The Apple of Your Ear

Digital-music lovers find what they're listening for in Mac OS X

You want to rip music in the popular MP3 format or watch DVDs. But unless you purchase add-ons, you're out of luck if you have Windows XP, which Microsoft bills as the ultimate digital-media OS. The most recent version of Apple Computer's latest OS lets you rip music, watch DVDs, and more—without buying anything extra.

The Mac OS X 10.1 release offers many of the same digital-media features that Microsoft touts in XP, making it an interesting alternative for digital-media lovers. However, Apple is quick to point out that the benefits of its OS come without any catches. The company has done something very simple—listened to its customers and delivered the digital-media features they asked for most.

Mac OS X brings Apple's legacy Mac OS 9.x platform—which has its technological roots in the first, 1984 OS—into the modern age. To add features such as memory protection, true multitasking, and pervasive multi-user support, Apple elected to take UNIX-like technology from NeXT and add Mac compatibility and a new look and feel. Although Mac OS X is pretty, accessible, and easy to use, its foundation is based on UNIX technologies. Consequently, it's also rock-solid reliable.

Apple targeted the original March 2001 release of Mac OS X to technology enthusiasts and early adopters and admits that the initial release was primarily a test; the company used the feedback from that release to build its first major update—Mac OS X 10.1. Most users reported that the system was solid but slow, and Apple received many requests for small feature changes. The new release is notably faster and offers far more compelling features, especially for digital-media fans.

Digital Music: Making a Stand

XP and Mac OS X tackle digital music in very different ways. Both offer an application that can play back and record digital music, but Microsoft designed its Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) as an all-in-one powerhouse; its size almost always gets in the way. By contrast, Apple's iTunes is a small application, but you must use other tools or the OS itself to perform some of the tasks that are possible with MPXP.

The biggest difference between the OSs is music-format support. MPXP plays the standard MP3 format, but you can record audio only in Microsoft's proprietary Windows Media Audio (WMA) format (MP3 ripping is available at an additional expense in various MPXP add-ons). Apple supports MP3 ripping and playback—because, the company says, that's what people asked for.

Apple's new iPod MP3 player is another huge win for Mac OS X users who are music enthusiasts. Essentially a FireWire-based hard disk, the iPod offers 5GB of storage—enough for 1000 hours of high-quality MP3 music. The iPod can transfer data 40 times as fast as USB jukeboxes and includes a 10-hour rechargeable battery. The iPod is a bit pricey at $400. Apple typically charges a premium for style, and the iPod simply oozes with it. The unit is smaller than a pack of playing cards and offers the same snow-white design cues as the company's best-selling iBook.

Interestingly, the iPod also works as a bootable FireWire hard disk, so you can use it for rescue operations and cross-PC data transfer as well as for playing music. And the unit requires only one wire: The FireWire cable that connects it to the Mac also recharges the batteries.

In short, Mac OS X is worth investigating, especially if you feel strongly about digital-media solutions. And if you're a digital-music lover, you need to take a stand and figure out which side of the fence you're on. I'll examine the WMA versus MP3 debate—and Apple's exciting iPod—in future articles.

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