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The Apple iPod has defined and now dominates the personal music player market.

It has been continuously improved and new models released since its debut on 23 Oct, 2001, enabling it to remain the market leader, while still charging a premium price.

 
 
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About the Apple iPod series of Personal Music Players

Should you get one, which is best for you, and how much should you pay?

The iPod combines a slick design with solid functionality.

Currently the iPod is available in four different model series - two full size hard disk based versions (30GB and 80GB) plus three very much smaller 'nano' iPods with 2GB, 4GB and 8GB capacity on memory chips and a 1GB 'shuffle' that has been largely obsoleted by the nano series.  The most recent addition is the new touch screen based iPod Touch units (8GB, 16GB & 32GB).

This stylized promotional picture shows a latest generation 30GB iPod - they are not normally this color, but instead are either solid white or solid black.

Part of a series on the Apple iPod - additional parts to be published in the following weeks.

 

 

First appearing in time for Christmas sales in 2001, Apple's iPod has transformed the way people listen to music, much the way the Sony Walkman did decades earlier.  The most recent units are now adding video capabilities as well.

In what has sometimes been a triumph of style over substance, the slick attractive units - until recently only available in white - have become a must have item for many people.  Apple's very strong iPod branding has all but obliterated other manufacturers and their competing products, and a wide range of after-market accessories adds further to the iPod's dominance, enabling Apple to keep prices high and generate massive corporate profits.

Here's what you need to know to understand the Apple iPod and to decide which, if any, unit is best suited for you.

(Note - it is helpful to read about the latest updates and changes to the iPod range after you've read this page.)


The Evolution of the Apple iPod

In mid 2001, Apple very astutely identified a product category with no clear market leader but which had a great deal of potential - portable, hard disk based, digital music players.  They decided to develop a product to fill this opportunity.

Prior to then, digital music players were either very low capacity using memory chips rather than hard disks (eg with as little as 64MB of storage), or were expensive, bulky, and poorly designed/built (such as could be fairly said of the early model Archos Jukebox unit reviewed here).

Apple were offered a new smaller size hard drive (1.8") that would enable them to make smaller hard disk based players than other existing products, and felt their design skills - both in terms of designing the hardware and the software, their engineering skills, and their marketing skills could all enable them to create a category leader, and perceived the market for portable digital music players as ripe for massive growth.

How spectacularly right they were in that assessment.  The iPod has captured the imagination of millions of users, and is selling at a rate of as many as 100,000 units every day, peaking in the first quarter of 2006 when 14,043,000 units were sold (over 150,000 units a day).  One can only guess at the profit content in each sale, but even if it is only $10 a unit (and in reality the profit is likely to be closer to $100 than $10, especially for the more expensive units) that represents more than $1.5 million in added net corporate profit to Apple every day.

iPod earnings are probably the largest single factor in Apple's corporate profits these days.  In the most recent quarter available (Q3 2006) Apple reported a quarterly profit of $472 million, with 8,111,000 iPods sold, compared to 1,327,000 Mac computers.  While the profit on a Mac is certainly more than on an iPod, the six-fold greater number of iPods suggests that Apple is becoming more a digital music player based company than a computer company.

At present it is estimated that iPods command about 75% of the total digital personal music player market.  Apple is weaker in the bottom end of the market - low capacity solid state flash memory based players, but in the upper end - hard drive based players - it probably has in excess of 90% of the market, and with its new range of 'nano' solid state players, it is likely Apple may increase its share of the lower end of the market too.

It is interesting to note that the volume of iPods sold has been slightly declining over the last couple of quarters.  Both Q2 and Q3 of 2006 saw fewer units sold than the preceding quarter (although more than the same quarter of 2005), which is the first time since Q3 of 2002 there has been a decline in units sold from one quarter to another, and the only time ever there has been two consecutive quarters with declines.

