The Rumor Mill

Solid State iPod 2003 Smaller and Lighter

- 2002.12.05

Decisions, decisions.

With the Macworld Expo just weeks away, you'd expect the rumor mill to be busy - and it is. The tough part is deciding which groundless speculation to publish in this week's column.

Beyond the iPod

I was way off base when I wrote iPod Spawns Family last year. Yes, the iPod did spawn a family, but The iPodthe models I predicted weren't among them. Instead we got more of the same - same design, just bigger hard drives.

So much for expecting Apple to think different.

Given the amazing success of the first three iPods - which are now available in lowbrow consumer electronics emporia such as Best Buy and highbrow retailers such as Target, which now support both versions of the Mac OS and Windows - Apple is preparing to launch a new MP3 player.

Introducing iPod Jr.

The only way to make the iPod smaller is to replace the 1.8" hard drive - but with what? IBM's amazing microdrive, about the size of a quarter, is too expensive. And how much smaller can Apple make this thing anyhow?

There are limitations. The LCD has to remain the same size to keep design costs down, but the scroll wheel can shrink a bit. That means the iPod Jr. can be just 2.15" wide, down a bit from the current 2.4" wide iPods, and the height can be trimmed from 4.0" to 3.75". Nothing huge, but every little bit helps.

Where the iPod Jr. blows away the hard drive based models is thickness - thanks to a solid state design (no moving parts, no spinning hard drive platters), the iPod Jr. is going to be just 0.4" thick - about half the depth of the current models, which range from 0.72" to 0.84" in depth. The whole thing will weigh about half as much, too, somewhere around 100 g (3.5 oz).

That means some other changes, since the FireWire port itself is nearly as thick as the iPod Jr. Junior's I/O ports (FireWire and USB 2.0 - if you can't beat 'em, join 'em) will be at the bottom of the unit, which will also facilitate a dock that can quickly connect the iPod Jr. to your computer and charge its battery.

The Biggie

But the biggest difference between the iPod Jr. and all iPods that have gone before it is file storage. Instead of a compact, expensive hard drive, Junior will us Compact Flash (CF) memory cards - the same cards used in myriad digital cameras.

Benefits: CF is readily available, pretty darned affordable, and draws a lot less power than even a tiny spinning hard drive, allowing greater battery life and/or use of a smaller battery.

The iPod Jr.'s operating system in onboard flash memory, making software updates easy, but the MP3s and other files will be stored on removable CF cards. With 128 MB cards sometimes available for as little as $30, it won't be that expensive to carry dozens of songs in your pocket. (If 5 GB = 1000 songs, a 128 MB card should easily store 30-40.)

Okay, so maybe storage isn't cost effective when compared to 5 GB of space on the $299 iPod, but then again Junior RIO 800won't cost nearly that much. With competing units like the 128 MB RIO 800 selling for around $150, the iPod mystique, Apple logo, and ability to swap memory cards will only be able to command a certain premium.

We suspect Apple will offer the iPod Jr. bundled with at least two sizes of CF cards, and possibly more. With 64 MB and 128 MB MP3 players quite popular at present, we suspect Apple will offer both capacities. Whether a smaller 32 MB card and/or larger 256 MB card will be available options remains to be seen.

Pricing? Giving it the old Rumor Mill guess, we'd say US$180-190 for the 128 MB model and around US$150-160 for 64 MB. Of course, the pricing is almost as groundless as the rest of our speculation.

Too bad Apple will completely miss the 2002 holiday shopping season with this one. We can just imagine how shoppers at Target, Best Buy, CompUSA, and the Apple Store would gobble these up.

Coming Attractions

As hinted above, we've got more Rumor Mill ideas in the hopper. After thinking of yet another way for Apple to resurrect the compact Mac ideal last week and speculating how Apple might leverage the iPod brand this week, just wait until you read what I have to say about the next generation desktop Mac next week.

- Anne Onymus

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