Review: Apple iPod mini 4GB/6GB (Second-Generation) | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple iPod mini 4GB/6GB (Second-Generation)

B+
Recommended

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod mini

Price: $199.00 4GB, $249.00 6GB

Compatible: Mac, Windows

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Jeremy Horwitz

Pros: Attractive and sleek iPods with enough storage capacity to entice and satisfy many mainstream users, smaller bodies than full-sized iPods, and multiple colors. Best battery life of all current iPod models.

Cons: Fairly high price-to-storage capacity ratio, doesn’t include standalone power charger, and requires powered USB 2.0 computer port to charge battery.

Apple Computer’s first-generation, four-Gigabyte iPod mini (iLounge rating: B+) proved more popular in 2004 than even Apple could have anticipated, rapidly selling out in stores all over the world. Even almost a year after its introduction, the mini was named one of the United States’ most popular holiday 2004 consumer electronics products, in part because it was then the least expensive iPod sold by Apple.

Its success emboldened numerous competitors. In mid- to late-2004, every portable digital music player worth its salt debuted an “iPod mini killer,” and on paper, many sounded great. At roughly the same physical size, they offered equal or greater storage capacity, FM radio tuners, longer battery life, and comparable or lower prices. Some even emerged with color screens. While none had the iPod name or support for iTunes Music Store downloads, each product had some appeal.

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On February 23, 2005, Apple Computer responded with two modestly improved, “second-generation” versions of the iPod mini, each more than doubling the first mini’s eight-hour battery life to a promised 18 hours, and featuring a few tiny cosmetic casing tweaks. The cheaper second-generation mini retains the four-Gigabyte storage capacity of its predecessor, but falls in price to $199. A second, six-Gigabyte version is now available at $249. Both models are indistinguishable from each other save for a “4GB” or “6GB” badge on their back sides, and are both available in four mostly familiar colors: silver, blue, pink, and green.

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Upon the release of a new iPod, iLounge traditionally offers two reviews: one for prospective/new iPod users, and one for “power users” - those with more iPod and digital music experience. However, to call these iPod minis “new” is a bit of a stretch, as they are fundamentally identical to last year’s model save for the few differences noted above. Regardless, iLounge re-evaluates the new hardware in light of all that has passed since the first-generation iPod mini was released in 2004. New iPod users will want to read through from beginning to end, skipping sections near the end of less interest, while experienced iPod users should skip the first few sections, as they repeat commonly known information.

What is an iPod mini?

The iPod mini is a portable digital music player with a rechargeable battery. Today, the mini is the second smallest and least expensive member of the iPod family, sandwiched between the $99-149 iPod shuffles, $299-349 iPods, and $349-449 iPod photos. Like all iPods, the mini’s primary purpose is to store and play back digital music that has either been copied from compact discs onto your PC or Macintosh computer, or downloaded from an online store (such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store) on the Internet. The mini can also store data and transfer it between computers, assuming that the computers are set up with software that recognizes the mini once connected.

Apple’s four-Gigabyte (4GB) version of the mini actually stores 3.76 GB of music, which Apple estimates as roughly 1,000 songs if nothing else is stored on the device. You’ll practically be able to fit 80-100 CDs in near-CD audio quality; our 4GB unit holds 773 of our songs, compressed at various levels of quality ranging from good to flawless. The six-Gigabyte (6GB) version actually stores 5.66 GB of music, which Apple estimates as roughly 1,500 songs. Practically, you’ll be able to fit 120-150 CDs of music, and we fit 1214 songs of varying quality on ours.

Thanks to its 3.6” x 2.0” x 0.5” dimensions, 3.6 oz. weight and a vast array of Apple and third-party accessories, the iPod mini has come to be considered an excellent iPod for active lifestyle users. It can be attached to various armbands, worn (only somewhat uneasily) around your neck, clipped to a belt, or carried in a pocket. Unlike the smaller and cheaper iPod shuffle, it has a screen and Click Wheel for easy music library navigation, a longer continuous play time before recharges, and the ability to connect with virtually all of the many electronic “Dock Connector” and headphone port accessories that have been released for the iPod since 2003. It’s also compatible with almost any pair of headphones you can imagine.

What Does an iPod mini Look Like?

Unlike iPod shuffles and full-sized iPods, each iPod mini uses an anodized aluminum colored shell that glimmers more attractively under lights than most photographs capture, and its curved sides reflect interesting, soft gradients of color. The metal shells are not interchangeable, and are interrupted only by a backlit screen and three white plastic pieces - a glossy top with a hold switch and a port for headphones and remote controls, a glossy bottom with a port for Apple’s proprietary Dock Connector, and a matte-finished small white wheel in the bottom center of the mini’s face.

