Five Things I Don’t Like About the iPod’s Design

About a month ago, I finally took the plunge and bought a 5th generation iPod (60gb). I’ve never owned an iPod before. I’ve owned many non-Apple mp3 players and have had mixed results. Now that I’ve finally taken the plunge, I’m pretty happy I did. You don’t need me to tell you that the iPod is a well-designed, sleek little portable music player. The world has already placed their vote.
With all that said, I’d like to throw on some protective gear and highlight what I think are some incredibly nagging and downright lousy aspects to the iPod’s user interface. Yes. That’s right. I’m going to criticize the iPod’s highly-regarded user interface. Say a little prayer for Rich…

  • I Really Need To Play Next. The iPod just asks to be touched. Even if I’m just listening to music, I like to peruse my collection. Albums. Genres. Artists. As so often happens, I’m ready to play the next track – after the one I’m listening to ends. Yeh, I can stop the current song, but I’d like to queue songs without interrupting the current song. This is especially useful for parties or in a car where you want to queue stuff on the fly.
  • Why Is Shuffle So Far Away? If I’ve queued up a playlist or an artist’s entire catalogue, I’ll often want to go into shuffle mode. To do that today, I have to navigate back out to the Main Menu to hit shuffle. Why can’t I just toggle? Maybe hold down one of the buttons to turn shuffle on or off?
  • A Recently Played Mess. Maybe I’m an edge case, but this one absolutely kills me. I’m an album-centric user. I think in albums, not a la carte songs. Very often, I want to get to my new albums. So I navigate the Recently Played playlist and click into…a rolling list of songs. My four albums are now one big playlist. Very painful. I’m left sifting through the album or artist name to find my new albums. There are many ways to fix this. It could be a simple setting on the device or a flag on the playist itself in iTunes.
  • The Alphabet Is WIldly Overrated I cannot put into words how sick I am of seeing the same eight artists show up first when I navigate to the artists listing on my iPod. So often, I’m thinking more about browsing than finding. Why can’t I resort by genre? Or recently added?
  • Show Me More As I Navigate. I have a fairly large music collection. I can’t always connect the album name with the artist – at least not immediately. As I highlight albums, show me a little more about it. A nice little thumbnail and the artist name would be fine. In many places, the iPod does a poor job of providing context to the user. It’s a navigate-through-pages type of experience, which has its shortfalls.

Now, I know that I’m a power user compared to the typical iPod user. Apple’s designers aren’t stupid. While the iPod’s interface may seem a bit over-simplified and the amount of interface controls are quite minimal, its paid off for them. These design constraints actually broadened Apple’s potential audience. That said, I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to not provide some of the additional power I’m seeking. A Play Next feature is pretty self-explanatory, for example. Also, many of these capabilities can be added but effectively hidden away from the more novice users.
With all my gripes, it’s hard to argue that there is a portable music player that is better than the iPod. I’ve messed with devices from Creative, iRiver and others and they all fall short…until now. My brother recently picked up a Toshiba Gigabeat S and I have to say…the interface of that device is outstanding. It’s incredibly intuitive and addresses many of the gripes I’ve outlined above. I’m going to keep my iPod because it’s good enough for me and I already invested in some accessories. But I encourage anyone looking to buy a high capacity portable media player to take a look at the Gigabeat. It is very sweet. CNet recently did a head-to-head roundup between the Gigabeat and the iPod and the Gigabeat was selected as the superior device.

11 Comments Five Things I Don’t Like About the iPod’s Design

  1. Timothy Mills

    Rich, have you tried using the On-The-Go playlist feature to replicate the Play Next feature you miss? To start an On-The-Go playlist hold down the center button for a second when you’ve browsed to the artist, album, or song you’d like to start with. The highlight will blink rather than taking you to the next navigation screen or starting to play the song. You can then either add more songs to the On-The-Go playlist or start listening to the playlist and add more later. You’ll find your On-The-Go playlist at the bottom of the list of playlists. It isn’t exactly Play Next but it seems pretty close.
    I agree with your other gripes about the iPod UI. I would also love to see Apple add some intelligence to artist name sorting. It drives me crazy that Frank Zappa is in with bands starting with F instead of bands starting with Z. I realize it’s difficult for a computer to know which artist names are bands and which are individuals. I’d even be happy if the solution was a check box in the info screen that told iTunes and the iPod that this was an individual and should be sorted accordingly. I suppose I could just sort my CDs the same way that iTunes sorts my digital files, but somehow that just seems wrong.

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  2. Kenny

    “I Really Need To Play Next” – You can queue stuff on the fly, its called the On the Go playlist.
    “Show Me More As I Navigate” – I can’t disagree with your comment but I would have to point out that most people probably think along the lines of artist first, not album and then artist.

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  3. Aran

    Instead of having to fiddle with something called “on the go playlist” there really shoud just be a button that says “play next”. This same thing bugs me about iTunes interface.

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  4. Sean Corfield

    Even as a long-time Apple fan, I do agree to some extent. The iPod is a good UI for “most” people but for power users it is very frustrating… So I made a radical choice and went with a Shuffle instead and I love it… no UI, no control over playback… there isn’t enough functionality to get annoyed at what it almost does. It. Plays. Music. That’s it. That won’t be a good solution for everyone but it worked for me! :)

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  5. phreekk

    I just can’t think in albums, i can barely recall the name of a song.
    The problem with the Play Next feature is that you now need a menu when you want to add the song, should be set to play next ahead of the queue, added to the queue (at the end) or played now and disregard the queue? The idea of adding to the queue and you then just go to that playlist to play the song you want is slightly more complicated but overall I think one less menu when I just want to add it to the queue is better.

