Leader: Is the iPod love affair over?

Apple's beloved music player plagued by poor quality and a damaged brand...

Apple's beloved music player plagued by poor quality and a damaged brand...

The first signs have started to emerge this week that Apple's super-cool must-have iPod music players are, well, how can we put it - actually not that great.

For Apple's legions of diehard fans we're sure we've just committed some unimaginable sin by uttering those words but let us look at the evidence.

First up is Duke University, which, if you remember, leapt onto the iPod hype bandwagon last year by giving a free iPod to all new students. It cost the university $500,000 to kit out the 1,650 freshmen with the shiny white devices in the autumn. Was it worth it?

Duke University now says the results were mixed with only around 600 students actually making use of their iPod for not only listening to bland college rock but also recording and playing back lectures. Maybe Duke will soon realise students aren't going to pick their university based on whether or not it's giving out a free iPod.

Next up is the questionable quality of the iPods - bearing in mind of course the premium you pay for those white ear buds. This is where silicon.com staffers can speak from personal experience.

One journalist here bought three shiny silver 4GB iPod minis for himself and the silicon.com team after visiting New York in February 2004. All seemed well for a while but soon some now all-too-familiar problems began to emerge. Within six months of purchase, all three iPod minis had been sent back to Apple because of dead batteries and knackered click wheels.

The service from Apple at the time can't be faulted as all three devices were still under warranty and were replaced within days with no fuss and no charge - which just about makes you forget for a short while that perhaps, just perhaps, a £150 digital music player should last for a little longer than six months.

Yet less than six months after getting the replacement iPods the same problems reared their heads again - the battery on one unit now lasts for just an hour after a full charge and the click wheel has given up the game, rendering the iPod mini virtually unusable.

This time around the mini is not under warranty and Apple wants to charge the best part of £140 to fix it. A little steep, no? We think so. And it's led us to look elsewhere for our next music players. We're betting we're not alone on this one.

Here at Silicon Towers, one staffer plans to pick up a 20GB Creative Zen Touch for about the same amount as it would cost to fix the replacement iPod mini.

Which brings us to the all-important question of brand. Could it be that the iPod just isn't that cool anymore? Reports from the US claim that Apple is struggling to shift its new Shuffle range and is sitting on a significant amount of inventory. Brand experts claim this is because Apple has cheapened the image of the whole iPod range with an average product like the Shuffle. We're betting the mini's dead batteries and broken click wheels didn't help, either.

So is this the first wave of an iPod 'backlash'? It's probably too early to tell and admittedly any new product as heavily hyped as the iPod could encounter similar problems. But what will be crucial to the music player's long-term success or failure is how Apple responds to these shortcomings - and whether it starts to make sure the iPod's quality matches its sleek design.