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Holiday Gift Guide: the ideal iPod

Welcome to TUAW's 2011 Holiday Gift Guide! We're here to help you choose the best gifts this holiday season, and once you've received your gifts we'll tell you what apps and accessories we think are best for your new Apple gear. Stay tuned every weekday from now until the end of the year for our picks and helpful guides and check our Gift Guide hub to see our guides as they become available. For even more holiday fun, check out sister site Engadget's gift guide.

If you're planning to pick up an iPod for your loved one this holiday season, which one would you buy? Apple has a variety of models, and they are all very different. We will help you navigate the buying process and get you all the best accessories, so you can give your recipient the ideal iPod.

iPod 101

The iPod is Apple's line of media players, and they come in different sizes and colors. The smallest and least expensive is the iPod shuffle. It's tiny, so tiny it doesn't even have a screen. It's just a cube with a scroll wheel and a clip. The shuffle is perfect for folks who want music with a minimal weight and size.

Next up is the iPod nano. The nano is bigger than the shuffle and has a display, which makes it very easy to use, with on-screen controls. Its solid construction and weight and feel make it great for exercising. There's a lot of accessories for this model, including wrist bands that'll let you wear the nano as a watch. It's a great all-purpose media player, with an integrated FM radio, accelerometer (with support for Nike + iPod and screen rotation) and a variety of fun watch faces.

Third in the line is the iPod classic. This model includes a hard drive and offers a relatively large 160 GB of storage. It also has the classic scroll wheel that defined Apple's early iPod players. Unfortunately, the hard drive limits its usefulness and its battery. Running may be out of the question as the hard drive isn't as resilient to movement as the rest of the iPod line. The iPod Classic is perfect for someone who wants to carry a large library of music, photos and videos around with them, but doesn't need a player for exercising.

Finally there's the iPod touch. This is one of Apple's most popular iPods because it's a phone-less, GPS-less version of the iPhone. It runs iOS and is a bit smaller than the iPhone. If you want the iPhone experience without the phone part, then the iPod touch is your best choice.

Headphones

If you want to get the most out of your iPod, then you need a good pair of headphones. The iPods ship with a pair of mediocre ear buds that'll work in a pinch, but most people will want to upgrade to a better pair. Covering all the variety of styles of headphones is beyond the scope of this guide, but I will highlight a few that we have reviewed, and give you some tips on buying a new pair.

The first decision when you shop for headphones is whether you want a traditional over-the-ear model or ear buds that fit in your ear canal. You also need to decide whether you want wired or wireless. Wireless headphones are a popular option for folks that hate messing with cords. Many connect to your device via Bluetooth and are available as ear buds or over-the-ear cans. The iPod touch is the only player that can support Bluetooth headphones natively. The iPod nano, classic and shuffle can be retro-fitted with Bluetooth if you plug in a Bluetooth adapter like this one from Sony. A Bluetooth adapter is useful, but it will add bulk and weight to your player.

There's a wide variety of Bluetooth headphones including the popular Sennheiser PX210BT ($150), the Sony Ericsson HBH-IS800 bluetooth earbuds ($80), the Creative WP-300 ($80) and the Jaybird Sportsband ($89). Many manufacturers also offer stereo Bluetooth headsets, which can be used for audio on the iPod and later with your iPhone for holding a conversation. We recently looked at the NuForce BT-860 ($79) and found a lot to like about this headset. There's also a thread at Engadget that discusses the best BT headset for music and calls.

Wired headphones and ear buds are also popular options, as they tend to be less expensive and can have exceptional sound quality. If you can deal with the wire, you can get more bang for your buck. You also don't have to worry about interference with a wired headset. There are tons of wired models, but you can't go wrong if you stick with Sennheiser, Grado, Klipsch, Etymotic or Shure.

Cases

People like the iPod because of its large selection of accessories. If you want a particular color or style of case, you will likely find it among the hundreds that are available. Most cases that you find will fit the iPod touch and the classic. The iPod nano is so small that the case selection is not as robust, and the iPod shuffle has its own clip which makes having a case not as important. There are some folio-style and silicone cases for the nano and shuffle, but you will mostly find zippered pouches or arm bands for these smaller players.

Some of our favorite cases for the iPod touch and classic include the premium Vaja cases. They are pricey ($75), but are beautifully designed and hand-crafted from fine leather. A little lower on the price scale is Speck. I've owned a few Speck cases for the iPod touch and found them to be durable and reasonably priced (under $30).

DLO makes a variety of inexpensive hard shell cases, folio cases and silicon cases. And, of course, there's Griffin with a large selection of hard shell, folio and Crystal Clear cases. One of my favorite Griffin cases is the Wristlet ($10) for the iPod nano. It has a wrist strap that makes it easy to find the nano in your bag, and it lets you hang the player on the arm of a treadmill. These cases are just a small sampling of what's available for the iPods. If you have a case you absolutely love, please mention it in the comments.