Does this mean the market is approaching saturation, or that Apple is losing its competitive edge?  The explanation is currently unclear, and for sure Apple is about to face a major new competitor in the form of Microsoft and their Zune player, due to be released in November, with a 30GB Zune player being priced identically to the 30GB iPod.  Meantime, Apple's latest release of products, dubbed their 'improved fifth generation' can be seen as a defensive measure as much as a new round of product enhancements (which is probably why this release hasn't been dignified with a new generation number), with somewhat better features and lower prices.

iPod Model Lineup and Overview

There have been many releases of four different types of iPod units in the five years they've been on the market.  This section helps you understand the evolution and differences between current and past units.

Regular iPod

The first introduction in October 2001 of two hard disk based iPods - a 5GB unit costing $399 and a 10GB unit costing $499 represented what is now referred to as the first generation of the hard disk based iPods.  That was followed in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 with subsequent generations of iPod (the second through fifth generations) and in September 2006 an enhanced pair of improved fifth generation units were released.

The fourth generation units were sometimes referred to as the iPod Photo units, because they introduced the ability to store and display color images, and the fifth generation units are sometimes referred to as the iPod Video, because they allow for video clips (and even feature length movies) to be played on their tiny screens.

Each subsequent generation featured minor tweaks to the external design - for example, the first units had a movable scroll wheel and a small black and white screen, and now the scroll wheel is fixed and the screen is larger and in color.  They also generally had higher disk capacities, with the prices staying about the same, although with the release in October 2005 of the fifth generation and the release in September 2006 of the improved fifth generation players, prices dropped at the same time capabilities improved, pointing to a softening in prices.

Currently there are two improved fifth generation hard disk based players, a 30GB unit (listing for $249) and a 80GB unit (listing for $349).  Plainly today's products are very much better value than were the original products five years earlier.

iPod mini

In 2004 Apple introduced a second range of iPods, their iPod mini series.  These featured lower capacity hard drives, lower prices, smaller size, but shorter battery life.  They proved to be the most popular range of iPods to date, but had only a short model life because they were technologically superseded by the flash memory based iPod nano range of players, introduced in September 2005.

It was a bold move to replace a very successful strong selling range of players with a totally new technology and design, but Apple's continual innovation is part of what keeps them at the top of the market, and while the mini was popular, few people would dispute that the new nano players are a great leap forward in all respects.

The mini series came in two generations - the first generation was a 4GB unit available in five colors, and the second generation, released in February 2005 came in 4GB and 6GB models, with brighter colors and longer battery life.

iPod nano

The iPod nano players (pictured left) were first released in September 2005 and are now in their second generation (released in September 2006) and come in three models with capacities of 2GB, 4GB and 8GB, listing for $149, $199 and $249.

The 8GB nano unit lists for the same price as the 30GB full sized iPod.  Why would someone pay the same price and buy a nano iPod with 'only' 8GB of capacity when they could buy a 30GB regular iPod instead?

Probably because of the gloriously small size of the nano players - they measure a mere 3.5" by 1.6" and are only a quarter inch thick.  They're also feather-light - they weigh only 1.5 ounces.

Although small and light, the battery is said to last for up to 24 hours of continual music playback, and for many people, 8GB is plenty of capacity for all the music they're likely to want to have with them.  With standard quality settings, 8GB can hold 128 hours of music - 5.3 days of nonstop music.

iPod Shuffle

Apple also released another type of iPod - their iPod Shuffle - in January 2005, and updated to second generation in September 2006.  The Shuffle has an interesting design concept - instead of allowing you to choose exactly the tunes you listen to, and the order in which you listen to them, it randomly chooses tunes itself and plays them to you in this random or shuffled order.

Apple says its user research showed that many people like this feature - it saves them from having to decide what they want to listen to.

The Shuffle is currently available in one style only - a 1GB unit listing for $79 and is the smallest sized of all the units.

iPod Touch

The new iPod Touch units, mimicking everything in the iPhone except for the phone capability itself, are discussed in this article.

 

Currently available models

As of October 2006, the following units are currently offered for sale :

Model

Capacity

Price

iPod

30 GB

$249

iPod

80 GB

$349

nano

2 GB

$149

nano

4 GB

$199

nano

8 GB

$249

Shuffle

1 GB

$79


Future Trends

It is probable that future iPod development will proceed in several predictable directions.  Both the nano and regular iPods will continue to offer greater and greater capacity, with slight increases in battery life.  The next generation of nano players will likely offer a 16GB unit, up from the maximum 8GB size at present.

