The new portable player downloads all the music on your computer, says Ty Burr, and makes the perfect soundtrack for your life

Apple’s iPod is the latest in mix tape technology

I don’t normally write online columns praising new technological widgets ? despite running EW’s Internet section for a couple of years, I’ve always been more of a content guy than a gadget guy ? but I have to confess to finally coming down with a serious case of geek lust. The object of my affection (and the source of twitching, green-faced envy from my coworkers)? Apple’s new MP3 player, the iPod.

Yeah, it looks cool. EVERYTHING Apple makes looks cool, which doesn’t necessarily change the way you look at the world. The iPod does just that, though. The deal is that it’s an MP3 player for people who don’t understand the first thing about MP3s; in tandem with Apple’s mindlessly easy iTunes software (a free download that sucks in your CDs, turns the tracks into MP3s, and manages your desktop music library), iPod is the first gizmo that actually delivers what the MP3 format has promised for its short, obstreporous existence: your own portable soundtrack.

What, the Walkman did that? Sorry, the Walkman didn’t hold ONE THOUSAND SONGS. Yes, five gigs of music. So, imagine this: We all work on iMacs and G4s here, and most of us have downloaded iTunes. (Version 2 just came out. It’s got an equalizer. We’re all going Homer Simpson over this: MMMMMMMMM, EEEqualizer…) We trade music files in a smallish way, so sue us (No, wait, I’m kidding!), and besides, every time I slam a CD in my computer, the songs get added to the iTunes library. Point being, I amassed 5 gigabytes of music before I knew what I was doing. So when I plugged in my iPod review unit ? so sleek… so slim… — I figured I’d be there all day, watching the music get sucked onto the player through the digital equivalent of a cocktail straw. Wrong: 1,055 songs were down the pipe in about ten minutes.

And here’s where things got trippy. I hit ‘shuffle,’ ‘play,’ walked out the door ? and commuted home listening to, essentially, my entire record collection programmed randomly. Which is more or less the same thing as my own private radio station.

I can’t tell you how delightful the experience was: a mix of constant surprise and deep comfort. When you’re pulling songs from a stock this big, each track taunts your ear at first (Who IS this group, anyway?). Since they’re all songs you know, though, that doubt resolves happily (I’d forgotten how much I liked this song…). And the juxtapositions can be jarring and grand; in the space of 30 minutes, I careened from the Kinks to Orbital to Brahms to Bjork to Dylan to Iggy to Lemonjelly. It was as if someone had programmed my perfect mix tape and sprung it on me as a surprise.

Solipsistic? Self-absorbed? Hell, yes, but the whole headphones experience is fundamentally about shutting out the real world anyway, so why not take it to its logical conclusion? (In fact, having reached the final frontier of playlist perfection may even ironically spur you to take off the phones and engage other humans in actual conversation.) Besides, if never breaking out of your musical rut bothers you, just throw a couple of unknown CDs onto your iPod to keep you on your toes.

The iPod’s not perfect. There’s no bass or treble control on the player itself, and the accompanying earphones are pretty chintzy, so you may want to purchase a headset with bass control. At $399, it’s too pricey by half. And, of course, it’s an Apple product, meant to drive further sales of iMacs and iBooks, so, as a result of this justifiable yet elitist position, PC owners are out of luck. (Expect third-party knockoffs to appear in 2002, though).

But who cares? I never have to carry a portable CD-case again. I can listen to the complete musical history of XTC, provided I have 10 hours to spare. And I can marvel for the first time at how well Madonna seques into Mozart, and how perfectly both of them play against the sunset.