Picking the right iPod

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In 2001, when Apple introduced the iPod, there was just one model—the only decision you had to make was to iPod or not to iPod. But in the past four years, the company has made things more complicated by adding several members to the iPod family.

Apple currently offers three versions of its diminutive music player—the iPod shuffle, the iPod nano, and the color-screen iPod—at prices ranging from $99 to $399. Which model will best serve you? Well, I’ve had my hands on every iPod model Apple has released—and here’s my advice on finding the right iPod for you.


Not long ago, Apple offered the fourth-generation iPod (a model with a monochrome display) and a separate iPod photo (a model that could not only play music but also display color pictures on its screen, on a TV, or via a projector). In June 2005, Apple brought color to all its full-size iPods (including the iPod U2 Special Edition) and dropped the word photo from the iPod photo’s name.

The change doesn’t mean that the iPod has lost any of its photo-display capabilities. As with the previous iPod photo, you can use Apple’s $29 iPod Camera Connector accessory to load pictures from a digital camera onto the new iPod without having to first process them in iTunes. (Normally, you need to load your pictures onto your Mac, where iTunes processes them for iPod compatibility, and then sync your iPod with your Mac.) The new iPod can also take advantage of the Apple iPod AV Cable (now a $19 accessory) to connect to a TV or a projector.

While the new iPod offers more storage than the iPod nano (capacities of 20GB or 60GB, versus the nano’s 2GB or 4GB), it takes an hour and a half longer to fully charge (5 hours versus the nano’s 3.5 hours). And because the iPod uses a hard drive rather than solid-state flash memory, it’s susceptible to skipping (though it offers 17 minutes of skip protection). It does, however, offer greater play time for both music and slide shows—15 hours of continuous play for music and as long as 5 hours for slide shows, versus the nano’s 14 hours for audio and at least 4 hours for slide shows. And the iPod has all the music and storage features turned on. Unlike the nano and the shuffle, it lets you record voice memos with a third-party recorder such as Griffin Technology’s $40 iTalk or Belkin’s $35 Voice Recorder for iPod with Dock Connector.

Capacity and Price A 20GB (approximately 5,000 songs) iPod costs $299; a 60GB (approximately 15,000 songs) iPod, $399; and a 20GB U2 Special Edition (approximately 5,000 songs) iPod, $329. Check out our reviews of the 20GB iPod (   ) and 60GB iPod (   ).

Ideal Usage and User If you’re looking for the ultimate in an iPod—a large color screen, the ability to display pictures on a TV or a projector, long play times, and enough storage for a very large music library—you and the full-size iPod are meant for each other.

iPod nano

When Apple introduced the iPod nano, it killed off the much-beloved iPod mini—and many people wondered why. It didn’t take long, however, to understand that the nano was more than just a more miniature mini—it was the next logical step in the midpriced iPod line. Out went the mini’s monochrome LCD and in came a color display similar to the one on the larger iPod (though half an inch smaller). Gone, too, was the mini’s hard drive, replaced by 2GB or 4GB of flash memory. The mini was cool, but the nano is a far cooler way to shove a thousand tunes into a very tiny pocket.

The iPod nano has many of the same features as the full-size iPod, but it also suffers from some of the same limitations as the mini. As mentioned earlier, like the minis, the iPod nano doesn’t support voice recording and media storage via third-party peripherals. And although the iPod nano has a color screen, it doesn’t offer as many picture-related features as the full-size iPod. For example, you can use neither Apple’s iPod Camera Connector nor a device such as Belkin’s $50 Media Reader to load pictures onto a nano. Also, the nano offers no support for viewing pictures on an attached TV or projector—instead, you’re stuck watching slide shows and viewing photos on the nano’s bright but tiny display. And any accessories that depend on the iPod’s Remote Control port—FM transmitters and remote controls, for example—won’t work with the nano because it lacks this port.

When you consider the price-to-storage ratio, the nano isn’t as good a deal as the iPod. Cost per megabyte for the $199 2GB iPod nano is nearly 10 cents. And a megabyte on the $249 4GB nano costs just over six cents. Compare this with about two cents per megabyte on a $299 20GB iPod, and you’ll see that people who want the most storage for their money may pass on the nano’s cool form and handy size in favor of the higher-capacity iPod.

The nano’s flash memory does offer some advantages. As I mentioned, flash memory eliminates skipping. Because the nano has no moving parts, it’s also more likely to survive a fall than a full-size iPod. And since there’s no hard drive to spin up, the nano is quite responsive—zipping through a screen full of songs and easily dashing from one photo to another.

Capacity and Price A 2GB (approximately 500 songs) nano costs $199; a 4GB (approximately 1,000 songs) nano, $249. See our review of the iPod nanos (both   ).

Ideal Usage and User The diminutive nano, with its white or black case, is Apple’s most fashionable iPod. If you have a sense of style and want to store a goodly number of songs on a small, portable music player, the iPod nano may be hard to resist. And unlike the shuffle, it offers a display (with color, to boot) and the iPod’s signature Click Wheel.

iPod shuffle

Apple’s least-expensive iPod offers a host of advantages: it’s affordable enough to be an impulse buy; its sound quality is as good as that of any other iPod; like the nano, it never skips (it, too, has flash memory rather than a hard drive); it’s highly portable; and it holds more than enough music to get you through a long drive or a marathon run (and with up to 12 hours of play time, the battery will last longer than your playlist). It doesn’t, however, include a screen for navigating to specific songs. And its capacity is limited, so only people with very small music collections will be able to store an entire library on it.

Capacity and Price A 512MB (approximately 120 songs) shuffle costs $99; a 1GB (approximately 240 songs) shuffle, $129. See our review of the iPod shuffles (both   ).

Ideal Usage and User The shuffle’s nonskip nature and minuscule size make it the perfect companion for exercising. And it’s easily inexpensive enough to become your second, “just kickin’ around” iPod. It’s also a good choice for kids (or adults) who tend to misplace their valuables—losing a $99 shuffle is a lot easier to bear than misplacing a $399 iPod.

[ Contributing Editor Christopher Breen is the author of Secrets of the iPod and iTunes, fifth edition (Peachpit Press, 2005), and the editor in chief of Playlistmag.com.]

iPod nano
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