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How many iPods are iLemons?

A Wall Street Journal article questions the iPod's reliability.

The Apple iPod
Apple Computer

The Apple iPod is, far and away, the most popular MP3 player on the market--less a product and more a way of life for many people. But just how reliable a product is it? That's the question posed by Nick Wingfield's article in today's Wall Street Journal. "When iPods Die" (which, like most WSJ content, is locked behind the paper's subscriber firewall) compiles some compelling iPod war stories. Among the frustrated 'Pod users chronicled is Tom Westrup of Austin, Texas, who--after suffering from repeated freeze-ups during playback--is currently awaiting his fifth replacement iPod. There's also New York software developer Bill Torpey, who shocked his daughter's malfunctioning iPod back to life--albeit temporarily--by slamming it down on his desk.

Those stories jibe with issues we've seen as well. Along with freeze-ups (requiring the need to constantly reset the device) and ever-shrinking battery life, hard drive failures are a frequent culprit. CNET Senior Editor Dan Ackerman was able to revitalize an old (out-of-warranty) iPod with a DIY hard drive replacement--though it lasted only six months before the dreaded "click of death" returned. Another editor was able to persuade the local Apple Store to give him a replacement iPod at a reduced cost--a kindly Genius Bar denizen took pity on the fact that his warranty had expired only a few days earlier.

Of course, we're not counting the incident where yet another colleague destroyed his iPod in a freak drinking-game accident (don't ask). And that raises a good point: These are portable devices, after all, and they take a lot more abuse than most stationary stay-at-home products. It goes without saying that the flash-based Nano and Shuffle models are certainly a better choice for active travelers. For instance, the aluminum skin found on the second-generation Nano has gone a long way to toughening up those models while eliminating the scratching problems found on the earlier plastic-faced versions. On the other hand, like any hard drive, the ones found in the full-size iPods can take only so much jostling, dropping, and hitting before they give up the ghost.

For its part, Apple claims the iPod failure rate is "less than 5 percent," a figure that a company spokesman calls "extremely low" compared to industry averages. And, indeed, the players' continued mega-success--70 million sold since 2001, according to the Journal article--would seem to indicate that the allure of an iPod still far outweighs its drawbacks. But in an age where a single YouTube video can rocket a consumer complaint from anecdotal obscurity to viral ubiquity, such complaints represent a possible crack in the iPod's armor. Whether that will translate into success for the army of competitors trying to assail Apple's massive 75 percent market share remains an open question.