial MP3 player synchronization software, such as playlist management, batch adding songs by directory, ID3 tag editing and .m3u playlist importing. It also offers several “insta-playlist” creation commands like Make Playlist for Each Album, Make Playlist for Each Genre, Make Playlist for All Songs, and Make Playlist for Orphan Songs. The latest beta version offers a slick new interface contributed by Christian Petersen further enhancing an already notable project. Did I mention that EphPod is free?

You’re not off the financial hook yet. Along with the 400-500 clams you’ll be shelling out for your iPod, you will also need a Firewire port on your PC and, to use EphPod, some software that can read Mac file systems. For the Firewire port, you will most likely need to buy a Firewire card unless you own certain Sony Vaios. Firewire cards can be had for both notebooks and desktops and range from $30 to $120 depending on the brand and features. I chose the Adaptec 4300 PCI card, though the Western Digital card has also received warm reviews. An alternative to both cards is to upgrade your sound card to the new Creative Audigy. Along with a host of new features, the Audigy includes one Firewire port. Firewire installation on Windows 2000 or XP will be plug-and-play easy; Windows ME/98/95 will need to use the driver CD that comes with the Firewire card.

For the Mac file system software, you have two choices: MacOpener or MacDrive. I tried MacOpener first but the current version suffers from write-delay errors as well as unclean disconnects when unplugging the iPod. MacDrive 5 has been a very reliable, and file transfers are faster than MacOpener. Both products will cost you $50, and both have trial versions available. An advantage of either program is that free space on your iPod can be treated as a portable Firewire drive, another selling point of the iPod. Note: When using EphPod with either of these products, make sure to observe the proper settings from the EphPod Web page.

MacDrive also provides a nice segue to the next product, xPlay, since they are made by the same company, Mediafour. xPlay Preview Release 5 is now available as a free download. The finished product will be commercial software and will probably cost around $40, but will not require you to purchase additional software to read/write Mac file systems. xPlay includes a limited version of their MacDrive software for that purpose. xPlay does not have the same variety of bells and whistles as EphPod but as they say, it is not yet finished. The UI is essentially an enhanced Windows Explorer with drag-and-drop MP3 additions and playlist editing. xPlay also includes a Windows Media Player plug-in that easily syncs your iPod with existing playlists. Note: iPod does not play Window Media Player-formatted songs; you will need to encode them as MP3, AIFF, or AU files. Recently, the iPod learned to read another type of file, the vCard.

When Apple released the new 10GB iPod model in late March, it also released a newer version of the iPod firmware, version 1.1. Along with adding a new equalizer to the iPod, Apple also added one of the more popular iPod hacks, a contact list. And what is most remarkable is that Apple used an existing, widely adopted address format, the vCard, instead of coming up with yet another proprietary Apple-only format. To see contacts on your firmware 1.1 equipped iPod is simply a matter of generating vCards from Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm Desktop, Entourage, (pick your app) and drag them into the ‘Contacts’ folder on the iPod. Voilà! Très facile.

So where does that leave you? Basically, if you don’t have Firewire or a PC HFS utility, you are looking at about $550 – $650 to get up and running with an Apple iPod on your PC, but it is possible. Firewire is a good investment, even with USB 2.0 coming out, since most digital video cameras have Firewire ports. And what about Linux? “If MS Windows can do it so can Linux!” my flightless friend Tux would scream–and he would be correct. Jason Ouellette has a very complete page on getting your iPod to work on Linux.

Garth Gillespie is the systems architect for ComputerUser web operations. He is currently the CTO of ICONOCAST.

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