In 2001, an unassuming white box arrived and changed the gadget world. Good job it did, too – if Apple had carried on just making computers rather than music players with headphones, we might all be walking around listening to MiniDiscs, taking photos on compact cameras and making phone calls on our Nokias. Imagine! But the iPod changed everything.
And the iPod lasted as a core Apple product (and not so core Apple product) for 21 years. In 2022, Apple finally killed it. The writing was on the wall as early as 2017, when all models save the iPod Touch were discontinued. A new iPod Touch debuted in 2019, but that version has also gone the way of the dodo (along with its very unimpressive battery life compared to a smartphone).
It’s an inauspicious end to a mobile device that dramatically changed Apple’s fortunes. Despite some early fumbles – the iPod was Mac-only and FireWire at first – Apple’s music player was transformative, and the perfect example of taking something that already existed but improving it immeasurably.
In terms of design, the original was a classic. The scroll wheel was a stroke of genius that in many ways beats a touchscreen for the tactile pleasure of scanning from Abba to Zappa. Add in the iTunes Store and a new way to listen to music emerged.
Then Apple started iterating. Smaller. Thinner. More buttons. No buttons. It became a playground, and even a U2 special edition couldn’t derail the line’s march towards ubiquity. Other players became an irrelevance, until the iPhone showed up and in an instant and made every iPod look obsolete.
So let’s doff our caps and make the definitive list to find the best iPod ever…
1) iPod, first generation (2001)
The original iPod had a scroll wheel that actually turned, and four buttons around the wheel that made a satisfying click when pressed.
With a then-generous 5GB of storage, and (unlike its rivals) an interface that didn’t make you want to punch your own face off, Apple’s first iPod was nonetheless derided by plenty of people who didn’t see the potential – including some naysayers in the Stuff office.
Little did they know that people love usability — and are willing to pay for it.
2) iPod Nano (2005)
After only 18 months, the iPod mini was dead, and Apple’s obsession with miniaturisation began in earnest. The iPod Nano was the result.
Out went hard drives and in came SSD. Out went capacity, too, with the high-end version packing 4GB and the low end a measly 1GB. Still, that was more than enough for our gym playlists, and the Nano was a brilliant running companion (particularly when combined with the Nike+iPod kit that arrived the next year).
This meant the Nano stuck around and rapidly became a playground for Apple’s hardware designers, the device getting a radical overhaul almost annually.
3) iPod Touch (2007)
Sorry, purists – we’ve decided the iPod Touch is a ‘proper’ iPod and not an old-school iPhone someone ran over with a steamroller and hacked the Phone app off of using a chisel. But why’s it so high up in this list? Because it was brilliant.
For a relatively small outlay, you got the iPhone’s most important bits – a touchscreen display and access to the App Store. And it was absurdly light – the final iteration weighed just 88g. Coupled with the tiny form factor, it was great for kids or for slinging in a pocket. Trying to cram an iPad into our jeans just isn’t going to be the same.
4) iPod, third generation (2003)
Glowing buttons and a touch wheel on the third-generation iPod made you feel a bit like you were living in the future. And it was also a future that Windows users were now properly invited to.
Whereas the second-generation iPod had Windows compatibility through Musicmatch, now iTunes moved to Windows, enabling the 95 per cent or so of people who weren’t Mac users to enjoy its charms.
And what a list of charms it had: that lovely, rounded case, a throne-like dock, plus an extra five minutes of skip-protection (up to 25 minutes), a minor miracle for those still used to babying their CD Walkmans.
5) iPod shuffle, second generation (2006)
The original iPod shuffle looked like a USB memory stick, but with playback controls attached.
And that’s probably because that’s more or less what it was. That screenlesss iPod was also designed to help you rediscover your music, by autofilling and randomly playing back songs.
It really came of age, though, with the dinky second-generation ‘clip’ model, which was perfect for listening to music while at the gym. Its proprietary dock was truly awful, but we were too besotted by its dinky proportions to really notice.
After a moment of madness (see later), Apple more or less returned to this model’s set-up for the fourth generation, which survived until the line was axed entirely.
6) iPod Classic (2007)
The original iPod finally evolved into the iPod Classic in 2007, only receiving the most basic of incremental updates thereafter.
By 2009, it boasted a 160GB hard drive, and looked rather long in the tooth compared to touchscreen-based upstarts. Yet it remained popular with hardcore music fans, acting as a kind of badge of honour that showed how unimpressed you were with low bit-rate streaming services.
A lack of alternatives means that nostalgic streaming refuseniks will still pay a princely sum for a second-hand Classic. That’s in part because of its iconic design, but also because of the promise of a distraction-free listening experience that we still sometimes pine for (until our fingers start jabbing away at Twitter again).
7) iPod nano, sixth generation (2010)
For the sixth generation of iPod nano, Apple went square. It was a curious contraption, part embiggened iPod shuffle and part wannabe iOS device, with an interface that resembled (but wasn’t actually related to) the one on the iPhone.
But its form factor also made it possible to turn into something vaguely resembling a watch. Imagine that — an Apple Watch!
Love for such an idea soon faded for most people when the limitations of the technology became clearer — the need for the device to boot after inactivity; demands for constant syncing, and charging issues. Limitations that, it’s fair to say, Apple still hasn’t completely conquered with the real Apple Watch.
8) iPod with video (2005)
While the Nano battled with making iPods tiny, the original slowly plodded along, gradually adding features. In 2004, the Mini’s click wheel was adopted, and a colour screen appeared.
But in 2005, the fifth-generation iPod went a bit skinnier and added video playback. It was great for watching dodgy ripped episodes of your favourite sit-com, on a tiny screen, which you’d spent ages getting into a format that iTunes would actually play.
Still, that was a breeze compared to ripping our VHS collection for an early Archos jukebox just a few years earlier. ‘Driver not found!’
9) iPod mini (2004)
Another great example of how people will buy something if it’s genuinely lovely, the iPod Mini looked gorgeous, with its brightly-coloured anodized aluminium finish.
It felt it, too, with its clever click wheel interface. Although it only sported only a 4GB drive when the standard iPod by that point started at 10GB and went up to 40GB, the Mini was a truly beautiful piece of kit.
Its form factor alone won it plenty of fans, but in just two years it was replaced by the impossibly tiny Nano, which took the baton for Apple’s weeny music players all the way to 2012.
10) iPod Nano, fifth generation (2009)
Between 2005 and 2008, the iPod Nano had gone all colourful, turned into a squat credit-card-sized device, and then became ultra-streamlined. With the fifth-gen, the case remained fairly similar to that of its immediate predecessor, but the technology within was much more interesting.
The revised unit added radio and iPod tagging, VoiceOver, Nike+ integration, and – for the first time in an iPod – a video camera.
Actually recording with the thing was fiddly, and you only got VGA (640×480) output, but it’d be another year before the iPod touch line would blaze past with its fancy HD video recording.
11) iPod Shuffle, third generation (2009)
The maddest iPod Apple ever designed, the third-generation Shuffle possibly streamlined things a bit too far.
Whereas its predecessors did away with screens, this model also decided controls were a trifling distraction and banished them to the earbuds. Just another reminder that Apple’s obsession with removing ports and buttons and goes way back into the pre-iPhone days.
Still, there was one saving grace: the introduction of VoiceOver to read aloud song, artist and album names for tracks that might have been dug up from the depths of your collection.