Amidst a long delay, Apple Computer's iPod mini has been a much-talked-about but rarely seen phenomenon. Getting your hands on one isn’t easy. Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod mini in January, promising availability shortly thereafter. The launch was delayed when Apple ran short on Hitachi hard drives, and now worldwide availability isn't expected until at least July. The company is filling domestic orders, but the wait is long. Apple even sent out an email message offering a 15GB classic iPod replacement at the same price if customers didn’t want to hold out. I decided to wait, and I wasn't disappointed.

I admit that I was initially put off by the price. On paper, $249 seems ridiculous. For $50 more, you can get a classic iPod with almost four times the storage space. So why all the excitement? Baffling—until I got my hands on one, that is.

The Apple Factor
The iPod mini, like many Apple products before it, boasts the powerful attraction of just-plain-coolness. Even the box is worth saving. But it’s not all about packaging. The iPod is appealing because it’s intelligent and original. There's just something about Apple that gets you excited and makes it worthwhile to wait an extra 3 weeks for a backorder. Call it the Apple Factor. I don't know any other way to describe it.

Shedding 2 ounces and a half inch around the waist, the iPod mini fits in even the smallest hand (or shirt pocket) with ease, unlike the slightly chunkier iPod. Roughly the size of a business card, the iPod mini becomes a nearly invisible addition to your wardrobe. You can choose from five colors—silver, gold, pink, blue, and green—and if that’s not enough, you can engrave the scratch-resistant cover with a personalized message.

Other than its smaller size, the iPod mini also boasts a slicker menu with the controls built right into the Touch Wheel, hence the new name—Click Wheel. Whereas the classic iPod's navigation responds at the slightest touch, the mini's Click Wheel combines that concept with press points, allowing the buttons to be in the same space as the wheel itself. The redesign not only permits the more compact size but lets you more easily control the device with just one hand.

I didn’t think a half inch would make a big difference, but I was immediately impressed with the simplicity and elegance of the smaller size. By comparison, the classic iPod feels bloated and its menu buttons, with their raised plastic to guide your fingers, seems exaggerated. The iPod mini’s Click Wheel takes the iPod to the next level, making it the simplest, most impressive design out there.

Manipulating Music
From the menu, you can select a playlist, and you can browse by artist, album, song, genre, or composer. In Play mode, click once on the center button and you can fast-forward and rewind through the timeline of the current selection. Click twice and you can rate the song on a scale of 1 to 5, giving it a priority in shuffle mode. You can also create a playlist on the fly by pressing and holding the center button while a selection is playing. The song is instantly added to your On-The-Go playlist, accessible from the main menu. Later, you can also upload that new playlist to iTunes.

Detailed Tech Specs
Size: 3.6" x 2.0" x 0.5"
Weight: 3.6 ounces (104 g)
Storage: 4GB storage
Battery: Up to 8 hours
Skip Protection: Up to 25 minutes
Display: 1.67" (diagonal) grayscale LCD with LED backlight
Connectivity: FireWire 400 and USB 2.0(3) through dock connector
Charge time: 3 hours (1 hour fast charge to 80 percent capacity)
Audio support: AAC (16Kbps to 320Kbps), MP3 (32Kbps to 320Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible, AIFF, Apple lossless and WAV
Included software: iTunes for Mac, iTunes for Windows
Included accessories: Earbud headphones, belt clip, AC adapter, FireWire cable, USB 2.0 cable
Mac requirements: Macintosh computer with FireWire port; Mac OS X v10.1.5 or later (Mac OS X 10.3 or later recommended)
Windows requirements: PC with FireWire or USB 2.0 port, or FireWire or USB 2.0 card; Windows 2000 with Service Pack 4 or Windows XP Home or Professional
The default method of managing your music is an automatic update, which syncs your iTunes library with the iPod anytime you connect to your computer. The problem is that it mirrors iTunes, so any files you’ve recently deleted from your computer will also be forever gone from the iPod. You can opt to auto-sync only selected playlists, in which case iTunes will intelligently download your favorite songs before unrated or rarely played songs. However, the best way to have control over your iPod music is to use the manual update.

Manual updates sound like work, but adding files is no more complex than drag-and-drop. To delete files, you simply hit the Delete key. The iPod and its contents are displayed in iTunes' left navigation bar, much like a CD or playlist, so you view the contents and manage the files the way you'd expect.

Like its bigger brother, the mini sounds fantastic. The device comes with earbuds, which are great, and sound better than my $90 Grado SR-80 headphones.

Size and Storage Concerns
If you choose an iPod mini over the traditional iPod, you will lose some storage, The classic iPod selection ranges from 15GB to 40GB, but at 4GB, the iPod mini is no slouch. In fact, this device is perfect for the overwhelming majority of us who, according to a recent study by Jupiter Research, barely keep 1000 songs on our computers anyway. I synced my entire library and still had space to transfer data files.

For serious music lovers, or those who can't pack lightly, the small hard drive will be a deterrent. If that's the case, $50 more for a classic iPod isn't a huge leap. If you plan to use the iPod as a portable hard drive, that may be another reason to upgrade. Also, watch out if you work or play in a cross-platform environment. Although you can use the device on a PC or a Mac, you can't easily sync to more than one version of iTunes without reformatting the drive. Bummer.

iPod Video and Satellite Radio
Video capability isn't in the works, according to Jobs, who spoke at a press conference celebrating the iTunes Music Store's 1-year anniversary. We've heard speculation that the increase in storage capability of the iPod (up to 40BG) and other players signaled a possible shift to a multi-use portable player such as the RCA Lyra Audio/Video Jukebox. Jobs squashed those hopes by saying the iPod would continue to support only music.

I’m hoping Apple will eventually build in a satellite-radio feature. Although you can buy an adapter to convert the player to an FM/AM radio, I’d like to see the company take that notion a step further and benefit from the portability of XM or Sirius technology.

Battery Life
Another disappointment is the battery. The iPod mini uses the same small, hidden battery that its sibling uses. It’s rechargeable and lasts only 8 hours, but the real concern has been its life span. Complaints popped up all over the Web when—because of a difficult-to-get-to battery and the high cost of replacing it—Apple recommended customers replace out-of-warranty iPods instead of the battery when it stopped taking a charge.

A $300 hit after only 18 months was too much for Casey Neistat, a New Yorker and iPod battery-life victim. His Web site and video, "iPod's Dirty Secret," dedicated to warning others about the quirky battery life, quickly became Internet legend.

It’s hard to imagine how Apple would overcome this problem with an insanely small device like the iPod mini, but the company does now offer a replacement program. It'll still cost you $105.95, your data will not be transferred to the new iPod, and you're likely to get a refurbished model in exchange. The solution seems fair, though, when you consider Apple is replacing past-warranty equipment.

In Demand
All that said, the iPod mini is definitely the coolest-looking player on the market and has a better UI and slicker package than its sibling. But it won't satisfy serious music consumers. The iPod mini is perfect for the casual music lover who travels light and appreciates intelligent design. The price would be easier to swallow at around $150, but if eBay is any indication, demand for the device has proven that people are willing to pay for it.

Connected Home Magazine Rating (10 possible)
Design Ease of Use Performance Price Overall
9 10 10 6 8.75