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Approximately thirty seconds after picking up an iPod mini, you begin to like it, even if you didn’t want to. The metal feels literally cool and sleek in your hand, and it is just heavy enough to be substantial, like a candybar-style wireless phone. Better yet, it’s resilient: after a year of regular use, the aluminum casings of our first-generation minis remain relatively untarnished, though its rear engravings show slight marks. But the real strength of Apple’s design isn’t the body, but rather the incredibly simple user interface, which is accomplished via two devices: the white plastic “Click Wheel” controller, and an extraordinarily easy-to-use menu system that any user - computer-literate or not - can understand within minutes.

Basic Use and Controls

Now found on all iPod models save the iPod shuffle, Apple’s Click Wheel melds a steering wheel and four-way joypad, and is capable of spinning or being pressed up, down, left, or right. Brushing your finger lightly in a circular motion back or forth against the Wheel’s surface gently adjusts the volume or steers you quickly through long lists of song titles, artist names, or music genres. Pressing in a direction plays or pauses the track, advances backwards or forwards through tracks, or brings you back to the previous menu. An elevated white pressure-sensitive button in the center of the wheel serves as an all-purpose “okay” button to move forward through menus or choices. Together, the Click Wheel’s five buttons integrate with touch-sensitive scrolling to make selecting and listening to songs from a huge library as easy and fun as could be hoped, and definitely easier overall than any other music player to date.

Apple’s intuitive iPod menu system makes it easy to navigate quickly through lists of artists, song titles, genres, albums or playlists; pick any one, and let the mini start to play. Since we reviewed the first-generation iPod mini, the company has worked out most of the few bugs in the menus, including screen stutters and other small glitches. It started out better than its competitors in all regards, and has only continued to improve over time.

In the past year, the company has also made it easy to create your own “On-the-Go” playlists using the iPod mini, and then transfer them to your computer for editing and renaming. You can also store and read text files, telephone contact information, and calendar data on the mini, as well as play four simple games - all while you’re listening to music. “Brick” is a clone of Breakout, “Music Quiz” an ever-changing version of Name That Tune, Parachute a sort of clone of Missile Command, and Solitaire a competent single-person card game.

The mini’s screen is impressive. Brightly backlit and easy to read, the black-and-white, five-line display is only outshone by the color screens found in iPod photos, and glows a light lavender when its backlight is turned on. While it’s not hard to read, users with vision problems might well consider the larger-screened 20GB iPod as an alternative.

iTunes

As with previous iPods, each second-generation iPod mini includes Apple’s iTunes, an easy-to-use and continuously improved tool that converts CDs into iPod-ready digital song files, organizes those files, and enables users to buy additional digital songs for 99 cents each directly over the Internet. Virtually identical between its Macintosh and PC versions, iTunes transfers files to iPods in either MP3 or AAC formats, and even converts unprotected Windows Media Audio (WMA) songs into iPod-friendly formats. Songs downloaded from competing PC-based music services will not work on the iPod unless you use a workaround method explained in iLounge’s iPod 101/201 tutorials section.

We could go into iTunes in detail, but it suffices to say that this single program - also available for free from Apple’s web site, and currently in version 4.7.1 - is a child- and grandparent-simple way to fill any iPod with music, and remains better regarded than any of its numerous competitors. In recent months, Apple has even added a new music sampler feature to iTunes, giving every new iPod user an “album” full of free songs to start his or her iPod music collection. (The sampler album available at the time of this posting was a sixteen-track disc with lesser-known Atlantic recording artists.) Apple’s singular but intentional omission from iTunes - the ability to move music off of your iPod onto your computer - is easily fixed with numerous third-party programs you can find explained in iLounge’s tutorials and Ask iLounge columns.

Audio Quality

iPods have long been praised for their audio quality, and the iPod mini is no exception. Audio is as clear and crisp as the recording that’s being played, and there’s no apparent problem playing back anything from uncompressed audio to highly compressed MP3 and AAC files, regardless of volume level or quality of the source. You’re limited only by your headphones - the outer ear canal buds included with the iPod have nice treble and midrange performance but relatively weak bass, and are not especially comfortable in the ears. Strictly speaking, there’s no need to replace them unless you’re looking for something that fits your personal tastes, but many better earphones are available.

The second-generation iPod mini’s audio was essentially indistinguishable from its predecessor in our testing, which is to say that it sounds superb and highly accurate when its equalization is flat. Paralleling the iPod, the mini features a collection of simplistic pre-set bass, treble and midrange equalizer profiles that enhance and downplay certain aspects of the audio to optimize its output for different types of music.

