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Company: Apple Computer, Inc.

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod mini

Price: $249

Compatible: Mac, Windows

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Apple Computer iPod mini: The Power User’s review

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge ()
Published: Monday, February 23, 2004
Category: iPods

Pros: Small size, almost 100% iPod functionality, low price.

Cons: Small capacity, poor gigabyte-to-dollar value.

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If you’re familiar with the iPod already, this Power User version of our iPod mini review is the one for you, longer and filled with little details only serious iPod fanatics might enjoy. Read our iPod Newbie review; it’s shorter and focuses on issues of importance to a more mainstream audience.

Introducing the iPod Mini

Two iLounge editors made a bet shortly before the iPod mini was released at Apple Stores across the United States. “There’s going to be a line there; at least 20 people,” said one, and the other chuckled at the apparent overestimate, figuring that the four gigabyte device - Apple’s smallest capacity digital music player to date - was not going to light the world on fire, particularly at a $249 retail price. When we arrived at the store, there were exactly 10 people in line. “But it’s only 5:00,” said the first editor. “Just wait.”

Lo and behold, by 5:10, there were 20 people, then 30 people by 5:30, and by 6:00, perhaps 50 or 60. Some, of course, were family members of buyers, but there was no doubt that Apple had a legitimate line to brag about, and the night was still young. The first editor had won the bet: despite the price and small capacity, people were buzzing about the iPod mini’s style and physical size. An Apple Store employee publicly predicted a sellout of their 100+ unit allotment by night’s end. And this wasn’t the only Apple Store in the area; there were two more within less than a 30-minute drive from this location. iLounge soon reported that similar lines had formed at other stores across the country. Apple had a certifiable early hit on its hands.

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Unlike the launch of the first iPod, which was almost a non-event, and the release of the third-generation version of the iPod with no moving buttons, people had a color choice to make while waiting in line to buy the new iPod mini. Like Nintendo’s Game Boys and Nokia’s phones, the mini comes in five enclosure colors, described with uncharacteristic understatement by Apple marketing brochures: “silver” units were allotted at five or more times the rate of the other four colors, pastel shades of “blue,” “pink,” “gold,” and “green,” the latter two not expected to be as popular as the others. Older iPods, meanwhile, are now described by Apple as available in “Signature iPod White,” a cute twist of marketing designed to position iPods as the perfect complement to other plastic and metal luxury goods, such as, say, Montblanc “Precious Resin” black pens.

The aesthetic appeal of the iPod mini is curious, though undeniable in person. One might think from pictures that it looks cheap or bare-boned, but that’s not the case in person: the metal enclosure makes it more Apple than Ikea. Utilizing freckled, anodized aluminum, each of the colored enclosures glimmers more attractively under lights than photographs have captured, and instantly look like fitting accessories to G4 Powerbooks or G5 Macintoshes. For the moment, the enclosures are not interchangeable, and are interrupted only by a grayscale screen and three white plastic pieces - a top with a hold switch and a port for headphones and a remote control, a bottom with a port for Apple’s proprietary Dock Connector, and a small white wheel in the bottom center of the mini’s face. For a look into the inside of an iPod mini, check out our iPod mini autopsy photos... not for the faint hearted.

First Impressions Count

From the moment we opened the box, we wanted to play with the new iPod mini more than we’d initially expected - even though it had no music on board to play quite yet. It has the exact size and weight of a small “candybar” style cell phone, but there’s something about the brushed aluminum that the hand and eyes immediately distinguish from the cheap plastic casings of most wireless devices. The bright white backlight screen now turns on instantly when headphones are plugged in - a cool little trick. Then there’s the new control wheel, which we just had to try briefly, even though we knew we should have been charging up the device before its first use.

And so the iPod mini was plugged into the wall before we could really play with it. We planned to leave it for however long it was going to take, which we suspected from Apple’s marketing materials would be three hours. For the first half hour, we tried to do other things while it charged, but like the iPod, no charging progress is indicated, only that it wasn’t yet complete. That’s when we started to sift through the contents of the mini’s box and eventually found something interesting in the manual: total charging time is actually listed at four hours, contradicting what Apple said in its pamphlet. It was a long night before we finally could play with our new toy.

