iLoad…

While many of us are content with using iTunes to rip CDs and load the music to our iPods, there are those who simply can’t accept the notion that a computer needs to be involved in that process. The iLoad is a desktop box that allows you to rip audio CDs directly to a compatible Apple iPod MP3 player without having to use your home computer as a middleman. It is a product intended for people who love their iPod but hate using computers. The idea of avoiding a computer may seem like a strange concept to most CNET users, but we all know someone who just can’t seem to get onboard with the digital revolution.  

 If you’re reasonably OK with using iTunes to rip and transfer your music to your iPod, then there’s no incentive for you to spend $300 for this product. The value of a product like iLoad is directly proportional to the user’s hatred of computers.

 

 

Design
The iLoad looks like a bloated knockoff of a Mac mini. It measures 7 inches wide, 8 inches deep, and 3.5 inches tall, and features a slot-loading CD drive on the front, a 2-line monochrome LCD screen on the top, and an array of connection ports on the back. The user interface is on the top of the box, surrounding the dimly lit 0.5×2.5-inch screen. The controls are basic (part of the product’s whole concept) and include tactile buttons for power and Go (enter), horizontal arrows for scrolling through the iLoad’s menu, and vertical arrows that baffled us for quite some time (read the Performance section below).
 Looking at the back of the iLoad is like pulling the curtain from the Wizard of Oz. With two USB ports, an Ethernet connection, VGA monitor output, peripheral connections, and audio ports, it looks like the back of a computer. Don’t tell grandma, but the iLoad actually is a computer (albeit a very basic one). Of the 13 connections found on the back of the iLoad, only 5 of them are actually used by the device. For a product designed for technophobes, the inclusion of 8 useless and confusing computer connections runs counter to the iLoad’s philosophy.  

Features
The iLoad can serve several functions. Its main purpose is to allow users to turn on the device, connect their iPod, insert a CD, press a few buttons, and rip the CD audio directly to their iPod. The iLoad will only rip music to an MP3 file format with a bit-rate quality that can be adjusted from 32kbps through 320kbps (default is 128kbps). The iLoad can also transfer files from one iPod to another (although DRM-protected content will be crippled), and can back up or restore your iPod using an external hard drive or flash drive. While these last two features are useful, they also point to one of the weaknesses of the iLoad system–ripping music directly to your iPod leaves you vulnerable to losing your whole music collection if you lose your iPod. Ripping music to a computer before moving it to an iPod creates a backup music library on your computer that will still be there even if your Nano gets abducted by the family dog. Archiving your music collection using iLoad and an external hard drive may give you the same results, but it starts getting complicated. Suddenly your computerphobic grandparent is saddled with an iLoad, an iPod, and an external USB hard drive. One has to wonder if buying them an inexpensive laptop might have been a better option (plus, maybe they’ll graduate to e-mail someday).

 

Performance
While the iLoad works as advertised, using an off-the-shelf computer would get the job done just as fast or faster. A computer would also give you access to album artwork, music videos, lyrics, podcasts, and a whole universe of information. Still, presuming that for some reason a computer is simply not an option (let’s also forget for a moment that the iLoad is, in fact, a computer), the iLoad does what it says, and the ripped MP3 audio sounds comparable to the results you’d get out of iTunes.
However, even after suspending our computer-loving sensibilities, there were some frustrations we encountered with the iLoad that may send technophobe grandparents into a tizzy. For starters, there’s no clearly labeled Eject button. Let’s say mom puts her John Denver CD into the iLoad, only to suddenly realize that she already has it on her iPod. Naturally, she would look for the Eject button. Try as she might, she likely will not find it. Maybe (like us) she’ll try powering the iLoad off and booting it back up (wrong again). To eject a CD from the iLoad, you will need to press the “down” arrow to the right of the screen. The “up” arrow will eject your iPod.  Another potential headache is the iLoad’s built-in music database, which it uses to match CDs with their appropriate artist and song title information. While the iLoad uses a database of nearly 2 million songs, it doesn’t have everything, and to keep it current you must either connect it to the Internet using the iLoad’s Ethernet connection or subscribe to periodic database updates that arrive on CD by mail. If you’re using the iLoad to rip a collection of oldies but goodies, you should be fine. However, if the CD you’re ripping is hot off the charts, or worse, a mix CD given to you by a friend, you’ll need to find an Internet connection or make peace with the idea that the songs will display as “Unknown Artist” on your iPod.  Last but not least, there’s the issue of fan noise. The first thing we noticed when we powered up the iLoad is that the interior fans used to cool the computer put out a constant and unusually loud noise. 

Final thoughts
The iLoad concept poses an interesting question: Do we need to use our personal computer to mediate the transfer of music from CDs to an iPod? I believe there is probably great solution out there for computerphobic music lovers, but sneaking a noisy, crippled computer into a lunchbox-size enclosure with a small display is probably not the best idea. Still, it is the only off-the-shelf solution we’ve seen so far, and despite its flaws, it does work as advertised.

 

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