It's incredibly small and light, comes in different colours, 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 measures 9.1-x-5-x-1.3com, and it weighs just 103g. But this list of measurements doesn't do justice to the mini - you really need to pick one up to understand just how tiny it is.
That there's a hard drive in there, let alone a 4GB one that can hold 1,000 songs, is difficult to believe. I slipped the mini into my trouser pocket and didn't even feel its presence - the original iPod feels like a second wallet.
The mini's anodized aluminium finish is essentially the same as the one on Apple's latest generation of PowerBooks. Unlike the PowerBooks, the mini comes in five colours: silver, gold, green, pink, and blue.
The display is also smaller than that found on the regular iPod (below, right) - a 1.67-inch diagonal instead of two full inches. The new display is quite readable, and 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 because its buttons are part of the wheel itself. Press down softly on the wheel, and it gives slightly. Clicking on the iPod mini is a much more reliable tactile experience than pressing the third-generation iPod's set of four electrostatic buttons.
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 or right button to do that scrolling. Instead, you use the Menu (top) and Select (centre) 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 new crop of iPod cases will 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 for the current iPods. (Apple sells a mini-size dock as a £29 add-on.) But although you can connect Belkin's £39 iPod Voice Recorder and £89 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 from Apple for £29.
The two most difficult aspects of the iPod mini to judge are its storage capacity and its price, because they're so dependent on an individual user's needs. If you have a huge music library and rely on picking an obscure track from an even more obscure artist at random, the iPod mini is not for you. If you have 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 £199 mini's asking price. The original iPod provided only 5GB of storage and cost £349, and it launched one of Apple's most successful product lines. Even at £199, the mini is the least expensive iPod ever. The mini isn't the groundbreaking, “£99 iPod” that conventional wisdom said Apple had to announce to ensure continued dominance of the digital-music-player world, but it's an attractive, tiny iPod that carries 80 per cent of the original's capacity in half its size, at 60 per cent of the original's price. That's pretty groundbreaking, don't you think?. Availability: July 2004. Min specs: FireWire; Mac OS X 10.1.5.