Biding Time by Itemizing Accessories

That left us plenty of time to delve into the iPod mini’s box and peruse its contents. Besides the iPod mini and its packet of booklets, we spied two new Apple accessories for the first time - in addition to the standard iPod earphones, Firewire cable, and white AC power adapter, Apple includes a separate USB 2.0 cable for PC users and a new white all-plastic belt clip that holds the iPod mini while exposing its face, bottom, and parts of its sides. Less protective of the iPod mini’s surfaces than the fabric case that comes with the iPod, the white plastic holder mightn’t need to be, as the mini just looks more scratch-repellant - save its screen - than its mirror-polished older brother.

Similarly, Apple’s decision to include a full second cable rather than the integrated combination Firewire and USB cable currently on shelves was a smart move: PC users won’t experience problems trying to plug their iPods in to both Firewire and USB ports at the same time, and the extra cable can wind up in a bag or used to create a second connection to another computer or dock.

But there are some omissions from the iPod mini’s box, too. Apple didn’t include a Firewire to mini-Firewire adapter with the mini, so laptop users with the smaller Firewire ports will need a spare part to make a connection - if they can find one, as Apple doesn’t appear to sell them online. More glaringly, the iPod mini Dock is sold separately ($39.00), like the lowest-end standard iPods, and there’s no iPod Remote Control ($39.00, including second set of headphones) in the box either. We didn’t expect to find either the Dock or the remote in the box, but adding $78 for both of them to the $249.00 iPod mini price ($327) comes quite close to what select retailers have charged for a 20GB iPod with all of these accessories ($360).

Optional Items

We’ve tested both of Apple’s new optional accessories - the iPod mini Dock, and the iPod mini Arm Band ($29.00), as well as the older and still compatible 3G iPod Remote Control. Somewhat predictably, the shiny white plastic iPod mini Dock is physically identical to the iPod 3G Dock save the smaller size of the plastic indenture that holds the iPod mini on a slight reclining angle; the footprints of both Docks are the same and both contain two rear ports, one a Dock Connector input port, and the other a line out. We did note that unlike the iPod, the iPod mini now squawks rather than chirps when it’s plugged into a powered dock - a piece of trivia you can no doubt use to impress your friends and neighbors.

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The Dock works as expected, serving little purpose save to provide an upright mount for the iPod mini on a desk and the opportunity to output its audio at line-quality through a standard stereo cable - not included. You plug your Firewire or USB cable into the Dock instead of the iPod, and the Dock then acts as a pass-through for data and/or power depending on whether the cable plugged into it is also connected to a computer or the AC power supply. It truly is an optional accessory at this point, and may become even moreso in the future, when iPod mini-protective case accessories become more common and - like the iPod Dock - the iPod mini Dock won’t let an encased iPod fit in.

One reader reported that he’d seen display versions of iPod minis that had scratch-damaged cases in the exact places where they rubbed against their display Docks, and we followed up with our own mini to see whether there were scratches from our own use. There weren’t, and we suspect that any scratches are more a function of user mishandling than poor design on Apple’s part. But to err on the side of caution, we would advise a quick check of any new Dock for rough plastic edges - just in case.

Then there’s the iPod mini Arm Band. No accessory released in the last two years has tested our capacity for verbal restraint quite like this particular accessory, which we chafed at having to buy for review. We initially recoiled at the thought of a $29 price tag for a neoprene band and plastic iPod mini-holding clip, minimalism taken to an extreme even beyond the cheaper Tune Belt iPod Armband Carrier - the $20 product we previously pilloried for poor design.

Yet we have to admit that we actually like Apple’s Arm Band more than we thought we would, though we continue to think it’s a terrible value for the money, even by Apple standards, and has a minor problem. To focus initially on the positives, the minimal look actually works really well - it makes the iPod mini stand out on an arm, and from a design standpoint, Apple nailed the essentials: it holds well on the biceps and really clasps the iPod mini surprisingly well.

