In the Mac and PC world, when a new version of an existing computer arrives that offers modest improvements in processor speed, greater hard-drive capacity, more built-in RAM, and, perhaps, a more robust graphics card, the update is referred to as a “speed bump.” The machine is enhanced in ways to make it more desirable, but there’s nothing earthshakingly different under the hood.
Although you don’t define the iPod in terms of speed, “speed bump” could fairly describe the iPod mini (Second Generation), the latest version of Apple’s wildly popular mid-sized music player. Like speed-bumped computers, these iPods include no new features. However, these new minis—available in capacities of 4GB ($199) and 6GB ($249)—do offer vastly improved battery life and, in the case of the 6GB model, greater storage capacity for the same price as the original 4GB iPod mini. Additionally, the pink, green, and blue models sport more vivid hues than the original mini, thanks to a metal-flake coating on the case. (The silver model looks the same as the original. The gold color scheme found in the first generation of minis has been discontinued.)
All Charged Up and Ready to Go
While the new colors and greater storage capacity of the 6GB model are the new minis’ marquee features, the most impressive thing about these iPods is their play time. The original mini’s play time is rated at eight hours and that rating is pretty close to the mark. In our tests of a first generation iPod mini we found that when you shuffled songs on a fully charged unit and didn’t touch it after pressing Play, the iPod would play for a little over nine hours.
The current minis are rated at 18 hours of play time. Under the same “press Play and walk away” conditions, my green 6GB iPod mini played for an astounding 26 hours and 16 minutes. This hints that Apple’s specification of 18 hours of play time is a real-real world figure—one where you can expect the battery charge to last for a good 18 hours (and possibly longer), even when you perform such actions as switching on backlighting for short periods of time, searching through contacts and calendars, adjusting the iPod’s volume, and jumping from one song, album, or playlist to another. If you need an iPod that plays for long stretches of time between recharges, this feature alone makes it worth your serious consideration.
Missing in Action
These new minis are also notable for what Apple leaves out of the box. Although you’ll find a cable for transferring music via USB 2.0, the Apple iPod Dock Connector to FireWire Cable that was once bundled with every mini and full-sized iPod is now an optional $19 accessory. Likewise, the power adapter that accompanied the original iPod mini must be purchased separately for $29.
In the past, the absence of a FireWire cable would be more than a minor inconvenience. With earlier iPod models and versions of iTunes, transfer via USB 2.0 was noticeably slower. Apple appears to have made improvements to bring USB 2.0 transfers into line with FireWire. In my tests, a dual-processor 2GHz Power Mac G5 filled a 6GB mini in 15 minutes and 17 seconds over USB 2.0. Using a FireWire connection shaved a scant 18 seconds off that time. And on a 3GHz Dell Dimension 4700 PC running Windows XP, USB 2.0 transfer was faster than FireWire—taking 17 minutes and 49 seconds to top off the mini versus the 20 minutes and 16 seconds it took to do the job via FireWire. (Yes, as these figures indicate, moving music to an iPod takes less time with a Mac.)
Apple might argue that by omitting these items it has been able to deliver a 4GB mini for $50 less than the original and a 6GB model for the same price as the first mini. Add the value of the minis’ enhanced playtime, the fact that USB 2.0 is found on all current Macs and PCs, and that for some people it’s no more of a chore to plug an iPod into a computer to charge it than it is to jack it into a power adapter, and Apple’s decision makes sense.
As a veteran iPod user, I remain disappointed. I often charge my iPod at night so it’s fresh in the morning and, like me, my computers sleep when the sun goes down. Because an iPod won’t charge from a sleeping computer, if you lack a power adapter and wish to charge your iPod over night, your computer must remain sleepless. Also, while most of my computers have a FireWire port, few of them include a USB 2.0 port. Those with similarly middle-aged computers who are considering the purchase of one of the new iPod minis must figure in the cost of the FireWire cable (or a USB 2.0 PCI card or PC card).
Speed bump or no, the iPod mini, with its more vibrant sheen and impressively improved play time, is a winner. While we’re sorry that Apple chose to cut corners by dispensing with the bundled FireWire cable and power adapter, we understand that many will find sacrificing these items no sacrifice at all when they can get a 6GB mini for the same price as the previous 4GB model or save $50 on the latest 4GB iPod.