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It's incredibly small and light, comes in five different colors, and has the lowest price of any product bearing the name iPod. Yet the iPod mini is a controversial product, mostly because it doesn't meet the expectations of people who wanted a truly low-cost iPod targeted at a mass market. But the iPod mini shouldn't be faulted for what it isn't. Instead, let's appreciate it for what it is -- an impressive new iPod in a smaller, more stylish package.
What Good Things Come In
It's easy to lay out the iPod mini's specifications: it's 3.6 inches tall, 2 inches wide, and half an inch thick, and it weighs 3.6 ounces. But this list of measurements doesn't do justice to the mini -- you really need to pick one up to understand how tiny it is. It feels like a small remote-control device, a small cell phone, or even an ultramodern business-card holder. It's difficult to believe that there's a hard drive in there, let alone a 4GB one. I slipped the mini into my pants pocket and didn't even feel its presence -- the original iPod feels like a second wallet.
The mini's anodized aluminum finish is essentially the same as the one on Apple's latest generation of PowerBooks. It has a subtle, pleasant texture. Unlike the PowerBooks, the iPod mini comes in five colors: silver (which matches the PowerBooks perfectly), gold, green, pink, and blue (my personal favorite). But I've already had several coworkers tell me that they want purple and orange models. You just can't please some people.
The mini's display is also smaller than the regular iPod's -- a 1.67-inch diagonal instead of two full inches. The new display has led to two other modifications: the iPod's screen font is now Espy, instead of Chicago. It's still quite readable, and other than the new font, the mini's menu interface is identical to that of the regular iPod. (And, yes, the two devices also offer exactly the same sound quality.)
The mini's display is one line shorter than the iPod's, so in Now Playing mode, you can see a song's title and the name of its artist -- but not the name of its album. That's a reasonable choice, but I'd prefer more-sophisticated display options, such as being able to alternate the artist's name with the album's title.
Although the mini sports a dock connector identical to those on the third-generation iPods, its front button controls are more reminiscent of the first two iPod generations. Like those iPods, the mini has four buttons, located at the top, bottom, left, and right of the scroll wheel. But unlike the early iPods, which featured a second ring of buttons outside the scroll wheel, the mini saves space by making the buttons part of the wheel itself. Press down softly on the wheel, and it gives slightly, so clicking on the iPod mini is a much more reliable tactile experience than pressing the third-generation iPod's set of four electrostatic buttons. (But be gentle -- if you press down too hard, you risk having the mini misinterpret one click as several, or having it ignore your click altogether.)
However, the mini's compass-style button design has its own interface limitations. The most glaring is that while navigating the interface involves scrolling from side to side, you use neither the left nor the right button to do that scrolling. Instead, you use the Menu (top) and Select (center) buttons. This makes learning to use the mini a bit more difficult than it should be.
The mini's scroll wheel is still of the touch-sensitive, no-moving-parts variety, and it works well. I found the mini's controls to be slightly cramp-inducing in my large hand, but several friends with smaller hands said that the mini felt more comfortable than the regular iPod.
The Accessory's the Thing
Although the mini's small dimensions ensure that a whole new crop of iPod cases will soon be in the offing, this new iPod is largely compatible with most size-independent add-ons for the third-generation iPods. For example, the mini's dock connector will fit any device designed to use the current iPods. (Apple sells a mini-size dock as a $39 add-on.) But though you can connect Belkin's $50 iPod Voice Recorder and $99 iPod Media Reader to the mini, they're incompatible; Apple has omitted voice-recording and media-card-reading functionality from the iPod mini's software.
The mini's headphone and remote-control connectors are identical to those on the third-generation iPod. Unfortunately, the mini doesn't come with Apple's excellent wired remote control. You can purchase one, along with a superfluous set of iPod earphones, from Apple for $39.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The two most difficult aspects of the iPod mini to judge are its storage capacity and its price, because they're so dependent on your own needs. If you've got a huge music library and rely on picking an obscure track from an even more obscure artist at random while you're on the bus, the iPod mini is not for you. If you've got a smaller library, or if you don't need the massive opportunity for serendipity that the larger iPods offer, the mini's 4GB of space will do just fine.Similarly, your needs will affect how you view the $249 mini's asking price. The original iPod provided only 5GB of storage and cost $399, and it launched one of Apple's most successful product lines. Even at $249, the mini is the most inexpensive iPod ever.
So is the iPod mini the groundbreaking, "$199 (or $149, or $99) iPod" that conventional wisdom said Apple had to announce at Macworld Expo to ensure the iPod's continued dominance of the digital-music-player world? Not at all. But it is an attractive, tiny iPod that carries 80 percent of the original iPod's capacity in half its size, and at 60 percent of its price. That's pretty groundbreaking, too.