In addition, we may see a new sized unit with a larger video screen.  The 2.5" (diagonal) screen on the present iPod units is simply too small to give an enjoyable viewing experience, and it is reasonable to expect Apple will counter the larger screen sized competing units with a larger screen sized unit of their own, too.

There will probably also be continued price reductions - or at least, increases in capacity for the same price.  For example, we'd expect to see the next generation of nano players offer double the capacity of current players but at the same price.

Most interesting will be the impact that Microsoft's new Zune player may have in the market.  This could finally be the competitor that forces Apple into adopting a much lower set of pricing - potentially little more than half their current pricing (in terms of present day products).

But are these reasons to wait and buy a better/cheaper product later?  Not at all.  Just like the continual evolution of personal computers, with ever better features and values, so too is a similar thing happening with portable music players, but if you'd enjoy and benefit from one today, buy one today rather than wait endlessly for prices to keep going down and down and features to keep improving and improving.

Which iPod is Best for You

With six different models ranging in price from $79 to $349, and in three different styles, your iPod choices can seem bewildering.

However, as is often the case, it is easily to quickly pare these choices down.  Here are some issues to help you consider.

As an overall consideration, buy the highest capacity unit you can afford.  Just as with hard drives on computers, you'll be surprised at how you end up using much more capacity than you thought you would, especially if you add video to the unit as well.

Firstly, we don't like the Shuffle at all.  Its gimmick - the random play of songs - can be duplicated with regular iPods and nano iPods.  While the nano is slightly larger than a Shuffle, it is sufficiently small as to make the smaller size of the Shuffle valueless.

On the other hand, the more confusing controls on the Shuffle and its very low storage capacity are definite negatives.

Secondly, do you want to be able to display pictures and watch videos on your iPod?  If you do, then you will need to buy a regular iPod; if this is unimportant to you, then a nano is an option too.

If you want to watch video in your iPod, you should buy the 80GB iPod.  This allows you to store up to 100 hours of video, or a lesser amount of video plus some songs and perhaps pictures too.  If you have perhaps 5 - 10GB of songs, this would give you up to 85 hours of video - about the same as 40 - 50 full length movies, or up to 100 'one hour' television episodes.  The 30GB unit, also with 10GB of music, pictures, etc, would only have 25 hours of video storage which could quickly become insufficient.

If you don't wish to use your iPod for video or picture display, you can then choose between the nano series and the regular iPod series.

The least expensive of these is the 2GB nano, which has all the same features and capabilities as the larger 4GB and 8GB units, just less storage capacity.  It can hold about 32 hours of music using the default AAC encoding settings, you'll get less if you use a higher quality setting - for example, if you're using 160kbps rather than 128kbps, your storage time reduces down to 25.6 hours.

Depending on the average song or album length, you can consider 32 hours to be about the same as 30 - 40 CDs worth of music.  Is this enough for you?

If you can afford only $50 more, you can get the 4GB nano with twice as much capacity.  64 hours of music (or 51 in higher quality mode) is quite a lot for many people.

But if you want to have every CD you own transferred to the unit, and if you plan to be regularly adding extra music, and if you plan to use higher quality recording, perhaps you'll find even the 8GB nano to be insufficient for your needs.

I currently have 12.5GB of music on my iPod, and I have almost 20GB on my older Toshiba Gigabeat, so it is deceptively easy to end up needing large amounts of storage.  In such a case you'll be looking at either the 30GB or 80GB regular iPod, and for the sake of another $100 for the 80GB unit, you would be choosing a unit that probably has more music storage capacity than you're ever likely to require, as compared to the 30GB unit which can foreseeably be filled up.

If you're wanting to use an iPod while exercising, the lighter weight, smaller size, and greater robustness of the nano units can be important benefits.  Unlike the regular units with built in hard drives, the nano units use flash memory as storage and so have no moving parts, making them better suited for such applications.

