J.D. Biersdorfer

on Mastering the iPod
Columnist and author of iPod: The Missing Manual

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Exclusive Interview

J.D. Biersdorfer on Using the iPod

A woman of many interests, J.D. Biersdorfer has more than made a name for herself in the world of technology, specifically through her writings about the iPod. Indeed, she has put herself at the top of the game with books like iPod: The Missing Manual (with David Pogue) and the iPod Shuffle Fan Book: Life is a Playlist, and her significant contributions to other books in the Missing Manual series, such as The Internet: The Missing Manual and Google: The Missing Manual. Having written for Rolling Stone and the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, there are few subjects Biersdorfer hasn’t tackled. She’s a part-time staff production editor at and writes the weekly computer Q&A column for The New York Times. Here, Biersdorfer shares her favorite tips and tricks for mastering the iPod.

How has public attitude toward the iPod changed since it was introduced?

When the iPod first arrived in 2001, it was exciting because it was the sleekest, most elegant version of the hard drive-based MP3 players available at the time and it could hold 1,000 songs, which was way more than those little 32-megabyte flash memory players that were dominating the shelves. Even back then, you could see how the iPod had the potential to be more than just a pocket jukebox. People were figuring out how to store files on the drive or display their computer’s address books on the iPod screen long before Apple officially approved those practices and built those features into the iPod/iTunes software.

Even though it’s one of the most popular MP3 players, do people still experience certain fears and anxieties in the first 30 days of mastering the iPod?

Most people under the age of 30, who grew up with computers and technology as part of their daily lives, are probably not going to fear the iPod because they’re accustomed to this stuff. Many of them grew up with computers from kindergarten onward. But people who don’t use computers regularly, or have a mental block that they can’t handle anything remotely technological, may be more nervous and psych themselves out about it. There are tech haters and tech lovers in every generation, but the people who have had the least exposure to digital technology will probably be the most apprehensive. It’s the fear of the unknown.

How can people get past these fears about the iPod in the first 30 days?

Don’t be afraid of it. You’re smarter than it is! Just follow the instructions in the box for setting it up and if you have problems, take advantage of the free phone tech support Apple gives new iPod owners during the first 90 days. If you have issues, a lot of them are covered on Apple’s iPod site.

What three things should our readers be aware of in the first 30 days of learning the iPod?

There are so many models out there with different things to look out for, so I’ll offer some general, philosophical advice:

One, take your time and follow the directions included in the box—especially about installing the software first if you’ve never used iTunes. Apple has tried to make setting up the iPod as easy as possible, and there’s only a couple of steps you need to take to get a new iPod up and running. Just follow the instructions on the little pamphlet they give you to get the basics down. And if you need more than that, there’s plenty of info out there, because...

Number two, you are not alone. More than 100 million iPods have been sold and someone else has probably had the same experience you’re having—good or bad. If you encounter glitches with the iPod and iTunes—and Windows Vista people have had a few this year—don’t assume you’re the only one having the problem. You can get help from your local Apple Store Genius Bar—if there’s an Apple Store near you, that is—and you get a free support call to Apple. But a lot of times you can find up-to-the-minute information and help from the Web. Apple has an iPod support site, and sites like iLounge and iPod Help often have worthwhile information.

Three, you don’t have to know everything off the top of your head to use the iPod—or any other gadget. So don’t be stressed. As Samuel Johnson once said, “When we inquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it.” But let’s face it; most people don’t want to read technical support documents because traditionally it’s been like reading an engineering textbook translated from the original Middle German. There’s been a greater effort on behalf of tech companies and publishers everywhere to simplify this stuff and put it in a language regular folks can understand. That’s the mission of the entire Missing Manual series, which David Pogue created several years ago. In iPod: The Missing Manual, we give you a few hundred full-color pages showing and telling you how to do everything from setting up your new player to loading movies, contacts and calendars—and even electronic books—on it.

The latest iPods are no longer just for music. What’s your favorite non-music use for your iPod and why?

Video is a great thing to have, especially on the new Nano. The screen isn’t very big, but if you’re watching a sitcom, “Meet the Press” or a video podcast that’s mostly talking-head stuff anyway, it’s fine. I was actually killing time waiting for a Philip Pullman book reading at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago, and kept myself entertained with the pilot episode of “Back to You,” which I’d downloaded for free from iTunes. The kid in the seat next to me kept leaning over to watch the Nano’s two-inch screen, too.

What’s on your iPod?

I am a big fan of the BBC, so I usually have the Digital Planet podcast and some sort of news podcast on there. I have a weird mix of bluegrass and Broadway show albums on mine, plus a lot of classical and country. And I just bought the entire first season of “Lou Grant” from the iTunes Store and have 22 episodes of that to devour. I also have an AppleScript on my Mac that lets me convert long documents to iPod-friendly Notes, so I can read e-books from Project Gutenberg. I’ve had Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and various years from the diary of Samuel Pepys on there over the years.

What are some unusual things that people have found for their iPods in the first 30 days?

The downloadable lectures in podcast form that many colleges are doing now are great. I think people are also taking language lessons from certain podcasts, and iLingo sells language phrase books in French, German, Spanish and other languages with both spoken and text phrases for travelers. I have a friend who uses her iPod at the gym to watch TV shows and videos when she’s on the treadmill.

Do you have suggestions on how to keep on top of Apple’s iPod technology upgrades beyond the first 30 days?

Apple has a history of updating their major products once or twice a year. The past couple of years, they’ve unleashed new iPods in the early fall in plenty of time for the holiday shopping season. Later, they announce other products, like the iPhone and Apple TV, at the big MacWorld trade show in January. So if you’re thinking about buying something new, try to be aware of how long it’s been out, because it’s probably due for a new or updated version within a year. If you’re not an “Apple Obsessive,” there are plenty of sites on the web to help. Although it’s based on speculation and industry gossip, The Mac Rumors Buying Guide keeps tabs on Apple’s product line and is pretty good at predicting when updates may arrive. And iLounge , a site dedicated to all things iPod, pays careful attention, as well.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

When change is stressful, I look at this poster I got from a bookstore in northern England. It’s a replica of a WWII home-front sign that was up during those very intense wartime days. It says: “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.”

The best thing about change is... hardly ever get bored.

What’s the best change you have ever made?

Moving from Indiana to New York City back in 1989 with a $67 one-way Greyhound bus ticket and a couple of suitcases. I had a room in a rundown SRO [single-room occupancy] hotel on Lexington Avenue and a poorly paid one-month stagehand gig at an off-off-Broadway show, but it was enough of a chance to, well, take a chance. So I did theater for a few months and got a typesetting job at Rolling Stone magazine after answering an ad in The Village Voice. That was my segue into newspaper/book/magazine publishing, and I’ve been driving down that winding road ever since.

For more information about J.D. Biersdorfer, visit



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iPod: The Missing Manual


Tech columnist J. D. Biersdorfer blows open the secret doors of this chrome-and-white beauty. No matter what kind of music moves you, iPod & iTunes: The Missing Manual, 2nd Edition will help you get much more out of your iPod--and much more into it. ...