Although it scarcely seems possible, we think the Apple iPod Mini's design surpasses even that of its photogenic older sibling. Its stylish, anodised-aluminium 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 aluminium tubes so that there are no seams in the construction, then applies the colour during the anodisation process so that it can't scratch off.
At first glance, we thought the oblong (9.1 x 51 x 127mm) iPod Mini was larger than the square Creative Nomad MuVo, but the new player takes up less volume than any other player that uses Hitachi's 4GB one-inch hard drive. At 103g, it's slightly heavier than the MuVo, but it still feels quite light in the pocket. The Mini's 1.67-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 song title and artist but not album information).
The tastiest design treat to our palate is the revamped scrollwheel. The play, menu/back, fast-forward, and rewind functions that the white iPod assigns to four touch-sensitive buttons are now located on the scrollwheel (or, rather, the clickwheel). We prefer this approach because it offers physical feedback when a function has been activated. In addition to the new functionality, 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 functions as Select. The only other control on the player is the sliding Hold key on top, which locks all functions.
An exposed slot on the bottom of the Mini attaches to either a FireWire or USB 1.1/2.0 cable (both included) or the optional cradle, which connects to the AC adapter or a FireWire/USB port or directly to a stereo through the line-out jack. 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-in design, but like all hard drive-based MP3 players, the Mini isn't the ideal choice for strenuous physical activity. The optional in-line remote is the same one included with some versions of the white iPod.
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. Another new function: in Autosync mode, iTunes sizes up your 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 (in iTunes). This is crucial since the 4GB capacity (which Apple says can hold 1,000 songs) is smaller than most serious digital music collections. It also means that if you've already use 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 1 to 5 while it's playing; higher-rated songs 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 starts up and automatically syncs your music collection or selected playlists. With iTunes, you can also create MP3 and AAC files from your CDs. The 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, although that's not yet open for Australian customers. The software can also resample songs to a certain bit rate, apply volume levelling (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 syncs with Outlook; an area where you can read text memos; and the ability to play tunes from the iPod's hard drive while it's connected to your computer.
You can use the 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 users can do the same thing if they install ResEdit.
The Mini has no compatibility problems transporting data files between computers (Macs or PCs) when you activate the Enable Disk Use function. In this approach, the Mini mounts as a data drive, but it hides music files unless you use the above-described workaround.
The electronics responsible for sound reproduction in the Apple iPod Mini are identical to those found on the iPod, so you get the same impressive 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 three hours to rejuice and lasts eight hours on a single charge. Our tests outperformed this rating, usually by about an hour. 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 US$99.
The Mini comes with both FireWire and USB 1.1/2.0 connections. Over FireWire, our songs transferred at 2.6MB per second; over USB 2.0, they synced at a brisker 3.18MB per second.
Apple claims an antiskip protection of 25 minutes, thanks to a 32MB flash buffer. We experienced no skipping during testing. But like 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.