The holding clip’s secrets are its perfectly manufactured iPod mini form-fitting shape and the tiniest soft plastic bump to hold the device in place when inserted. And the white plastic is both durable and slightly disarming: its rear actually houses four screws and a metal harness to hold the neoprene belt and plastic clip together, more of an effort than most iPod armband makers bothered to make. Apple’s vulcanized (baked) neoprene has a better feel and look than the cheaper standard neoprene used in other case, and multiple strips of Velcro create a more than adequate lock on your arm. The word “iPod” is embossed in the band for a subtle extra touch.

Besides its price, our only issue with the armband is its protectiveness. Unlike many of the iPod armbands, which subject their users to the constant fear of iPod shaking, slippage and droppage, the iPod mini Arm Band holds the mini as tight as you make it, but it doesn’t afford any front, side, or bottom protection against the elements or scratching. Most people won’t care, and truthfully, we don’t anticipate that the mini is going to fall out or get scratched ragged by anything except classical “user error.” But for $29.00, we can’t help but think a screen protector of some sort would have been nice. Better yet, we’d like Apple to just lower the price tag, but then, we won’t hold our breath on that.

The optional white and mirrored iPod Remote Control hasn’t changed from the 3G iPod in any way - it’s the same part and box. It plugs in to the top of the iPod mini and includes volume controls, track forwarding and reversing, and play/pause functionality, in addition to lengthening the distance between the headphones and iPod.  We’d prefer that users not be forced to buy another set of headphones to get the Remote Control, so as they sell together, we see the set as a pretty-looking but overpriced remote solution that could really benefit from a LCD-equipped update.

It’s also worth mentioning briefly that iPod mini users should not expect compatibility from a number of old iPod attachment accessories, including Belkin’s Media Reader and Voice Recorder. Be sure to check Apple’s and manufacturers’ web sites for compatibility guarantees before attaching any other devices to the iPod mini.

Software

While waiting for the battery charge to end, we popped in Apple’s newest software CD - one that now says “iPod mini.” Apple’s configured the installer with mini-specific photos and text, requires some personal information when we try to install the software, and eventually leads us to a dead end: “Your new iPod mini needs to be configured. Do it now?” In a separate corner of the room, the battery indicator continued to pulse with indeterminate activity. So we hit “cancel,” and the installer proceeded to install drivers, a user guide and tutorial, and finally iTunes version 4.2.072. Curiously, iTunes interrupted its installation with an advertisement for the old iPod, and then required a restart of our test system.

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Just for kicks, we then plugged a 3G iPod in to see what would happen. Apple’s drivers initially told us that they need to update the system software on the 3G iPod, which the software apparently recognized as an out-of-date version of the iPod mini. In the spirit of experimentation, we hit “okay.” To Apple’s credit, rather than erasing the iPod or corrupting its firmware, the software realized its mistake and said that it couldn’t update the iPod - wrong version. We were thrilled. And iTunes then ran without incident.

If you’re reading this version of the review, you no doubt understand iTunes well enough for us not to need to discuss it. So we won’t.

It Begins With a Stumble

Four hours after starting, the charging finally ended: the battery icon showed a complete fill. And we anxiously plugged the iPod mini into our test computer. The connection was easy, achieved through the bottom Dock Connector port, and the screen immediately flips to a “Do Not Disconnect” screen. A small set of rotating arrows in the upper left corner indicates that something is in progress. The small battery status icon in the upper right corner remains full.

Every iPod mini arrives formatted for a Macintosh, but as 90% of its potential consumers own PCs, the next step most users will take after connecting the iPod mini will be to format its hard drive - incidentally, it’s a Hitachi 4GB MicroDrive - for PC use. Our test computer immediately detected that the format needed to be performed, started it, and then hung at the end, saying it could not disconnect the mini from the computer. We figure out how to do that manually, and the mini resets, briefly showing a folder icon that we thought meant that the iPod was rebuilding its directory structure, and then - voila - iTunes loaded up.