Armbands and Watch Bands

The nano and shuffle are small enough that you can slip them into an armband and wear them while you exercise. Similar to the iPod's case selection, there are many different armbands from which to choose. When shopping for an arm band, look for one that's easy to take on and off. It should also let you access the controls of the player without difficulty. There's nothing worse than an arm band that requires you to remove the iPod in order to adjust the volume.

Many of the same manufacturers that make cases for the iPod, also make armbands. If you like your DLO or Griffin case, you may want to look at their armband selection, too. If your looking for a basic armband, Grantwood Technology makes a nice one called the TuneBand ($20). There's a Tuneband for every iPod touch, 1G-5G nano and the classic. It has a nice fit and feel and is compatible with the Nike + exercise system. There's also speciality armbands like the RunWallet ($13), also from Grantwood technology, and the Amphibx Fit from H20 Audio. The RunWallet lets you carry your keys, ID, credit/bank Cards, and money; while the Amphibx Fit ($50) is a waterproof armband and headphone combo for nano and shuffle owners.

If you have an iPod nano, you also have the option of using your media player as a watch. The nano ships with several clock faces, and manufacturers like Hex and iWatchz are selling fashionable watch bands that complement the styling of the nano. These watch bands turn your media player into a fashion accessory, and are a compelling reason to choose a nano over the other iPod models.

Docks

Docks are another must-have accessory for your home or office. They let you charge and sync your iPod while keeping it safely in one location. Most pull double duty and function as a speaker or an alarm clock. Docks are one area that the iPod touch excels because it piggybacks on the success of the iPhone. Most specialty iPhone docks, like iHealth's Blood Pressure Dock, are compatible with the iPod touch because the iPhone and the touch share the same dock connector and the same operating system.

If all you need is an all-purpose dock to charge, sync and listen to music, then you'll want to take a look at Apple's Universal dock. It will charge, sync and let you connect the audio out to a speaker. It'll also pipe video out to a monitor or TV if you have the appropriate cable. The dock ships with an Apple remote that'll let you control media playback from across the room. The dock uses inserts that'll fit the entire iPod lineup and all the iPhone models. It ships with five inserts for the iPhone 4/4S, iPhone 3G/3GS, iPod touch (2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations) and the 5th generation iPod nano. You will have to buy an insert separately if you have a model that's not included in the list above.

There's a variety of other docks like the JBL On Stage IV ($150) and the Altec Lansing Octiv Duo M202 ($100), both of which are speaker docks and perfect for a living room. The Octiv Duo adds a bit of a twist, as it has slots for two players and software that lets you mix songs from both devices. If you want a dock to use in your bedroom, you should consider the Sony CD Clock Radio ($100) which has an alarm clock and a radio. There's also the reviveLITE II ($35), a basic dock from Scosche that's both a LED nightlight and a charger.

Portable Speakers

We covered some speaker options for the iPod in the section about docks, now it's time to look at speakers you can use outside the home. If you want to travel with your speakers, you'll have to shed the dock and look for a small speaker setup that's battery powered. Almost all portable speakers easily fit in a handbag or backpack and are usually inexpensively priced. You won't get Bose quality sound out of them, but they're perfect for watching a movie on your iPod touch or listening some tunes on your nano.

One of my favorites is the Altec Lansing Orbit ($30) which has been around for a while and is a solid performer both in durability and sound quality. If you hate dealing with single-use batteries, there's the iHome IHM79 ($50), which has a rechargeable battery and a magnetic base that lets you stick the two speakers together when you travel.

Earlier this year, we reviewed the iMainGo X ($70) which is a case-style speaker system. The speaker splits open, and the iPod fits inside a zippered compartment. Once the speaker is closed, the iPod is safe from the elements. It's designed so you can control and view your device without opening the speaker again. Lastly, I couldn't resist mentioning the GOgroove Panda Pal ($20) and its companion the Koala Pal ($20). They are two portable speakers that GOgroove says "look cute, sound incredible."

Other Accessories

If headphones, a dock, a case, an armband and a wristband are not enough for you, there are even more accessories you can add to your iPod. iPod touch owners may like Seagate's GoFlex satellite ($200), a portable drive which lets you stream media stored on the drive to your iPod touch and other WiFi devices. A must-have for travelers is the Mophie juice pack ($35-80 depending on model), a portable battery that'll charge any iPod you own. There's also the Nike+ iPod fitness system ($30 for the Sport kit) which uses a sensor and your iPod touch or nano to keep track of your running stats. It's also works with Nike + iPod compatible gym equipment that has a connector for your iPod.

We hope this list of accessories helps you find the perfect gift for the iPod fan in your life. If you have a favorite product that we missed, please share it in the comments.

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