Beginner’s Guide to iPod, Part I: So You Want to Buy an iPod?

The editors of iLounge would like to believe that the world is full of two types of people: iPod owners and soon-to-be iPod owners. Momentum seems to be on our side. Since the iPod community is poised to add over a million new members in the next six months, today seemed like a perfect time to publish a beginner’s guide to the iPod, tailored to the needs of new and prospective iPod users.

Old and new friends alike, we welcome you to iLounge’s new Beginner’s Guide to iPod, an extended feature article which will be presented in the following five parts:

Part I: So You Want to Buy an iPod?
Part II: Five Steps to Using Your iPod
Part III: Necessary Accessories for Typical Users
Part IV: Awesome Accessories for Power Users
Part V: From Photos to eBooks, Creating Content and Troubleshooting

Part I: So You Want to Buy an iPod? (June 7, 2004)*
You’re thinking of buying an iPod? We’re glad, but not surprised. As of the June 2004 publication of this article, there are more than three million iPods in use, and Apple’s invention has won nearly universal praise as the de facto hardware standard for digital music playback. Since over 800,000 iPods were sold in Apple’s last fiscal quarter alone, pundits have predicted that more than two million new iPod users could join the pack in 2004. The benefits of a large community are numerous. User groups and discussion forums, including those hosted by iLounge, have sprung up around the world, and experienced users have offered their expertise and friendship to a growing global community of digital music lovers.

pic A full-sized iPod photographed at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, Wessex, United Kingdom, part of iLounge’s iPods Around the World photo gallery. You can click on the photo to visit the gallery.

Which iPod to Buy

The iPod started out as a high-end music device for sophisticated gadgeteers, but subtle refinements, price decreases, and media attention transformed it into a truly mainstream product. Rather than trying to choose between different brands of digital music players, people now ask us, “how do I know which iPod to buy?” For some, that’s a daunting decision. After all, the iPod and iPod mini look a bit different, have different numbers on the sides of their boxes, and have very different price tags.

While there are differences between the various iPod models, it’s actually easy to choose an iPod that will meet your needs. As you may know, Apple currently makes four iPods that differ from each other only in the following key ways:

Most new iPod buyers express initial concern about the first three factors: the number of songs each iPod can hold, and the size and look of the iPod. Price is another key factor, but should be considered in light of the other issues, including storage capacity and packed-in accessories. We think that each of these factors is important enough to discuss in additional detail.

iPod mini iPod 15GB iPod 20GB iPod 40GB
Storage (#Songs) 4GB (1,000) 15GB (3,700) 20GB (5,000) 40GB (10,000)
Size / Weight 3.6×2.0x0.5″/3.6oz
Colors / Materials 5 / Aluminum
1 / Acrylic + Metal
1 / Acrylic + Metal
1 / Acrylic + Metal
Missing Pack-ins No Soft Carry Bag
No Dock
No Remote
No Nylon Case
No USB Cable
No Dock
No Remote
No Nylon Case
No USB Cable No USB Cable
Price USD$249
Beginner’s Guide to iPod, Part I: So You Want to Buy an iPod? Click through to see iLounge’s “opening the iPod package” photo gallery. Full-sized (third generation) 15GB iPod shown. NOTE: Currently shipping 15GB iPods does not include a remote and dock.

Storage and Number of Songs

Though there’s a temptation to recommend the highest-capacity iPod to every type of user – just because you never know how much storage space a person’s going to need – most people will never need to carry around 10,000 songs at one time. That’s over 800 CDs worth of music, and the average person is believed to own around or under 100 CDs. Therefore, the iPod mini’s 1000 song (80+ CD) capacity is widely believed to be just about right for the typical purchaser.

But there are three types of people who should consider higher-capacity iPods: music hoarders, audiophiles, and gadget power users. People with lots of music, or plans to own more music, surely shouldn’t get the smallest-sized iPod. Nor should audiophiles. As it turns out, the 1000-10000 song estimates are based upon medium-quality music recordings that sound great through typical headphones, but reveal recording flaws when heard with better headphones or sophisticated ears. Higher-quality recordings consume more space – 50% or more than the estimates above.

And finally, gadget power users will discover that iPods are capable of more than just music storage and playback. Full-sized iPods can also store digital photos, act as voice recorders, and more, each of which will share the iPod’s hard drive and reduce its music storage capacity. Notably, the iPod mini doesn’t have these expanded capabilities, so it’s not the best option for techies.

Beginner’s Guide to iPod, Part I: So You Want to Buy an iPod? Click through to see iLounge’s “opening the iPod mini package” photo gallery. Silver iPod mini shown.

Size and Appearance

For men, the size and color of earlier iPods wasn’t much of an issue. Smaller than the footprint of a single compact disc, full-sized 15, 20 and 40GB iPods are still the smallest digital music players with those respective capacities, and the polished acrylic plastic front and metal back are nothing short of pure class. By the time Apple got around to naming the iPod’s distinctive white-on-chrome case style “iPod Signature White,” the device had already cemented Apple’s place alongside Mont Blanc and Sony in the world of luxury product design.

But female users were even more attracted to the smaller iPod mini, which offers five colors in the same horizontal and vertical dimensions of a business card, only thicker – the overall footprint of a small cellular phone. A consequence of the iPod mini’s newer aluminum case design is added practicality: it’s more scratch-resistant than the older polished iPods, making the iPod mini an easier choice to fearlessly toss into a bag or pocket without buying a carrying case accessory. iLounge still recommends the use of a case, however, to keep any iPod (especially its plastic-covered screen) free of scratches.