On a final audio-related note, we were glad that our test second-generation iPod minis exhibited no trace of the audio defect that’s shown up in certain full-sized iPods. (The defect overlaps static and/or hard drive sounds on top of songs through the headphones whenever the iPod loads new music from its built-in disk.) Overall, we felt very pleased with the new mini’s sound, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it on this score.

Battery Performance

At this time last year, performance of the iPod mini’s battery was of strong concern to iLounge, because iPod batters were more than occasionally under-performing Apple’s official estimates. Our first-generation iPod mini wobbled above and below its estimated eight-hour battery life before settling in at around eight hours under optimal conditions. We weren’t thrilled with the performance, as eight hours of continuous play before a recharge is at the outer threshold of acceptability, but so long as the iPod met that promised number, we could live with it.

Wonderfully, subsequent iPods have become so much better in this regard that it’s almost not worth testing Apple’s official estimates - except to see by how much an iPod outperforms them. The fourth-generation iPod, iPod photo, and iPod shuffle all outdistanced Apple’s numbers by a comfortable margin, and each was designed to exceed the iPod mini’s battery life. Now Apple promises that the iPod mini will go for 18 hours before requiring a recharge, and again, the company’s estimate has proved conservative. Our second-generation iPod mini ran continuously for 26 hours and 20 minutes on randomized playback without the use of equalizers and with only mild use of the backlit screen, a favorable testing environment, but one under which the first-generation iPod mini ran for around 8 hours. In other words, the new mini exceeds its promised performance by the old mini’s total battery life. This was a thrilling result, and in our view the single best addition to the new iPod mini from an average user’s standpoint.

What Else Has Changed?

One year after the release of the first-generation iPod mini, plenty has changed - not so much with the second-generation mini, as with the world around it. Today, the mini is no longer the smallest and cheapest iPod; Apple now sells gum pack-sized iPod shuffles for $99 and up. Nor is it a smaller version of the company’s flagship model - Apple now offers color-screened iPods for $349 and up. It therefore occupies a distinct lower-middle space in the iPod family, as the smaller and thinner sister of the 20GB iPod, which itself has become thinner and cheaper since Apple released the iPod mini last year.

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In the last year, iPod competitors have improved, too. For example, iRiver’s five-Gigabyte color-screened H10 ($279, available for $255 and up) includes an FM radio, built-in audio recording capabilities, and digital photo playback on its 1.5” screen. Other competitors are cheaper, but omit the color screen. None, of course, has the iPod’s controls or access to iTunes, but they have their advantages.

Apple could have gone in many different and aggressive directions when it updated the iPod mini, but it opted to stick to a familiar formula. Some expected that the company would release a small iPod photo, with a color screen that could display digital photographs. Others thought Apple would add FM radio or broader recording capabilities to match many of its rivals. By far, most people expected that Apple would simply add a bunch of different body colors, like the 10 of Creative’s competing Zen Micro.

However, as indicated at the start of this review, the second-generation iPod mini is at once more and less than iPod fans were expecting. On the positive side, prospective iPod owners will be enticed by a lower price tag, substantially better battery life, and a potentially higher storage capacity. These are great selling points, and given the iPod mini’s existing momentum, are probably all Apple needs for the new hardware to continue its predecessor’s success.

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But that’s all - save for those factors and slight cosmetic changes, Apple’s “new” silver four-Gigabyte iPod mini is virtually indistinguishable from the “old” one. In other words, battery aside, it’s the same product, only less expensive. And then, for the same reasons as the “cheaper” fourth-generation iPod, it may actually not prove to be less expensive for some consumers.

Colors and Aesthetic Tweaks

While Apple’s web site noted that the second-generation iPod mini comes in three “new” colors, that doesn’t mean an expanded family of eight total iPod mini colors are sitting on store shelves. In fact, there are now a total of only four iPod mini colors available: silver, blue, green, and pink.

The silver iPod mini looks just the same as before, while the old blue, green, and pink mini casings now use stronger tones - hence, three “new” colors, with blue and pink receiving the boldest saturation changes. Our photos show the difference, which is noticeable, but not dramatic: we couldn’t even call the new colors by different names than the old ones, save to say they’re less metallic than before. Apple has discontinued the gold iPod mini altogether, so rather than expanding the iPod mini’s color offerings from five, it’s actually reduced them.

