Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. Although it scarcely seems possible, we think the Apple iPod Mini's design surpasses even that of its photogenic older sibling. Its stylish, anodized-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 that there are no seams in the construction, then applies the color during the anodization process so that 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 3.6 by 2.0 by 0.5 inches, 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 3.6 ounces, the iPod Mini sits just about dead center of its competitors (the Zen Micro weighs 3.8 ounces, and the Carbon weighs 3.2 ounces), and it's still quite light in any pocket. The player's 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 Click Wheel. 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 color. The touch-sensitive Click Wheel still works perfectly for scrolling through lengthy song lists with speed and precision. As with the white iPod, the unlabeled 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 Click Wheel 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 ($19). Alternatively, you can hook up via a cradle (sold separately for $39), 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 for $29 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 ($29) for exercise, which uses the same cool, snap-in design, but 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. Another cool utility: 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 favorite 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; 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 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. normalization), and digitally enhance songs while transferring them.