Pros: Small size, almost 100% iPod functionality, low price.
Cons: Small capacity, poor gigabyte-to-dollar value.
If you’ve never used an iPod before and are considering the possibility, this Newbie Review is the right review for you. Shorter than our full-length review, this review covers only the basics, so if you want additional details, check out the Power User’s review.
Two iLounge editors made a bet several hours before Apple released the four gigabyte iPod mini digital music player in its United States retail Apple Store locations: the winner correctly predicted that there would be substantial lines by the 6:00pm official launch time, even though the mini is Apple’s lowest capacity audio device to date. We counted approximately 60 people in line at one of three area Apple Stores at the minute sales began, and a local Apple Store employee predicted a sellout of their 100+ unit allotment by night’s end. Visitors to other stores reported similarly brisk activity. Whether or not sales keep up at such a pace, there can be no doubt that Apple has an early hit on its hands with the iPod mini, the newest and technically cheapest iteration of the company’s two-year-old music device.
But iLounge isn’t interested so much in sales figures as in the product itself: does the iPod mini live up to recent hype and the standards set by its predecessors? Could we recommend it instead of other digital music devices? For the most part, the answers are “yes,” “yes,” and “yes,” but it’s not necessarily a slam dunk for Apple this time, as you’ll read below. Even we were surprised by some of our findings.
First Impressions Count
One might think from pictures that the iPod mini looks cheap, but it makes a much better impression in person: the largely metal case design makes the mini more Apple than Ikea. As Nintendo’s Game Boys and Nokia’s phones have proved, colorful cases are key to making digital devices more appealing to mainstream buyers, and the mass-market ready $249 iPod mini is therefore the first iPod available in a color other than white. Utilizing freckled, anodized aluminum, each of the mini’s five colored shells (silver, blue, pink, gold, and green) glimmers more attractively under lights than photographs have captured, and its curved sides reflect interesting, soft gradients. The shells are not interchangeable, and are interrupted only by a backlit 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.
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 an aluminum candybar-style wireless phone – the size difference is more dramatic than one expects, and is apparent from certain shots in our iPod mini photo gallery. But the real strength of Apple’s design is in the incredibly simple user interface, which is accomplished via two devices: the white plastic “Click Wheel,” and an extraordinarily easy-to-use menu system that any user – computer-literate or not – could understand within minutes.
Think of the Click Wheel as a 21st Century hybrid of a steering wheel and four-way joypad, 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 1000-song library as easy and fun as could be hoped, and definitely easier overall than any other music player to date.
The mini’s screen is almost as impressive. Brightly backlit and easy to read, the black, grey and white display is the second best in the digital audio device category, only slightly behind the ones found in larger iPods. But the difference between both types of iPods and other MP3 devices is sharp: competitors’ contrast and font legibility never looked as good as the iPod’s to begin with, and in our opinion, the mini is still a winner in these categories. We will note that older users and those with vision problems might well consider the larger screened iPods as alternatives.
Accessorizing the Mini
Besides the iPod mini and its packet of booklets, each box includes a pair of standard iPod earphones, separate Firewire and USB 2.0 cables, a white AC power adapter, and a 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.
Only a few items are missing from the box. Apple didn’t include a Firewire to mini-Firewire adapter with the mini, so laptop-only PC users with the smaller Firewire ports will need a previous generation’s iPod 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 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).
Our separate opinions of the iPod Remote Control, the iPod mini Dock, and the iPod mini Armband accessory can be found in our Power User’s review.
It’s 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.
Extra Features and Installing Music
Each iPod mini ships with Apple’s iTunes, a highly competent and easy-to-use 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, but does not permit playback of Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, so songs downloaded from competing PC-based music services will not work on the iPod unless converted.
Other applications, including Joseph Masters’ excellent free PC application EphPod, offer alternative features and interfaces to make iPod music management a snap. In addition to music transfers, EphPod enables the iPod to download weather updates, news stories and Microsoft Outlook personal contacts lists, taking advantage of the iPod mini’s limited PDA-like text display functionality. Truthfully, the iPods’ calendars, clock features and text display abilities are not features we prefer to use, and the mini’s smaller screen doesn’t make any of them more useful. Even if we’d vaguely contemplated reading news stories on the larger iPod screen, we’d stick to playing music with this one.
The first battery charge takes four hours – one more than Apple has been saying in advertisements – and like the iPod, the mini arrives formatted for connection to a Macintosh. As 90% of Apple’s potential consumers own PCs, the next step after connecting the iPod mini will therefore likely be to format its hard drive for PC use. Unfortunately, Apple’s software crashed at the end of our first PC format and required a second pass before successfully completing, a time-consuming and frustrating process that hasn’t gotten better since similar problems plagued the prior iPod’s release.
After formatting is complete, those planning to install 4 full gigabytes of music on the iPod mini may be disappointed: it actually holds around 6% less than that, or 3.76 total gigs of audio. This is enough space for around 1,000 nearly CD-quality songs, or a bit fewer than 100 standard music CDs, a quantity which will satisfy casual users and second-time iPod buyers but not music fiends and power users. Transferring the drive’s full capacity took slightly under half an hour, and only slightly warmed the mini’s aluminum exterior. Once music was transferred, the mini never lost its cool touch again.
Audio Quality and a Few Glitches
With the intuitive menu system, it’s easy to navigate quickly through lists of artists, song titles, genres, albums or playlists, pick one, and let the mini start to play. Audio is as clear and crisp as the recording that’s being played, and there’s no apparent problem playing back anything from large, high-bitrate MP3s to highly compressed AACs, 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 weak bass, and are not especially comfortable in the ears. But they’re noticeably better than the headphones shipped with many competing MP3 players, and strictly speaking, there’s no need to replace them unless you’re looking for something that fits your personal tastes.
Paralleling the iPod, the mini features a collection of 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. That’s pretty much it, though. Besides the option to pick a profile such as “Classical,” “Dance,” or “Spoken Word,” and play with the volume, the user can’t adjust the playback settings in any way in the iPod mini. It does a great job of performing whatever you put into it, but unlike, say, Creative’s Zen series, don’t expect to tweak the audio once it’s been transferred into the iPod.
The iPod would be a nearly perfect audio playing device if everything worked as Apple advertises, but it does have some faults. Our first issue is with its menu system, which includes both iPod-derived simplicity and iPod-derived bugs. We experienced odd, minute-long hangs in screen-to-screen transitions, and occasional random events that stopped play and brought us back to the main menu. Infrequently, after we hit play or resumed playback, the mini unexpectedly skipped forward a few tracks, or dwelled 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’s menu system and interface is better on the whole than its competitors.
What About the Battery?
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 mini 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 issues has been addressed.
First, Apple has finally implemented a smarter battery charging scheme that actively checks to see the iPod battery’s power level before and during charging, rather than starting the charging process apparently from scratch every time the unit is plugged in. 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.
Nearly fresh out of the box, our first test of the iPod mini’s battery yielded an anemic five hour and 45 minute running time. But after a second recharging, the mini played continuously for eight hours and 58 minutes before shutting down. For more details on our tests, and our request for your participation in further testing, please see our Power User’s version of this review.
Both of our tests did not involve user interaction with the mini besides to sit back and listen, and thus were slanted in favor of optimizing battery life at the expense of testing real-life usage conditions. Further testing is therefore 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.
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Computer, Inc.
Model: iPod mini
Compatible: Mac, Windows