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  6. Nick Stath

    Nice post, Rich. As usual, I’ve returned to these parts after a long absence.
    My iPod-ownership-breakdown was accomplished the old-fashioned way—I got one for my birthday last year. A 4th-gen, 20GB job that was quickly usurped by no less than two new models within a year or so.
    ‘Play Next’ – Yeah, I agree, this should be easier than it is. Yes, you can fiddle with On-The-Go playlists in the meantime, so there’s a ‘workaround’.
    But related to playing next, what peaves me is this: Say you’re listening to Track 4 of Under a Blood Red Sky, and while you listen to Bono wave his white flag around and listen to his mullet flow freely in the thin Colorado air, you might wanna peruse the track listing for The Exorcist soundtrack.
    So you scroll through, and after deciding you don’t wanna listen to Polymorphia and the several-minutes-of-silence opening, you take your finger off the buttons and sit there.
    As Track 4 comes to an end, you decide you wanna listen to Track 8, or “40”. So you scroll your way back and discover—that you still see The Exorcist track listing. Now you have to manually click ahead four tracks, which increases the chances of this thing crapping out, freezing, etc.
    What’s the purpose of this? So if you browse while listening, you get penalized. I don’t get it.
    The genius of Apple is, as everyone says, it’s one-size for all qualities.
    Now, it doesn’t surprise me that Bob has discovered a newer and cooler player. Actually, once you see something like the iPod become THE device of its kind, you automatically know there is a much better, much cooler, and far lesser known player for heads out there. That’s how this shit works. The coolest in-the-know-tech-geek-propellorheads are aware of the Tyrell Audio Nexo-nihilator Mk4 and its unique features like touch-screen equalizer and on-board karaoke, for instance.
    But personally, I don’t give a fuck about the latest gadgets. I’m not impressed. The iPod works enough for me. Plasma screen? Big deal. Razor thin phones? Nice, but it’s a phone.
    Which is why I say: stop the charade Apple, and get on with it! I already you know you can make an 80-GB, nano-sized color video screen iPod phone with a full touch-screen and Verizon-type coverage, internet access, etc, etc, plus all the bullshit software to make me feel like a 12-year old again when I HAVE to download a music video and Kansas City Royals highlights (lowlights) right then and there. I get it. You’re not fooling me.
    I’m sure there are other features I want from the iPod, but I can’t think of them now. Suffice to say, this little baby also gives you the ability to play 55 songs in 10 minutes, so you can indulge in the opening of 25 of your favorite songs before clicking to the next, and the next, and the next, accelerating the death of the device, the life of which is probably a good two years for heavy use. And cheapening the music playback experience.
    And so it goes…

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  7. Damon K

    I’m relatively new to ipods as well. One of the biggest frustrations so far is the inability to add songs to the on-the-go playlist in shuffle mode. I doesn’t seem to work. Seems like you have to browse directly to the song via other means or not be listening in shuffle mode to add to the list. Any thoughts? Am I just missing something?

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  8. imadoofus123

    yes, I agree with most of that. the ‘on the go’ feature isn’t like a play queue because you have to go to it under playlists, and the songs you add go to the end, so you hear them after all the other stuff you don’t want to hear then. it should kick in automatically after the song your listening to is over and once it finishes it should go back to what you were listening to . another thing it needs is a space in the search area. it’s hard to find music that way when all the words are short and common.

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  9. Danny

    The biggest problem with the iPod is the fact that it has no Play Queue, instead using the nearly useless “On-The-Go Playlist”.
    While playlists are most easily created using iTunes, the iPod desperately needs a usable play queue. I originally bought an iPod because I thought the “on-the-go” playlist was going to behave more like a traditional play queue.
    If I’m in the middle of playing an album, there’s no way to tell the iPod what to play when the album finishes. This is important when, say, I need to drive somewhere. I don’t want to have to stop driving when the music stops so I can start another album. My only option is to stop what I’m listening to, optionally add the rest of the album I’ve just stopped to the “on-the-go” playlist, add another album or so, then start playing the playlist. That’s an awful lot of button pressing, and interrupts my current listening.
    I could make it a habit of always using the playlist, but again that’s pretty painful, having to navigate back and forth between the playlist menus and the music menus.
    Here’s what I expect to happen:
    If I want to play something (generally an album) I select it and start it playing as per usual. In the background the iPod creates a temporary play queue with the album tracks.
    Now when I select another album or track and “press and hold” the center button (like the current mechanism to add to the playlist), the album or track gets added to the end of the play queue, and will play automatically when the time comes.
    If I start a new album (without “press and hold”), it clears the old play queue and starts a new one.
    Such a little change, but so much easier to use.
    At the very least, this should be optional behaviour. There are still a lot of “album oriented” music listeners who like to use an iPod.
    Oh, it needs a little bug fix as well. When I are using the “on-the-go” playlist on my iPod Classic, and the last track in the playlist is playing, if I add a track or album to the playlist, it will confuse the iPod. When it gets to that track, it will display the appropriate art and text, but will start playing the first track on the playlist instead, as it’s already cached it.
    BTW, “press and hold” should work in Coverflow as well!
    And finally, could we have the option to sort albums by year rather than alphabetically for each artist?

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