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Other tweaks to the iPods’ fronts and rears are very subtle, and most people will never notice the differences. Each mini’s Click Wheel icons now color-match its respective casing, so the word “Menu” and the forward, back, play and pause icons are now blue on a blue mini, pink on a pink mini, and so forth. Apple has ever-so-slightly moved up the location of the Apple and iPod logos, added new icons to the case’s bottom to indicate international consumer electronic certifications, and badged 4GB and 6GB minis with icons that state their respective capacities. The new minis’ tops, bottoms, and sides remain entirely unchanged.

Packaging

As Apple has worked aggressively to reduce the prices and sizes of its iPods, its packaging has paid a dearer price than most of its other components: the second-generation iPod mini boxes remain attractive, but no longer stand out as much as their early first-generation predecessors. On the literally bright side, all four of the new iPod mini colors are individually represented in the primary inks of their respective boxes; the silver iPod mini’s box uses predominantly metallic ink, while blue, green, and pink boxes are also prominently colored with their own strong but non-metallic identifying tones.

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Gone, unfortunately, is the remarkable cubic origami art design that carried forward from the first iPods through the original iPod photos. In mid-2004, Apple switched the iPod mini into new boxes that are rectangular and thinner, squeeze their components in to various compartments, and use materials that don’t have the same “wow” factor as before. As a result, though Apple’s graphic design remains about as strong as ever, the iPod mini boxes no longer play as dramatic a role as before in reassuring buyers about the wisdom of their purchase.

We had hoped that this was a temporary cost-cutting move, but it appears to be permanent - and expanding to all other iPod products. The iPod shuffle understandably shipped in an even simpler, Walmart-friendly box with a plastic front window, but Apple then took a similar direction with its new iPod photo boxes - a major step down for a “premium” iPod product, if a predictable mass-market signal that low pricing is becoming more important than the little stuff that once made even iPod boxes unique. Consequently, and unless something changes, we will most likely no longer discuss iPod packages in our reviews - a shame, because we used to love them.

Two Bigger Changes: Pack-Ins and Unexpected Compromises

As before, every second-generation iPod mini includes Apple’s ubiquitous white headphones, which are the same as last year’s in all but one way: like the ones that were introduced with the iPod shuffle, they include a sliding plastic neck cord manager. Contrary to reader inquiries, the headphones’ colors have not changed in color to match the minis’ bodies, a la the new Click Wheel icons.

Every package also includes one USB 2.0-to-iPod cable, a white plastic belt clip, manuals, Apple stickers, and a CD with version 4.7.1 of the spectacular CD ripping and music library software iTunes. The plastic belt clip remains forgettable in our view; while cheap and simple, it does integrate with a number of third-party iPod mini cases, enhancing its usefulness. Together, these items constitute 110% of the hardware and software that perhaps 75% of the population needs in order to use the iPod mini: you charge and re-charge the iPod mini by connecting the cable to your computer, carry it in your pocket or wear it on your belt, listen to it through the headphones, and load it up with music using iTunes.

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That’s a good enough package, and relatively simple to manage, so long as you’re always near a computer when you want to recharge your mini. The battery is supposed to take four hours to fully recharge; it took around four hours, twenty minutes in our test, but it’s easy enough to keep your iPod connected to your computer for that long, or shorter if you haven’t fully discharged the battery since your last use. Better yet, given that the iPod mini’s new battery runs for so long, who won’t be near a computer once every 26 hours of play time that it takes to drain the battery?

There’s only one problem: your computer might not have a powered USB 2.0 port. Regrettably, many people are stumped by the difference between different types of USB ports, and have no idea whether their computers have “the right one for the iPod.” If you want to know whether you’re safe, take a look at the manual that came with your computer, or give its manufacturer a call. If it was made in the last two years, and it’s a desktop PC, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re fine. But if it was made earlier than that, or is a laptop computer, or is a pre-USB 2.0 Macintosh, you’re going to need more than just the iPod mini’s included accessories.

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Here’s where Apple’s change comes in. For some reason - most likely to lower the new mini’s price - the company actually stopped including two items that were in the old iPod mini’s box - a $19 FireWire cable and a $29 Power Adapter. While the omission of the Macintosh-friendly FireWire cable isn’t any surprise, as Macintosh owners now represent a small fraction of the iPod’s total and potential user base, dropping the Power Adapter will likely have a far larger impact on new iPod owners, especially those whose PCs don’t have powered USB 2.0 ports.

The new iPod mini’s instructions and marketing assume that you’ll use your computer’s USB 2.0 ports to charge and re-charge the player’s internal battery. If not, the instructions advise you to purchase a USB 2.0 card, which the company does not manufacture for PCs, or a separate iPod USB Power Adapter ($29), which it now does. Our advice would be to go with the Power Adapter, which we’ve reviewed here.

