Pros: Small size, almost 100% iPod functionality, low price.
Cons: Small capacity, poor gigabyte-to-dollar value.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.