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Apple Makes Sweet Music

Each year, we have come to expect the big noise Apple CEO Steve Jobs makes at Macworld Expo. This January, the hype was more modest: Apple's new slogan could now be "Think Small." Even though there was no big rollout of, say, a 40-inch Cinema Display or an even more powerful series of Powerbooks, Apple has returned to expand its highly popular iPod music player brand.

Once, my 40-gigabyte iPod seemed to be a musical dream in miniature. Now, it seems humongous compared to the brand new iPod Minis. For those of us still happy with our "old" iPods, we can now enjoy a medley of musical accessories: microphones, adapters, transmitters, and even jackets. One of the coolest new releases from Apple comes in a neat software application: Garage Band, a way to make and mix music on your Mac.

I've never been shy about my love for the iPod. It began with the groundbreaking, yet modest 5 gigabyte model, then grew into a 10 gig, followed by a 20 gig, and now to the 40 gig version. That's thousands and thousands of songs, folks. And I keep needing more room, because I keep buying songs from Apple's iTunes Music Store. I can so easily download whatever music I think of legally using iTunes, I'm adding to my burgeoning library (while siphoning off the kids college fund.) Sadly, I was hoping for an iPod with twice the capacity… but Apple went the other way… offering less for less.

Here's the deal on the new iPod Minis: five colors, 1,000 songs, about 3 measly ounces. They're heavy for their size, made of anodized aluminum and sport eight hours of battery life. They are indisputably more elegant than any other tiny music player around, of course. Most Apple fanatics were surprised with the initial and relatively high price of $249… especially as it seems geared to expand the market to even younger music fans. But it's fair to expect that price will go down dramatically as Apple launches even newer versions with greater capacity. Can you hear us in Cupertino, Apple? Cool.

The nice folks at Apple tell us that there are two million iPods in the hands of folks just like me. And it's safe to say some of those customers picked up new Macs as well, to organize their music among other things. That strategy worked on me: I bought my first Mac after falling in love with the elegance of the iPod, then the simplicity of iTunes. Finally, I developed an appreciation of the ease in which all the software worked together: music with my home movies or my photo collection, etc. Apple has tweaked the software even more and we'll get to that in a moment… but first, the silly stuff I love the most: little things that make my iPod even more bodacious.

Burton iPod Jacket
Even if it is freezing out (and trust me, it is), there's no reason you can't take your music with you in the coldest places… in style no less. The problem is, I end up wearing this thing everywhere: my wife is begging me to take Burton's iPod jacket off at the dinner table. They have three new jackets and the one I've been testing runs $395. I've played with earlier versions and the controls are much improved and so's the price. (I love this and it grieves me that I must return it.)

Belkin iPod Media Reader
This is a little white box to attach to your little white iPod that allows you to transfer images from your digital camera sd or compact flash cards onto your iPod's hard drive. I haven't needed to use it yet, honestly, but if you have pictures or files you want to quickly get onto your iPod and carry with you, this solution will run you $99.

Belkin iPod Voice Recorder
Now you can turn your iPod into a pretty nifty dictation machine. There's probably no more hip way to record a lecture or a board meeting. It simply plugs into your 'Pod's headphone jack and records and plays back voice recordings. Now, this isn't exactly broadcast quality audio, so don't plan on using it to record your new album, but for $49, there are probably a lot of people out there (college students who dose off during lectures?) who will enjoy this as much as I do.

Griffin iTrip for the 3G iPod
This is the second incarnation of the iTrip, which uses an FM radio signal to broadcast your iPod's output to a radio near (very near) you. It takes a little skill to figure out how to download all the possible frequencies onto the device and to set up, and it's not as easy to use as other devices that do the same thing. But since it is powered off the iPod, at least you won't be frustrated by running out of batteries… and it does make the unit sleek enough for that fancy car your listening to our cool iPod in. After all, isn't it better to 'look mahvelous' than to be profoundly user friendly? $34.

Altec Lansing inMotion iPod Speakers
We've mentioned the Altec Lansing inMotion Portable iPod Speakers for the iPod before, but the sound is so good, you have to try these (unless you don't want to spend the mere $149 bucks you will if you do try them).

Other goodies worth mentioning for the iPod are the Belkin Backup Battery Pack, which can save the day on long car trips, and the Belkin Car Holder, which keeps your iPod cozy in your car's cup holder, so it's not rattling around on the curves. What's truly needed for automotive audio perfection is a simple car kit you can directly plug your iPod into (to say goodbye to the FM transmitter nonsense) and we're told that this is "just months away."

Garage Band
Apple's newest application,and arguably the highlight of the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, is Garage Band. Think of it as an affordable (really, really affordable) home recording studio for just about any kind of music you can think of. This is a great tool to create original music arrangements and songs you can use royalty-free (because they're your own) to use as background music for your iMovies, or simply to enjoy in iTunes for your iPod. You can use this right out of the box, but for the more creative, plug your electric guitar or MIDI keyboard (Apple sells one for $99) right into your Mac.

We had Garage Band in our hands for five minutes – literally five minutes – and were able to create the five-instrument tune you can hear in the video segment on this page. The tune itself may not be top-ten material, but the ease at which we cranked out something tuneful was amazing. And we were smiling the whole darn time.

What makes Garage Band so great is that it is integrated with other more established programs in Apple's iLife suite: iMovie, iDVD, iTunes and iPhoto. Now we can use our own music to score our home movies and DVDs, play in our iPods or burn into CDs, or accompany a slideshow we made in iPhoto. What's more, you can get ALL of these programs (new versions all) for $49. Forty-nine dollars! A freakin' steal. To think, we were griping at having to pay $49 for iLife last year just to get the new iDVD. Now, you have to pay to get them all, but at that price, who cares. A great return on your investment, for sure.

It may be easy to accuse Mac fans of being zealots who are simply caught in the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field. But we disagree. Apple isn't perfect. Their new iPod Minis are nice, but overpriced… for now. But what Apple does do well it does VERY well. And that is, simply, to make the computer a fun – and not frustrating – part of your home.

By Daniel Dubno and Bob Bicknell