Why I Really Want an Old Click-Wheel iPod

A dedicated music player with a headphone jack is all I need

Key Takeaways

  • The classic click-wheel iPod is as good today as it ever was.
  • The iPhone’s music app is poorly designed, slow to use, and full of clutter.
  • You can swap out the iPod’s hard drive for a modern SSD.
Teal iPod Classic sitting at the edge of a counter.

Ruijia Wang / Unsplash

The iPod was the best music player of its time, but it might still be the best music player of today. 

Most of us listen to music using an app on our phones. We have an almost unlimited supply of music, along with all kinds of clever features to help us find new music. But these apps are too complicated, and they exist in a morass of other apps, all of which are controlled by a touch screen, the very definition of a moving target.

The iPod was the opposite. Offline, finite, totally focussed, and designed to do one thing really well. And I want one. 

The Classic iPod in 2021

There were several iPod models over the years, including one called the iPod Classic, but for this article, I’ll call them all "classic iPods" to distinguish them from later touch screen models like the little clip-on Nano or the still-available iPod touch.

We’re talking about the iPod with a scroll wheel under a screen, the iconic design that—along with the iMac—turned around Apple’s fortunes. 

A Sony Walkman on an orange background.

Florian Schmetz / Unsplash

So, why buy an old, used click-wheel iPod in 2021? The answer lies with tapes and personal stereos (aka the Walkman). I really don’t like the music app on my iPhone. It’s overwhelming, the interface is convoluted, and half the time, I can’t find what I want anyway.

I tried switching back to tape for a while partly because it’s just so much fun. But I found that I got way too hung up on making new tapes.

When cassettes were the only portable way to listen to music, you either bought or recorded everything. That was it. Now, with blank tapes costing way more, I found myself debating what music I wanted to record. Would I listen to this album enough, etc.? Add to that the fact that old Walkmans are hard to repair and unreliable, and you have a recipe for giving up. 

The classic iPod has much of the appeal of the Walkman. It’s a dedicated device. It has a headphone jack (unlike the iPhone), and best of all, it has actual buttons that never move and always do the same thing. Like a camera with dials, or a stovetop with knobs, you never have to think about controlling it. You just do it. 

There are downsides. You lose the option to use Bluetooth headphones or control playback with an Apple Watch, but you don’t need either when you have buttons you can press without looking. Another downside is that you have to use Apple’s old 30-pin dock connector to charge it. Luckily, I still have a bunch of these in a drawer. 

The Options

Next up was deciding which model to buy. There are two overall options. Big classic iPod, with a spinning hard drive inside, or an earlier iPod nano, before Apple replaced the click wheel with a touch screen. Some might like the iPod mini, but I prefer the nano as it’s smaller and has more storage. 

An original iPod classic with an adapter to be able to connect professional grade headphones.

Brett Jordan / Unsplash

For nostalgia value, it’s hard to beat the originals with their mono LCD screens. But those things were heavy, and I always preferred the click wheel of the mini and later full-sized iPods. The original has physical clicky buttons around the wheel. The mini’s innovation was to make the wheel clicky, so you could spin and press. 

The iPod nano has one significant advantage over the bigger models. It has an SSD instead of a spinning internal hard drive. On the other hand, the hard drives were a lot bigger. The iPod Classic, Apple’s final old-style iPod model, packed up to 160GB. Also, you can swap the old HDD for a modern-day SSD, which can offer both more storage and increased battery life. 

In the end, the iPod Classic looks like the best deal. It’s the newest of all the iPods, it’s the most plentiful on the used market in my location, and it has all the advantages of the iPod’s great physical interface. The downside is that iFixit rates it as one of the hardest iPods to disassemble should you need to swap the battery or storage. 

The Alternatives

What if you want a dedicated music player but don’t want to deal with dying batteries, fragile hard drives, or legacy charging cables? Sony makes several Walkmans, and SanDisk makes some too, but none I have found uses the iPod’s scroll wheel. Also, iPods still sync with the music library on your Mac, although since Big Sur, you have to use the Finder, not the Music app.

So, I’m currently on a hunt for a used iPod Classic without too many scratches, which might just be the most ultimate portable music player ever.

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