Back to the future Friday, a monthly column where Headfonia shines light on the awesome past.
#4 iPod 5G (oft’ called iPod Video, circa 2005)
I didn’t immediately jump on the iPod 5G. Instead, I purchased a 4GB iPod nano, then, after scratching its screen up, re-fired a well-kindled Apple hate, and did the Meizu/Cowon/Sony thing for a few years.
Down with Apple! Mass market drivel! Bought by sheeple that don’t know sound, that have no taste! Idiots!
Then my mate let me hear his.
I nearly swallowed my tongue.
By then, the iPod Classic had been out for a couple of years. Despite both looking and feeling antiquated, the 5G astounded me.
And not just because it boasted a pretty gnarly Wolfson WM8758 DAC that sounds great. I certainly wouldn’t say it helped the 5G performed better than its contemporaries. In fact, I rather expect that, at least partly, its performance trails that of SoCs from Cirrus Logic among others. But what I heard very sounded good to me. And I’m completely aware that sounding good is personal.
The other thing about the iPod 5G was that it was (and still is) a joy to use.
Here’s the skinny:
The 5G was the last iPod to sport an overtly toyish design: soft glint of polycarbonate, high contrast polished metal, reflective plastic, and more. It is the first iPod to make full use of column browsing. And it came with a large, legible screen.
And dear Lord, that interface, while lacking in some functional areas, was perfectly laid out.
I consider it to the the handsomest, most politique design ever seen in a digital audio player. Many the stoned, aspirational plan of first-year design students was shot down. A thousand no’s were said. In the end, a single yes decided it all.
Simple brilliance was created. That brilliance connected to the heart. No element was out of place. No extraneous angles jutted from strange, jutting angles. Faux diamond volume knobs were tossed out. Ditto asymmetric handedness.
The 5G was a device designed to be used, not to be looked at. It played your music. It played your videos. It never hiccuped. And yet, while all else was ancillary, its design appeals still today.
Years later, the stoned, the dejected, the ridiculous, congregated to massage hurt feelings and create the ultimate committee platform. Benevolent iRiver it was that eventually said a thousand yeses.
For a time, Apple players were considered expensive. Commoditisation drove prices down. Pretty soon, Apple set the prices for the industry. While neither 30 GB nor 80 GB versions were cheap, they wouldn’t break the bank.
Today, well-used 80 GB 5Gs still go for 150-200$, sometimes much more. Sony and Cowon players of the same vintage go for far less. The iPod 5G – and most of Apple’s line of iDevices – cost very little over the long term. And since iPod owners don’t have to constantly seek that elusive ‘iPod Killer’, times between upgrades are long.
The 5G was also the last iPod to utilise fully discrete components. If the stock configuration wasn’t you thing, companies like Red Wine Audio could simplify the audio path by bypassing certain components, which returned better performance when connected to external amplification. Other companies offered upgrade hard disks, or made adapters that could interface with flash memory. I got an SD adapter here. Today, your iPod 5G can store hundreds of gigabytes of music.
But not every upgrade cost money. Rockbox firmware could be used contemporaneously with Apple’s, and offered functionality that music lovers missed: true gapless playback, parametric equalisers, software crossfeed, and much, much more. It offered plugins, and support for nearly every audio format under the sun. Rockbox is still being improved. It is the most comprehensive operating system for audio players.
Because of its incredible popularity, numerous vendors of batteries, screens, and more, popped up. If something went wrong with your 5G, chances were that you could find a way to fix it. Largely, the same is true today.
Ease of use
As mentioned above, the column view UI ensured that every software interface element had a place. That place never shifted, nor was it unnecessarily replicated. Hardware input reacted logically. Up was up, down was down. Left was left, and right was right. A press of the central button selected something.
There was no use in reinventing the wheel. Flash/bang!/wowie! was as far from their minds as today it is dear and close to iRiver. A more logical, and uniform interface for prehensiles doesn’t exist.
That said, niggles exist. Many Apple have since corrected. The first is that the raising and lowering of volume is possible only from the playback screen. The second is that repeat and shuffle functions are not directly accessible from the playback screen. The third – a point that consternates the least – is that playlist creation – and here it is again – isn’t possible from the playback screen.
Continue to the next page for sound and other impressions: