A couple of months ago, my trusty MiniDisc recorder started acting up. Forward went backwards, Backward flashed "SAVED" on the display, and Stop – well it depended what day of the week it was. When one side of my headphones also gave up the ghost after about four years of heavy use and many miles (from Brighton to Cambridge and back again at least a few dozen times), I took it as a sign that it was *sniff* time to move on.
A direct replacement would’ve been a Hi-MD recorder (which can take a new type of 1GB MiniDisc), but I’d started to take an interest in solid-state and hard disk audio players. I’ve long been cynical about the usefulness of MP3 players, particularly since when I started using MiniDisc, the average storage space on an MP3 player was about 32MB – not even enough for an album at a listenable level of compression. Since then, storage space has shot up, and compression techniques have improved.
I’ve been using MiniDisc since 1999, and I’m a big fan of the format, but since I usually carry no more than four discs with me, I tended to listen to the same stuff over and over again. I gradually came over to the idea that maybe an MP3 player (or ‘portable audio file player’ to be more accurate) might be the way to go, since this would let me carry loads more music with me, and would function in a similar manner to the way I’d been using the NetMD function of my MD player, importing CDs and transferring them via USB.
So, I decided to purchase an iPod.
A drastic measure, I know. I’d been very interested in the iPod Shuffle, because it’s small, simple, and (relatively) cheap. It also has a very respectible amount of storage space. 1GB on the ‘upper’ model holds ‘240 songs’ at the default bitrate, which equates to 16 hours of audio. But then the efficient, cost-effective part of my brain kicked in – for £50 more I could get four times the space and a screen. Hmmm… I opted for a shiny blue iPod Mini.
The unit is a ‘second-generation’ iPod Mini, which, aside from some minor cosmetic differences, has a vastly improved battery life. This has gone from 8 hours to 18 hours, so it has the longest battery life on any iPod at the moment. The battery life of the original iPod Mini seems to be the biggest bugbear with people who had one, so it’s a wise move by Apple.
Another change is the lack of a power adapter, which means that you either have to charge the iPod from your computer via USB or purchase the adaptor separately. Personally, I don’t find this too much of a problem, and I guess it’s compensated by the greatly improved battery life as you’re less likely to run out of juice while on the move. The FireWire cable has also become an optional extra.
Also in the (beautifully designed!) box, are the iconic (but slightly crap) Apple ‘earbud’ headphones, USB connecting cable, belt clip and a software CD which includes iTunes and the latest software/firmware/somethingware for the iPod.
The iPod itself is such a good looking gadget. Most people who see it also comment that it’s smaller than they imagined, which is exactly what I thought when I took it out of the box. The design is simple but attractive and it feels very well put together. It has a large monochrome screen, which is clear and backlit.
The real genius of the design is the clickwheel. This is a white, circular, pressure-sensitive control that, with the exception of the ‘hold’ switch, is the only control on the unit. To scroll though menus, adjust volume and scrub through a track, just run your thumb over the wheel. In the centre of the clickwheel is a button used for selection and playback. It’s so easy and intuitive to use, there’s no possibility of getting lost.
I’ve been using my iPod for a fortnight now, and I must say I’m extremely impressed. iTunes isn’t too difficult to get to grips with, and with the new addition of direct Podcasting support, transferring your audio from iTunes to the unit is literally as easy as plugging it in to the USB (2) port of your computer.
To get music in to iTunes, simply pop in a CD, hit ‘Import’, and away it goes, encoding the audio from the disc in to your chosen format (by default AAC at 128Kbps). Of course you can purchase music directly from the iTunes Music Store, audiobooks from Audible, or subscribe to podcasts and have the latest casts downloaded automatically in to iTunes, as well as importing audio files from elsewhere. You can arrange your tracks in to playlists which will be copied to your iPod when you next connect it to your computer.
As for playback, I thought that the sound was a little dull and lacking in top end and depth. I tried out some of the preset EQ settings, but although these shaped the sound a little, they generally just introduced distortion. At first I thought that the dull sound might be due to the 128Kbps AAC compression, as data compression can often involve a degree of dynamic (audio) compression.
It occurred to me that the data rate of the files was around the same as the ATRAC files used on my NetMD, so I tried out the iPod with some decent Audio-Technica cans that I use for monitoring whilst recording. The music sounded clear and exciting on these, so the supplied headphones are the limiting factor as far as the quality is concerned. Replacement is imminent!
So far, I’ve transferred around 25 albums, along with some podcasts and an audiobook, and it’s only used about one third of the capacity. That’s a lot of MiniDiscs! I’ve not used some of the iPod mini’s other features, such as the calendar or address book, but putting these in to use is just a case of dragging files to the iPod in your file manager, or syncing with the relevant app if you’re a Mac user.
So, in summary, the iPod Mini is an excellent purchase. It’s incredibly easy to use, well designed, sounds great (just ditch the headphones!) and looks beautiful!