Buying a Used iPod

You can readily find used iPods for sale on websites such as eBay and CraigsList.  Is buying a used iPod for a lower price than a new one truly a good idea?  In addition to looking carefully at the unit and its visible condition (especially cracks and scratches on the screen) here are some other considerations to keep in mind when buying a used iPod.

Which generation iPod is being sold

All the four different types of iPod families have transitioned through at least two generations of products.  As a quick rule of thumb, each newer generation typically offers improved design and longer battery life as well as the obvious shifts in storage capacity.

If you see, for example, a 30GB iPod for sale, you need to carefully confirm which generation iPod it is.  This particular capacity iPod has been released in four generations - 3rd, 4th, 5th, and the current 5+ generation.

Battery longevity

The rechargeable Li-ion battery in an iPod can only be replaced with great difficulty, and for most of us, the only way we can do this is to send it back to Apple and have them replace the battery for us.

This battery also has a finite life.  Every time you recharge the battery, its charge capacity slightly reduces, and after some hundreds of charges, it will have reduced down to one half its original capacity, at which point the battery is deemed to need replacing.

You should probably assume that the battery in a used iPod will soon need replacing, and so should factor in the cost of getting a replacement battery as an extra cost on top of the price of the second hand unit itself.  Apple charge $59 plus $6.95 to replace the battery, a total cost to you of $65.95 (plus postage to get the unit to them in the first place).

Note that Apple doesn't actually simply take the battery out of the unit you send in, replace it, and ship the unit back to you.  Instead, they simply swap your unit for another used or refurbished unit (which has a new battery in it) and send that unit back to you.

Functionality compared to a new unit

The biggest difference between an older used unit and a new one is probably the battery life.  New iPods offer a fairly realistic 20 or more hours of battery life, compared to as little as eight for first generation iPods (and with a well used battery, that life might be down to four hours).  The convenience of having enough battery life for a couple of long flights is definitely worth paying extra for.

Newer iPods simply look nicer and newer, have larger color screens, and may support photo storage/display (4th generation) and video (5th generation and newer) as well, whereas older iPods have simple black and white screens and probably don't have USB connectors (they use Firewire instead).

Total iPod Life

Apple says it designs iPods to have a four year life, but that is almost a meaningless statement.  One person may use their iPod several hours every day, another person may only use their iPod a couple of hours a month - it is possible that a heavy iPod user is getting 50 times more use per unit of elapsed calendar time than a light iPod user.

But heeding Apple's comment, it is probably best not to buy a first generation iPod, and to only pay bottom dollar prices for second generation iPods (less than $100 for the 20GB unit, perhaps $50 for a 10GB unit).

Suggested used iPod values

The following are very approximate values, based on October 2006 market conditions, for what may be fair pricing for used iPods and are based on the assumption that you are a flexible buyer willing to shop around or pay more for a new unit if you can't get a good deal on a used unit.  These prices also assume the iPod is in fair to good condition with no obvious faults and is sold complete with all accessories that were originally supplied.

Note that new iPod pricing is generally very close to full list price (for example Costco discounts iPods by a mere $10).

  • Don't buy first generation iPods at all.

  • Pay less than $50 for a 10GB second generation iPod and less than $100 for a 20GB unit

  • $50-60 for 10 & 15GB third generation iPods, $60-100 for 20GB, 30GB and 40GB units

  • $75, $100, $125 & $150 for 20GB, 30GB, 40GB and 60GB fourth generation iPods

  • $150 & $200 for 30GB and 60GB fifth generation (original) iPods

  • Current (fifth generation improved) units are probably worth about $50-75 less than the best street pricing for new units.

  • iPod mini units are worth less than $50 (first generation) to less than $100 (second generation 6GB)

  • iPod nano units are worth about $100 less than current best street pricing for new units (first generation) or $50 less (second generation).

  • iPod Shuffle units are worth $25 (first generation 1GB) - $40 (second generation 1GB).

Summary

Apple's iPod range of personal music players give you a broad range of different styles and music/video storage capacities.

They are the clear market leader in such units, and for most people, you'll find them to be a great investment, allowing you to carry much more music with you wherever you go than with older technologies such as CD or cassette tape.

 

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Originally published 20 Oct 2006, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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