But there’s another problem. iTunes didn’t recognize that the iPod mini was plugged in. We guessed that a restart of the PC would solve the problem, and this would likely be the step a first-time iPod user would take, but instead, we turned to another, more experienced user’s program - the fantastic third-party iPod file transfer program EphPod. Unlike iTunes, EphPod recognized the iPod mini and let us drop a 3.2 gigabyte folder onto the device to start the transfer. With Firewire transfer speeds, EphPod estimated a little over 21 minutes of transfer time, achieving slightly under 2.5 megabytes per second transfer rate. While not fire hot, the iPod mini did warm up noticeably during the process, but cooled as soon as the transfer had finished.

The Perfect Package

Or so we thought, but let us digress for a moment before getting to that. Prior to purchasing our first iPod, we never believed in the power of product packaging as anything other than a potential initial selling tool. But Apple changed that, turning the opening of the iPod’s box into an experience all its own: the box separates into an outer enclosure and inner cube, then splits in half, revealing white secret chambers containing an iPod, the parts, manuals, and a disc, all with rounded edges and quality paper that leave you feeling as if you really just bought something special. Many people have deemed Apple’s concept a perfect “out of box” experience.

But once the iPod is out of its box, Apple really screws things up for 90% of the population - not the Apple fans who expect everything just to “work right” the first time, and receive Mac-formatted iPods out of the box, but rather, the PC users who are just on the cusp of trusting Apple to deliver its much-vaunted level of elegant perfection. We’ve read enough forum posts and had enough bad “first experiences” with freshly formatted iPods at this point to know that bad Apple “post-removal from box” experiences are common, and that it’s not just us, and not just random, isolated occurrences for iPods not to work just right when they’re plugged in for the first time.

Everything had gone fine up until this point, and the iPod mini was seeming almost like a refined little iPod killer, even simpler to use and only lacking in gigabytes. Sure, the formatting program had hung earlier rather than disconnecting, but everything seemed fine - music had been transferred and we were more than ready to start listening to it.

But after properly disconnecting the iPod mini and turning the computer off for the night, we waited for the mini to reset or go to the main menu, and it failed. The folder icon appeared on the screen again. We reset the mini a few times, and the folder icon just came up again and again. It wasn’t just rebuilding the directory. There must be a problem. Now what does that folder icon mean? We start to page through the iPod mini’s manual. No explanation. We’re worried, but not too worried…

Because this wasn’t the first time we’d had a problem using an iPod with the PC; we’ve had and heard stories of other peoples’ similar problems trying to format 3G iPods for the first time, and it looks as if Apple hasn’t fixed its formatting software yet. So the computer was turned back on, and since neither the user guide (manual) nor the iPod mini tutorial explained what was wrong, we turned to the Internet. It turns out that iTunes couldn’t mount the iPod mini before because there was a problem with the hard drive formatting - hence, the folder with an exclamation mark icon. So, despite the supposedly successful transfer of all of that music, we have to reformat the mini again and repeat the whole process. Again, EphPod estimateed 21 minutes. And this time, they seemed to pass even more slowly.

It’s great that iPods are formatted to work perfectly for Mac users out of the box, but frankly, Apple should not be releasing devices - or formatting software - that create panic moments before they’re even used for the first time. Those few strong complaints you’ll read about iPods come from people who have tried to enter the Apple world of simplicity and found themselves confronted with unexpected errors, then icons that the manuals don’t explain, and the apparent likelihood of a call to Apple tech support or a drive back to the Apple store for the replacement of a device plagued only by buggy software. On our very first night with the iPod mini, we dealt with just this set of experiences, and we were not at all happy about it.

Soothed by Design

Approximately thirty seconds after picking up an iPod mini, you begin to like it, even if you didn’t want to. The feeling is literally cool and metallic against your hand, and positioning it for proper use is as natural and intuitive as portable devices get: it feels just heavy enough to be substantial, and comes to rest in exactly the right place in your palm. One hand simultaneously holds and operates the mini, thumb motions and presses operating the new scroll wheel. Though one-handed use was possible and easy enough with the iPod, it almost feels ridiculous to use a second hand given the smaller size and comfort factor of the mini. The interface and controls are that easy to use.

