Over the weekend, I’ve been busy sorting out my massive mp3 and AAC collection, and ripping CDs I haven’t listened to in years just to make it more likely I’d be able to listen to them again. And I’ve been playing with the iPod.

Now, it’s a known fact among computer geeks that Apple is one of those companies that puts the most effort into matters of user-interface. I tend to forget that from time to time until something like the iPod comes along and reminds me.

I was just taking a look back at the review I wrote of the Rio 600 mp3 player, the only other mp3 portable with which I had any experience. All in all, there’s almost no basis for comparing the two—and that’s leaving aside the fact that the iPod has approximately 1200 times the storage capacity of the Rio. Just comparing them on the basis of their look, feel, and controls…the iPod wins out every time.

First of all, look at the Rio’s overall design (via the picture in my review). I imagine that shape is supposed to fit your hand, but it ends up looking like someone left it in the drier and it melted. It looks, in short, like a toy. The iPod, on the other hand, is this small brick-shaped thing with nicely curved edges that fits easily into the palm of your hand. It has some heft to it; it looks like something you’d expect an adult to be using.

But the real genius of the thing is in its controls. What it has is a gray ring around a single button. That’s all. The ring is positioned such that when you’re holding it in the palm of either hand, the thumb of that hand has free traverse over the ring and button—and this places all the controls at your fingertips. The really clever thing is that the ring serves two functions—it’s the scroller and the play/pause, forward, back, and menu buttons. Press down on one of the cardinal directions of the ring, and you press the button. But, move your thumb or a finger around the ring, in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, and you manipulate the scroller. It’s just like a track-pad on a laptop, except in a circular direction.

The phrase “elegant in its simplicity” could have been invented to describe this gadget. It totally eliminates the sort of control confusion that you have in a device like the Rio where its play controls are also its cursor scroller. What’s more, it cuts down on the number of moving parts that can wear out or jam up. It’s also remarkably fast for scrolling through long, long lists of tracks.

Yeah, this thing is great; I’m looking forward to putting it to some serious use.