Everyone knows there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, I'm here to tell you there's no such thing as a free iPod either.
My journey into the Hades of computer-based music started a few months ago with a piece of junk mail. Contrary to my regular routine, I actually opened it. The glossy contents were from one of my credit card companies, telling me I had 20,000-something reward points.
Now, I usually don't give a crap how many reward points I have - on anything or from anyone. I don't like keeping track of extra things and I figure there is nothing they can give me that would outweigh that task. I should've listened to the voice in my head.
But no, jackass that I am, I said, "Hmm, that sounds like a lot of points. I wonder what I can get with it?" A quick trip to the Internet revealed I was a few purchases from a 4-GB Nano. I used only that credit card in the following month, entered my rewards points and awaited arrival of my new toy.
I got my brand-spanking new Nano a month or so later - by which time it was already a generation old. But I didn't care about that because I had a plan: Instead of buying new CDs because of one song, I was going to use the iPod to download individual songs in lossless format and then hook it up to my stereo. I can't tell you how many times I've paid full-boat on CDs for the enjoyment of one song, so I was quite excited about this opportunity to beat the system.
At this point, I'm sure some of you are already laughing. But at the time, I was still enchanted by the prospect of actually owning a peripheral that worked with my MacIntosh computer. My G-4 has been great to work on and the reliability has been stellar, but I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase "... but it doesn't work on a Mac." Cameras, recorders, you name it - I've had to resist them because, well, I own a Mac.
But this was going to be different ... at least that's what I thought. My problems started with the iPod's start-up disc, which upon several tries didn't start up - either on my computer or my wife's iBook. I told myself this couldn't be: I had a peripheral and a computer made by the same people. How could it not work? Well, as the more computer-literate among you might guess, my operating systems are a generation too old. I have 9.1 on both computers and I need OS-X or newer for the iPod.
As computer-illiterate as I might be, though, I'm smart enough to know you don't just upgrade your computer's operating system without problems. It's like transplanting a new nervous system into somebody - you might as well euthanize him and hope he comes back in a different body. So I gave a friend with OS-X my new Nano, a $25 iTunes gift certificate, a list of a dozen songs - and of course, directions to download songs only in lossless format (please stop laughing).
Now you should know, my friend is also a writer, which means that like me, he sits around all day thinking of reasons not to write. So I figured this favor was actually a blessing and he was indeed thankful for the task - until he actually tried to comply. His call came a couple of weeks later.
"Hey man," he said, which is how he starts nearly every sentence, apparently the norm for people raised in Batesville, Arkansas. "I can download songs, but not in lossless format. The only way to get lossless is to rip a CD onto the computer and then download the songs you want."
Again, I said this couldn't be. I had to buy new CDs anyway? Why in the world would they design something incapable of this simple task? Do they expect everybody to want one of these just for walking around? "C'mon," I said. "That's impossible." His answer? "Hey man, come down to my place and I'll show you."
Well, as most of you know, he proved himself correct. I sheepishly took my Nano, listened to it and said it sounded better than I thought it would. Of course, I thought it would sound like the transistor radio I had when I was eight years old - the one with the mono earpiece I tried to hide during the World Series, which believe it or not, used to be held during school hours. I think Miss Lapham (my fourth-grade teacher, approximately 100 years ago) still has that damn earpiece.
But back to my Nano. If only to torture me even more, my friend actually downloaded a song from a CD in lossless format, so I could tell if I really needed it. I listened for ten seconds before I nearly threw the damn thing across the room. Of course it was better. Give me a four-way blind test and I'll still pick out the lossless song. I may not be golden-eared, but I'm at least bronze-eared and damn near anyone could tell the difference anyway.
So I took it home and made a few calls - well, actually one call, but it involved several people. I called my friendly, regional Mac dealer -- from whom I bought both my G-4 and my wife's iBook -- and asked for confirmation on this iPod shortcoming or an easier way to overcome it.
I was transferred a couple of times until I got Alan in service, who finally confirmed you couldn't do with any iPod what I wanted to do. I desperately asked him why. He said he didn't know - nobody ever asked. Well, if that's true, then either I'm the only audiophile in Northwest Arkansas or the only one stupid enough to try this little gambit. ... And I couldn't resist: I just had to ask Alan what it would take for me to download any songs at all.
His answer was a new computer, with enough of everything it takes to make OS-X actually work. And if I still wanted my laptop to talk to my desktop -- with a new Airport base station and cards in between -- the whole deal for two new computers came to a minimum of $3,000. Add to that, some kind of audiophile whose-a-ma-futz (the new $2,000 MSB dock?) to make MP-3 sound reasonable enough that I wouldn't want to slit my wrists while listening, and you have about $5,000.
No, I didn't buy. I actually resisted. Everybody has their breaking point and 5 large just happens to be mine. Chalk one up for discipline (finally). So where's my Nano? It's in this cute little docking station I bought before knowing its shortcomings. It sits next to my computer and I've listened to it maybe five times before wanting to cheerily jump up and down on top of it. Yeah, death by 280 pounds of frustrated audiophile is what the little piece of crap deserves.
And how has this episode effected my view of computer-based music? Screw it - I'm buying a new CD player.
Mike Rodman is a journalist and author who lives on the shores of Beaver Lake, in Northwest Arkansas. His book, "Beyond the Sea: A Life in Short Stories" is available at: http://www.mikerodman.com