Thank Apple for constantly redesigning the scroll wheel in an attempt to make it better: each iteration has been an improvement, though this one makes both two interesting steps forwards while taking one step backwards. The positive steps are the integration of the iPod’s four previously separate buttons physically into the wheel, and the related creation of a dual tactile surface for scrolling and real button pressing. Even after hearing the wheel described in early reports, we didn’t understand how it worked, but now we know: it’s a flat, touch sensitive surface that feels identical to the touch wheel on the previous iPod, and doesn’t tilt back and forth like a gaming joypad rocker control or anything of the sort: instead, under the surface of the wheel remains flush with the surface of the iPod mini, and hidden underneath the wheel are depressible left, right, up and down buttons. The center of the wheel has a slightly elevated depressible button as well.

And that’s the only negative about the mini’s design: the return of five moving parts as buttons - the central button and each of the four integrated scroll wheel buttons is actually a flexing surface that - at least conceivably - could break with repeated use. We like the concept, and greatly prefer it to a touch-sensitive pad that relies on laptop touchpad-style “tapping” for button inputs, but it’s not a step towards greater durability in the iPod’s design. If anything, it’s a perfect feature for a more disposable iPod with lower lifespan expectations, and in truth, that’s just what the $250 mini is, relative to its older $500 30GB and 40GB brethren.

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Apple also made slight, but noticeable changes to the screen on the mini: though it’s as brightly backlit as ever and still very easy to read, it’s physically smaller than the iPod’s screen and displays only five lines of text, one fewer than the iPod, and even then in a smaller font. Applications such as Solitaire have been shrunk, slightly impeding the readability of playing card suits, and the “Now Playing” screen no longer displays the album name of the song you’re listening to. Frankly, we couldn’t care less about most of these changes (albums? We don’t need no stinking albums - anymore!), and the smaller font didn’t bother us even a little. The contrast and font legibility on other MP3 devices never looked as good as the iPod’s to begin with, and in our opinion, that hasn’t changed. But we do think that older users and those with vision problems might do better to consider the larger screened iPods as alternatives.

Playing Music: The Same, but Smaller

As a music player, the iPod mini performs almost identically to the iPod in every way. Navigate quickly through lists of artists, song titles, genres, albums or playlists, pick one, and the mini starts to play. Audio is as clear and crisp as the recording that’s being played, and the iPod mini has no apparent problem playing back anything from large, high-bitrate MP3s to highly compressed AACs, regardless of volume level or quality of the source. None of its music playback features has been stripped.

Based on the comments from several users that they thought the iPod mini might sound even better than an iPod, we had three separate critics test song for song output from the 3G iPod against the iPod mini using comparable volume levels. Each of the critics commented that he discerned no difference between the devices’ output when using reference-quality Etymotic earphones, though two of the three critics said that on their first of six repeat listens of the same song, they initially believed that there might be a slightly more crisp signal coming off of the iPod mini. Yet both people independently dismissed the difference as unlikely, and otherwise virtually imperceptible if it even existed. The third user found no difference between the two devices. We concluded that the iPod mini is what its name suggests: an iPod, only smaller.

Glitches

But thirty minutes after using the iPod mini, we noticed that like the iPod, the iPod mini’s firmware is glitchy. Two of the glitches are familiar from the iPod: odd, minute-long hangs in screen-to-screen transitions, and occasional random events that stop play and bring you back to the main menu. And there are a couple new ones: infrequently, after you hit play or resume playback, the mini may unexpectedly skip forward a few tracks, or dwell longer than normal in silence before starting the song. Yet besides the hard drive formatting problem mentioned earlier, we haven’t yet seen the mini just crash as other MP3 players (such as Creative’s Zens) occasionally do, and overall, playback for the average user will be solid and trouble free. Even considering the few small issues, the iPod mini is better on the whole than its competitors.