Price Tag and Pack-ins

Price is an important but somewhat deceptive factor. The price difference between the iPod mini and the cheapest full-sized iPod is only $50, and many people believe that an extra $50 is well-spent for the 11GB (2700 additional song) capacity difference. Other people believe that the iPod mini’s smaller size and more resilient body justify its higher relative price. In iLounge’s opinion, the 15GB iPod is a better overall purchase for the dollar than the iPod mini, and given the money to spend ourselves, that’s the way we’d spend it.

(As we’ll discuss in more detail in Part II of this Guide, full-sized iPod purchasers should note that no USB cable is included in the iPod box – a $16-$19 value for those whose computers only use USB connections. The iPod mini does include a USB cable, however, and we expect that future iPods will as well.)

That’s not the end of the story, though. The $100 price difference between the 15GB iPod and its bigger 20GB brother is offset by several factors: in addition to an extra 5GB (1300 songs) of capacity, the 20GB iPod includes a remote control, a nylon protective case, and a Dock – a plastic piece that keeps your iPod standing up on any flat surface and provides a direct line-out connection to a stereo. These accessories are overpriced when sold separately and directly through Apple, collectively representing a “value” of $117 if purchased separately. Typical users will only need one of the items, the remote control ($39), but if having the Dock ($39) interests you as well, you might as well spring for the 20GB iPod instead of the 15GB version.

At $499, the current top-of-line 40GB iPod is especially pricey, and only rarely available at a discounted price. It’s also slightly thicker than the 15GB and 20GB iPods, though not importantly so unless you’re buying third-party case accessories. As iPod power users ourselves, we prefer the top-of-line iPod models because of their extra storage space, though as capacities continue to climb, the need for bigger and bigger iPods will decrease – at least, for music storage reasons.

pic A green iPod mini photographed at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA; another photograph from iLounge’s iPods Around the World photo gallery.

Where to Buy

Discounts on iPods are few and far between except when models are discontinued, near discontinuation, or refurbished and resold through Apple. Previously discontinued iPods have sold direct through Apple, and infrequently through other retailers, for $50-75 discounts off of their original prices. We expect that discounts of this sort will soon become available on certain third-generation iPods, and it is possible that Apple will also lower the price of the iPod mini by $50 as well.

Some retailers have recently started to offer pack-ins (free cases and/or accessories) with any iPod purchase, so if you’re price- or deal-conscious and have the luxury of time, keep your eyes open for a promotion. However, as experienced bargain hunters, we must emphasize that the inconvenience factor of waiting for a “deal” on iPods has historically almost always outweighed the benefit scored in the process. Therefore, expect to pay something close to the full retail price for a brand new iPod unless you are (or know) a student qualified for Apple’s educational discount program, or are shopping for an iPod very close to the introduction of a newer version, or are interested in buying something else – say, a one-year subscription to Audible’s audio book program – in addition to the iPod.

We don’t generally recommend purchasing refurbished iPods unless you’re willing to take the risk that your refurbished unit will have some slight (or not-so-slight) issue, though Apple’s warranty service will likely remedy any such problem quickly and at no charge. If you’re interested in taking the risk, see the Special Deals page of the Apple Store’s website, where discontinued 30GB iPods are currently listed for $349 and 40GB refurbished versions sell for $399.

Future Proofing Your Purchase

One of the toughest questions to answer is whether today’s purchase of an iPod is “future-proof,” namely that a new version released tomorrow won’t obsolete current models on the market. The simplest answer to this question is “yes,” given that there have already been four versions of the iPod released, each of which has had far more in common than not.

pic An iLounge user’s concept rendering of a future iPod with video capabilities, taken from our iPod Concepts photo gallery. Note that this picture is not necessarily representative of any actual future iPod product, though we wouldn’t mind if it was.

So far, Apple has made only two important technological changes to iPod revisions: accessory ports and firmware. The release of the third-generation iPod marked the debut of the Dock Connector port, a multi-purpose accessory port that replaced a limited-purpose FireWire port on first- and second-generation iPods. Apple’s Dock Connector port was carried over to the iPod mini, and all indications are that the port will survive to near-term iPod hardware successors. As a result, we believe that there will continue to be a steady stream of accessories compatible with both current-model and future iPods.

Firmware is the operating system at the center of an iPod, and there are currently three types of iPod firmware – first- and second-generation iPod firmware, which is no longer being updated; third-generation iPod firmware, which continues to be updated to add features; and iPod mini firmware, which also continues to be updated to fix bugs and add features. We expect that the next-generation iPod will have its own firmware, and that upon its release, Apple may decide to discontinue firmware updates for the third-generation iPod, which is generally believed to be largely bug-free and not in dire need of additional functionality.

Accessory ports and firmware aside, iPods have stayed almost exactly the same from version to version: from their wheel and button controls to their backlit LCD screens, and from the music formats they support (MP3, AAC, WAV) to the software you can use with them, it hardly matters which iPod you purchased or when you purchased it. They all do the same thing – play music – and do it well. And we don’t expect that music functionality to change too dramatically in the future.

* Updated July 2004: On July 19, 2004, Apple will formally announce replacements for the current 15/20/40GB third-generation iPods, featuring slightly smaller bodies, Click Wheels instead of Scroll Wheels, six-line black and white screens, and full compatibility with current Dock Connector accessories. Other than pricing and storage capacity, other changes to the hardware are not expected to be dramatic.

Therefore, you have a choice: join the iPod revolution today, or get in line with hundreds of thousands of other people for the new iPods when they’re released. Our feeling: no matter how exciting the future may be, there’s no time like the present to buy something you’ll love. Once you get your first iPod, we’re confident that you’ll wish you’d owned one sooner.

Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and 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.

Part I: So You Want to Buy an iPod?
Part II: Five Steps to Using Your iPod
Part III: Necessary Accessories for Typical Users
Part IV: Awesome Accessories for Power Users
Part V: From Photos to eBooks, Creating Content and Troubleshooting

Latest News