The iPod On Everest (and how not to write a review about it)

TAUW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog made mention of this article from the Washington Post about the performance of the iPod on Everest. The article is written by Neal Mueller, who says that his team took iPods with them to climb Everest last Spring, only to find that the devices didn’t hold up to conditions on the mountain. In fact, he says “The batteries croaked, the cases scratched and the hard drives seized from the rarified air.” He goes on to gush about how much he loves the Creative Muvo over the iPod, because the “device is extremely light, ruggedly durable and it takes AAA batteries. It doesn’t need a case because it won’t scratch.” He even goes on to praise the Muvo for being an “open system” for adding music adding that iPods “live in their own little world. They only work with custom cords and other special accessories. They only work with their own music format. Basically, the iPod perpetuates its own exclusive clique.”

Ok. Deep breath. Where do I even begin with everything that is wrong in this article. First off, I’ll say that the Muvo is indeed a fine little music player. Creative makes some nice devices, often times with more features than the iPod, and for the same or even less costs. However, their devices have often had a non-intuitive interface and lacked the simplicity of what has been the cornerstone for the iPod since day one. The fact that the Muvo can run on AAA batteries shouldn’t be overlooked when you are o an expedition to Everest, but it can be both a joy and a curse. For instance, the iPod charges while plugged into a computer, which have become fairly common place in base camp, but not so much further up the mountain. With it’s rechargable battery built in, that means you don’t have to carry any batteries with you, but it also means you have to be sure to have a source to charge it with. There are other means of charging the iPod then with a computer, but they’re not really as useful on the mountain either. With the Muvo, you just pop in a new battery when you need one. However, that means you have to carry batteries with you. When you’re on Everest for two months, that can mean a lot of batteries.

He also compares the Muvo to the hard drive based iPods, which is just silly to begin with. I’m not surprised the iPod’s hard drives broke in the extreme conditions on Everest, but why didn’t he discuss the iPod Nano, which like the Muvo uses flash memory, which would not suffer the same issues as the hard drive based players. The Nanos also come with a lot more memory available for more music storage. The Muvo tops out at 1 GB of storage, while the Nano started at 1 GB, at least at the time of the expedition on Everest. At that time, the Nano came in 1, 2, and 4 GB versions. Recently Apple has upgraded them to 2, 4, and 8 GB’s. Even Mueller would have to agree that more storage means more music to listen to while traveling. The Nano is also far more rugged as well, and while early models did suffer from scratching, the newer ones have cases of anodized metal which is very durable and protects the system nicely. They are also insanely thin and light to carry.

As for the Muvo being more of an “open system”, that’s sort of a half-truth as well. Yes, the iPod can only play music that is purchased from the iTunes Music Store, and not from any other online music store. The music purchased can also not be played on any other non-iPod device. However, the iPod can play plenty of different formats, including the most common, which is MP3. If you rip your CD’s into MP3 format, which is what I do, it’ll play the same on the iPod as it does on the Muvo, or any other digital music player. Furthermore, the iPod has far more accessories, add-ons, and other items available for it than any other device of it’s kind. It’s not even close in this category.

Finally, he calls the iPod a “fad”. It may very well be, as there have been many devices that have come and gone over the years, including the Sony Walkman that he mentions. But as it stands right now, the iPod holds about 85% of the digital music player market, and recent reports suggest that dominance won’t end any time soon, even with Microsoft’s Zune coming to market soon.

I respect anyone’s right to their opinion on the gear they like to use. I’m a recent convert to the iPod myself having used a Rio Karma for years. But when you publish an article like this one that is misleading, plays loose with the facts, and at times is just plain wrong, it’s a bit annoying. Perhaps Mr. Mueller should do a bit more research next time before he gives us his insights on another piece of gear.

Update: Someone pointed me to the Sponsors Page on Mr. Mueller’s website. You’ll notice that Creative, the makers of the Muvo, are listed as a “Supporter – Companies that supply gear and supplies” for his mountaineering activities. Hardly an impartial review of their gear.

6 thoughts on “The iPod On Everest (and how not to write a review about it)”

  1. Yes, it’s true. In the past, harddrive-based music players have been suspect above 14,000 feet. Laptop computers as well. The reason is that not all harddrives can spin at high altitude. While at Everest in 2003 with a 3G iPod, it just didn’t work at Tingri, Tibet or above. Too bad. Apparently the low air pressure at high altitudes can cause the rotating platter inside these harddrives to experience more friction and they just don’t spin as well. The issue resolves itself once the player is returned to lower altitudes.

    Like you said, the flash-based Nanos don’t have any of these altitude problems aside from battery performance due to cold temperature. Of course, all batteries work poorly when frozen.

    As for climbers and iPods, well, the newer generation HD-based players work quite a bit better. In 2005 on an expedition to Aconcagua, our iPods kept rockin’ above 19,000 feet. At basecamp at 14,000 feet they were everywhere and we were the only team at Plaza Argentine with a generator. Let me tell you it was in high demand! You have to work together on these mountains and so I kept people’s music players charged. There were a few non-iPod units, but the vast majority were iPods.

    Another thing to consider: since iPods are so much the marketshare leader, it’s very easy to find someone else with a charging cable. Although most people do have extra AAA batteries (to keep their Tikkas burning brightly), they most likely also have iPod charging cables.

    So, the argument is a little moot, huh? Use what you brought with you and don’t forget to enjoy the view. Finally, sometimes it’s just nice to listen to the wind…


  2. I had forgotten all about the AAA batteries being used in the headlamps. Great point there, and the cold does zap the battery life something fierce.

    Thanks for the insights on iPod use at altitude. It is pretty much as I would have expected. The newer flash based players would be a better way to go. I have a new 2nd Gen Nano, with 8 GB’s of storage and a 24 hour battery life. Both of which would be useful.

    Best advice I heard all day though is “Sometimes it’s just nice to listen to the wind…” Thanks for reminding us all that, and keep up the great work on Rest of Everest. I love it! 🙂

  3. Hi Nice Blog .If you fast forward through your playlist, Ipod batteries will need to fill its cache more frequently, thus accessing the hard drive more often and using more power. This will decrease overall battery life.

  4. Right, plus if you’re constantly picking new music, the same theory applies. You’re better off selecting a nice long playlist or album and listening to the whole thing rather than constantly searching for new tracks.

  5. Hi Nice Blog .I’ve made up my mind: I’m gonna buy an MP3 player. I just don’t know which one. I like the ipod battery, but do I really need something that small?

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