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More Battery Concerns?

Having ourselves experienced some of the previous generation iPods’ well-documented battery issues, we looked carefully at the mini’s power performance before concluding our testing. Though the initial four-hour charge of the iPod took an hour longer than Apple advertised, we were impressed to discover that at least one, and likely two of the previous iPod’s major battery issues has been addressed.

The current crop of 3G iPods display a less than “smart” battery charging process, whereby virtually any placement of the iPod on an Apple charger results in a three-hour period before the battery meter shows completion. It’s one of the few weaknesses of Apple’s design, and feels as if plugging the iPod in just starts a timer going rather than actually measuring the battery’s strength. By contrast, when we’d used the iPod mini for a couple of hours and went to charge it again, the large “charging” battery icon registered a complete charge after only an hour, suggesting that Apple’s now actively checking to see the battery’s power level during charging. (For those keeping score, the large icon now features a gradated fill effect rather than an one-to-four bar fill effect.) Fans of other MP3 players may scoff at the late arrival of this otherwise mandatory “feature,” but we’ll just say that it’s good to see it in the mini.

Battery life - both short- and long-term - is a major concern for many iPod users, including us. Apple claims that a single rechargeable battery will power the iPod mini for eight hours, but (most likely for legal reasons) no longer speculates on lifespan before death. However, typical Lithium-Ion batteries can be charged 300 to 500 times before dying, which is commonly estimated at around eighteen months of above-average use. We continue to believe that user-replaceable batteries should be mandatory additions to future iPods, and note that the iPod mini’s battery - like its much-criticized predecessor batteries - can not be easily replaced by the average user.

We found that Apple’s estimates of the prior generation iPod’s battery life were somewhat optimistic: though the device can initially meet or slightly surpass its advertised eight hours of play time if the user sets the unit on continuous play, never touching the backlight or using the controls to change songs, more common usage cuts play time down to roughly six and a half hours, and the battery’s maximum power level degrades slowly during its lifespan. Additionally, we found the battery’s remaining power estimates to be constantly fluctuating and unreliable.

But after running some tests on the iPod mini, we think that Apple may have remedied some of these problems. Our first test of the mini, following the steps described below, yielded an anemic five hour, 45 minute playback time under nearly peak playback conditions. Staggered, we repeated the test with one small difference, and the iPod played continuously for eight hours and fifty-eight minutes, approaching the even higher re-testing numbers (one test yielding 10 hours and 40 minutes of playtime) reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg in his test of a preproduction iPod mini. We also note that the battery did a very good job of estimating its remaining running time in both cases, a nice improvement from the 3G iPod.

Given our disparate results and our short deadline for this piece, we are of the opinion that the first test was an aberration based on running the iPod’s battery for its first full discharge out of the box, and that the mini’s peak condition performance will improve before plateauing. We would like to hear readers’ results performing the same tests we’ve run, and we do intend to continue to run tests on the mini to determine which of the scenarios above represents the unit’s truly peak performance. You can skip to the next section if you’re not interested in the details of our testing and the battery’s performance.
Our testing steps for test 1 were as follows:

  • Recharge battery to full capacity;
  • Connect ear buds;
  • Set volume to middle of scale, turn equalizers off;
  • Set iPod on “shuffle songs” mode to slightly randomize hard disk access;
  • Hit play at the top of a music category;
  • Let iPod mini play continuously for as long as it could, without touching the controls or activating the backlight.

The eight hundred-plus possible songs we put on the iPod mini ranged in duration and bitrate, but were typically three or three and a half minutes in length and used 128 or 160k MP3 compression. Our test likely gave the mini a better-than-real world opportunity to perform, as the backlight didn’t have to go on and off, the controls weren’t being accessed, and there wasn’t any no user-driven random hard-drive accessing. Even though the iPod mini was set on a supposedly random shuffling of the songs, the mini had the opportunity to fully control what’s played back, and cache or not cache at its computerized will.

