The iPod brand has become synonymous with excellent portable audio players, and the second-generation Apple iPod Mini carries on the tradition with its fashionable, intelligent design. Apple has made precious few (but all necessary) updates to its stylish microdrive player, which is a good thing since it was already a winner. The device's strongest design point, the ClickWheel, has been spiffed up with colour-coded labels to match each colour option, and Apple has done away with the unpopular gold model. But the most exciting enhancements are the improved battery life -- now rated at 18 hours -- and the addition of a 6GB option (£169). Even better, the 4GB iPod Mini is now priced more aggressively at £139.
Though our dreams of a colour-screened iPod Mini are yet unrealised, even these seemingly evolutionary changes show that Apple is prepared to fight the ever-increasing onslaught of self-proclaimed 'Mini killers'.Although it scarcely seems possible, we think the Apple iPod Mini's design surpasses even that of its photogenic older sibling. Its stylish, anodised-aluminum shell is so tough that we felt as if we could stand on the device without consequence. Apple constructs the body by hollowing out Mini-shaped aluminum blocks so there are no seams in the construction, then applies the colour during the anodisation process so it can't scratch off. The second-generation player is available in silver, as well as in deeper and more-vibrant shades of green, blue, and pink.
At 91 by 50 by 12mm, the oblong iPod Mini is longer than the comparatively squat Creative Zen Micro, but it's still one of the thinnest players in the category (only the Rio Carbon is thinner, but just at its tapered bottom edge). With a weight of 102g, the iPod Mini sits just about dead centre of its competitors (the Zen Micro weighs 107g, and the Carbon weighs 90g), and, it's still quite light in any pocket. The player's 43mm (1.7-inch-diagonal) screen is smaller than the white iPod's, but the crispness afforded by the Mini's tighter dot pitch compensates for the reduced viewing area (although in Browse mode, files display the song title and the artist but not album information).
But to our palate, the tastiest design treat is the spruced-up ClickWheel. Play, menu/back, fast-forward, and rewind functions take their positions at the four compass points of the circular control, and each option offers physical feedback when you press down -- you get that satisfying "click" feeling and sound. As we mentioned earlier, the labels for each function on the iPod Mini also now correspond with the body colour. The touch-sensitive ClickWheel still works perfectly for scrolling through lengthy song lists with speed and precision. As with the white iPod, the unlabelled button in the middle of the wheel is used to select the desired option. The only other control on the player is the sliding hold key on top, which locks all functions. To adjust the volume, you must use the ClickWheel while in Now Playing mode. If you prefer the convenience of dedicated volume buttons, you might want to buy a wired remote control.
An exposed slot (the Dock connector) on the bottom of the iPod Mini attaches to either the included USB 1.1/2.0 cable or an optional Firewire cable. Alternatively, you can hook up via a cradle (sold separately), which in turn connects to the FireWire or USB cable or directly to a stereo through the line-out jack. Unfortunately, Apple no longer includes the power adapter, but you can purchase one separately if you prefer not to charge up through your computer. The Mini snaps into an included white belt clip for on-the-go listening. Apple also offers an optional armband for exercise, which uses the same cool, snap on design. As with all hard drive-based MP3 players, the iPod Mini isn't the ideal choice for extreme physical activity.
Other than the Belkin voice recorder and flash adapter, most third-party accessories designed for the latest round of white iPods also work with the Mini.The Apple iPod Mini's playback features are all accessible and programmable from the main menu. You can browse by song, artist, album, genre, playlist, or composer. With the On The Go function, you can create a new playlist without a computer. When you sync the player to iTunes 4.2 or later, the new playlist uploads to your PC or Mac and can download back to the Mini automatically for later listening. In Autosync mode, iTunes sizes up your iPod Mini's available storage space and creates a playlist that fits the capacity perfectly, consisting of songs you've rated highly or listened to more frequently. This is crucial, since both the 4GB and 6GB capacities (which can each hold between two and four days' worth of nonstop music) are smaller than most serious digital music collections. It also means that if you've already used iTunes to listen to music on your PC or Mac, the first time you connect the iPod Mini, all of your favourite songs automatically transfer to the player until it's full.
A Playlist function lets you rate a song on a scale of one to five while it's playing; songs with higher ratings play more frequently in Shuffle mode (you can also rate songs within the iTunes application). Library/device syncing is still as smart as ever. When you plug in the Mini or drop it in the optional cradle, iTunes launches and automatically syncs your music collection or selected playlists. With iTunes, you can also create MP3 and AAC files from your CDs. The iPod Mini handles AAC files as it would MP3 files, but AAC sounds better at the same bit rate. The player also supports WAV/AIFF and spoken-word Audible files, which can now be purchased from the iTunes Music Store. The software can also resample songs to a certain bit rate, apply volume leveling (a.k.a. normalisation), and digitally enhance songs while transferring them.
Other notable extras include an alarm clock that can beep or play the song of your choice through a home stereo; three games (Brick, Parachute, and Solitaire); Music Quiz, which tests you on how quickly you can recognize songs from your collection; a contacts list and a calendar that sync with Outlook; an area where you can read text memos; and an ability to play tunes from the iPod's hard drive while it's connected to your computer.
You can use the iPod Mini to share music between multiple computers, but it's not easy as the player syncs to only one version of iTunes. But there's an alternative. We were able to copy MP3 files from the Mini to a second computer's hard drive in Windows by turning on "View hidden files and folders" and browsing the Mini's internal directories in My Computer until we found the music. Mac OS X users can do the same thing if they install TinkerTool.
The iPod Mini has no compatibility problems transporting data files between computers -- Macs or PCs -- when you activate the Enable Disk Use function. With this approach, the Mini acts as a data drive, but it hides its music files unless you use the above-described shortcut.The electronics responsible for sound reproduction in the Apple iPod Mini are identical to those found on the iPod, so you get the same solid sound quality and loud maximum output (30mW per channel). The included earbuds sound good, but our Shure E3c test headphones made the sonics shine even more.
Apple claims the internal battery takes between 2 and 4 hours to charge and then lasts 18 hours. This is just about on par with the Rio Carbon's battery life and significantly better than the iPod Mini's previously rated time of 12 hours. In our tests, the iPod Mini beat this time by a little more than 3 hours, eking out 21.1 hours of tunes. The battery is nonreplaceable, but if you're unhappy with its resiliency after a couple of years, Apple will swap in a new one for a price.
The Mini is compatible with both FireWire and USB 1.1/USB 2.0 connections. Over FireWire, our songs transferred at 2.5MB per second; over USB 2.0, they synced at a much brisker 6.3MB per second.
Apple claims an antiskip protection of 25 minutes, thanks to a 32MB flash buffer. We experienced no skipping during testing. But as with all hard-drive-based MP3 players, the iPod Mini is not as well suited for serious physical activity as flash-based players, which have no moving parts. That said, it would certainly work (and look) fine at the gym, especially with the optional armband.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
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(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Edited by James Kim
Additional editing by Tom Espiner