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For all of the iPod mini’s positive changes, this single omission is the one that hurts the package - and hence, our recommendation - the most. As frequent wall charger users, and despite our ownership of computers with USB 2.0 ports, we think a charger should have been in the box - just as it is with every competing product in the mini’s class. Apple may have saved $2 per mini on the adapter (and $1 per mini on the FireWire cable), but in forcing some of its customers to buy an extra accessory just to charge the mini’s battery, it will discourage some potential buyers and start some actual ones off unexpectedly on the wrong note. That’s a step backwards from the major advances Apple made throughout 2004, and one that weighs heavily on our minds. The chintzy belt clip should have disappeared before any other item in the box.

Value

In the year since the iPod mini’s introduction, the storage gulf between iPod minis and top iPods has widened, while the price gulf has shrunk. Last year, a $250 price difference separated the 4GB iPod mini and the 40GB iPod - a 36GB difference; today, a $200 price difference separates the 6GB iPod mini and the 60GB iPod photo - a 54GB difference. Similarly, only a $50 price difference separated the first-generation iPod mini and a 15GB iPod, while today, only a $50 price difference separates the 6GB iPod mini and a 20GB iPod.

Updating the chart we created for our iPod shuffle Power Users’ Review, Apple’s most expensive iPods now represent a better value proposition than ever before, while its least expensive ones take the mini’s place as the easiest entry points to the iPod family.

ModelCapacityPriceRatio
shuffle512MB$99$198 per gigabyte
shuffle1GB$149$149 per gigabyte
mini4GB$199$49.75 per gigabyte
mini6GB$249$41.50 per gigabyte
iPod 4G20GB$299$14.95 per gigabyte
U2 iPod 20GB$349$17.45 per gigabyte
iPod photo30GB$349$11.63 per gigabyte
iPod photo60GB$449$7.48 per gigabyte


Leaving size, case colorings, and battery power entirely aside, there’s little doubt that neither iPod mini represents nearly as good a value for the dollar as the 20GB iPod at $299, a factor now compounded by the iPod mini’s omission of a FireWire cable and Power Adapter. Toss both of them into the equation and a 6GB iPod mini jumps in price to $297; omit the FireWire cable and it falls to $278, still a trivial price difference, unless size, color, or battery power is a major consideration.

As the 20GB iPod has become thinner and lighter, there’s little doubt that it’s become an increasingly attractive and viable alternative to the iPod mini for athletic purposes, only a bit larger and yet holding so much more music for any place you might want to use it. We’ve used the 20GB iPod in our own workouts without issue, and continue to feel that it’s the better buy of the two options - unless you really, truly care about one of those three factors. We also note that many (though not all) people will find the $99 iPod shuffle a perfectly acceptable athletic iPod; even Apple is emphasizing it for that purpose with a “Sport” necklace case, an Armband, and prominent advertising of its workout-friendly utility.

Conclusions

Though the second-generation iPod mini is very similar to its predecessor, there’s no doubt that its extended, 26-hour battery life alone is a major improvement, fully remedying perhaps the only gaping performance hole left in the mini by advances across the rest of the iPod family. By adding a 6GB option and putatively dropping the 4GB model’s price by $50, Apple unquestionably elevated the initial attractiveness of the iPod mini, and will win many new iPod owners as a direct consequence. We underscore that point, and further note that Apple could have gotten away with just dropping the old iPod mini to a $199 price point and achieved similar results. That they did more - if only a little more - surely deserves some commendation.

On the other hand, the new iPod minis have the same issues we pointed out as cons in our review last year: small storage capacities and a relatively poor Gigabyte-to-dollar value, each compounded by corresponding improvements of numerous sorts in the full-sized iPod lines. They’re now joined by the absence of Power Adapters, a surprising omission for all types of owners, and FireWire cables, which will mostly disappoint the Mac faithful. Apple’s decision to go with fewer colors and no major hardware advances (such as FM radio or a built-in microphone) may discourage some particularly picky potential buyers, as well.

All things considered, we think the new iPod mini rates just as it did last year - a B+ - given that its new benefits are offset by new issues. The black-and-white iPod mini line will continue to have its strong fans - particularly younger users and the fashion-conscious - and we’ll continue to like them for what they are: middle-of-the-road compromises with just enough horsepower to attract the attention of new mainstream iPod owners. We do believe, however, that many people who seriously consider the iPod minis alongside Apple’s other options will find even more to like in the company’s bigger and better offerings.

Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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