Two and a half hours into continuous playback, the mini wavered between registering forty and fifty percent power on its battery meter. We suspected that the battery meter was perhaps inaccurate, as it frequently is on the 3G iPod, and that it could make up for its current estimate by playing much longer in its second “half” of battery power than its first. The hard drive was being accessed approximately once every five to six songs, which we suspect is about average for typical use, and less frequently than average for someone with a large collection of high-bitrate audio.

Exactly four hours into playback, the mini showed around 30 percent or less battery life remaining, and one hour later, showed only the thinnest sliver (around 10%) of battery juice left. Five hours and twenty minutes into playback, it showed no power left, but still played. Users familiar with 3G iPods know that the older device’s battery can last for up to an hour and a half after the “zero power” mark, so we remained optimistic that the mini might last seven hours. But instead, it died twenty-five minutes later - at the five hour and forty-five minute mark, turning off the power and failing to respond to button presses. When connected to a power source, the unit brought up the Apple screen for ten or fifteen seconds, then came up at the main menu and began to charge.
Our second test involved the following steps:

  • Recharge battery to full capacity;
  • Connect ear buds;
  • Set volume to middle of scale, turn equalizers off;
  • Do not set iPod on “shuffle songs” mode, but rather permit continuous play without randomization;
  • Hit play at the top of a music category;
  • Let iPod mini play continuously for as long as it could, without touching the controls or activating the backlight.

In this second test, the iPod went a full four hours before reaching the 50% battery mark, and went down to 40% around the fifth hour of play. Seven and a half hours into testing, the iPod still registered 20% of its power remaining. When eight hours and 58 minutes had passed, the iPod powered off and wouldn’t boot until recharged. On average, the iPod went out to the hard drive once every five to six songs, as it had in the prior test. For this reason, we suspect that the first test’s shorter playing time is attributable to testing a fresh battery rather than because we turned off the “shuffle songs” mode.

Of course, both of these tests were slanted in favor of battery life at the expense of testing real-life usage conditions, and further testing is needed to determine whether Apple has truly lived up to its battery consumption estimates this time. But as of this moment, it appears entirely possible that iPod mini users will actually get close to the eight promised hours of real-life running time they paid for, and that would be a wonderful step forward for Apple to have taken.

Value for Dollar and Final Thoughts

As hardware fanatics, we’re tempted to say that the iPod mini isn’t right for everyone, but in truth, it might be the most mainstream iPod released to date. The 3.76 gigabyte hard drive capacity, small size, super easy control scheme and solid playback time are all just right for the average person with a hundred CDs and no prior experience with digital music. Though disappointing by comparison with other companies’ digital music players, the iPod mini’s battery life won’t bother people who spend fewer than six to eight consecutive hours listening to music before recharging, and we remain cautiously optimistic that Apple will correct the mini’s few remaining software and firmware bugs in short order.

We can’t say that we’re happy with the price, however, as at $249 the iPod mini represents a poor value relative to the $299 15GB iPod and its recently discounted 10GB predecessor. Size and colored metal aside, there is nothing to recommend the mini as a replacement or substitute for a full-sized iPod, and given the choice between options, those of us with large music collections would pick a regular iPod any day despite the mini’s easier Click Wheel controls and great profile. That said, casual users will love the design, and though we expect that Apple will drop the mini’s price to $199 by the time of the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in late June of this year (if not earlier), in the meanwhile there will be plenty of happy iPod mini users heaping praise on their favorite new toys.

The reason for the hype and excitement is obvious. After playing with the mini - even despite our own initial reluctance to like it - we loved the interface, respected the anodized aluminum case, and appreciated the surprisingly dramatic increase in portability. Competing products may match or beat its price, but won’t touch its style and interface. Apple’s iPod mini is a device that we think can and will fit into purses and bookbags even better than its predecessors, and continued positive word of mouth will likely eventually convert even the skeptics on this one - so long as the price falls to a more reasonable level.

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Jeremy Horwitz is a consumer electronics fanatic who practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.

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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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