Which iPod Should I Buy for Audiobooks?

The most common question I am asked is “Which device should I buy for listening to audiobooks?” This is what I tell people.

Executive Summary

  • If you want and can sign up for an iPhone, it’s the best audiobook player on the market, hands down.
  • If you don’t want or can’t have an iPhone, the iPod Touch is very nearly as good, contract-free.
  • For some special circumstances such as exercising, or if you really need the cheapest option, the iPod Nano is a pretty good solution.

If you’re the type who just wants an answer, you’ve got it. If you’d like to understand why, then we’re just getting started.

What I Use

Just so you know where I’m coming from, here’s the hardware I’ve spent my own money on. I have a maxed out iPhone 5S that I use to listen to audiobooks or podcasts almost every day. I occasionally use a 6th generation (touch screen) iPod Nano when I exercise. All of these devices are great, but I take the iPhone everywhere. Yes, everywhere.

I’ve used and loved and recommended older iPhones and iPod Nanos, and if you have one of those, or want to buy one used, they’re a great value. I’m writing this guide, though, for people buying their first new device.

The Touch Experience

With the iOS-based iPod app, listening to audiobooks leaped forward in usability. The screen is much larger than on traditional iPods, allowing the display of more and more useful information, and allows better album and chapter art.

iPod App Audiobooks List iPod App Audiobook Tracks List

The touch-based iPod app introduced one new navigation control, a 30-second skip back button, and replaced classic scrollwheel-based scrubbing with touch-based scrubbing that is easier to discover, and allows finer control. On books with useful chapter information, you can actually skip to chapters by name.

iPod App Playback Controls iPod App Scrubbing

The user experience of navigating back and forth in an audiobook has never been more intuitive or easier to do.

It’s an App App App App World

The future of audiobooks on the iPod is iOS. Not only is the built in iPod app excellent for audiobooks, but after two years of the App Store for iOS devices, the options for audiobook playback have exploded.

Audible audiobook app Bookmark audiobook app Edgar Sawtelle audiobook app

I’ve reviewed a few options, such as Bookmark and Audible above, but I have nearly a dozen in total on my iPhone, most awaiting evaluation. A search for “audiobook” in the App Store may convince you that there is an audiobook playback option to suit every conceivable need. (Personally, I use the Audible app for most audiobooks, and the built-in iPod (“Music”) app for podcasts.)

In earlier versions of this article, I always recommended the iPod Nano as the best value for audiobooks. It combines a very good user interface with a great form factor, at a good price. But the state of the art has moved past that form factor, and the focus of this article is what should you buy today. There can be no doubt that, today, the best audiobook playback device is an iPhone or iPod Touch.

iPhone vs. iPod Touch

Both devices run the same version of iOS, and provide identical experiences in the iPod app. And for the most part, they can both run all of the same third-party audiobook apps currently available. Is there really a difference?

Apple iPhone Apple iPod Touch
iPhone at Apple Online Store iPod Touch at Amazon

I recommend the iPhone over the iPod Touch for three reasons:

  1. It’s better hardware.

    The iPhone (even an older iPhone 4S) is faster, has more memory, a better screen, a better camera, and so on. Its speaker is good enough to use instead of headphones in a reasonably quiet environment. It’s Apple’s best handheld device, and it’s updated every year, unlike the iPod Touch recently.

  2. All-in-one device.

    I want to carry only one device with me. If I had to carry two devices (a phone and an iPod), one of them would get left behind regularly, to keep my pockets light.

  3. Always online.

    It’s frequently useful to be able to look something up online when listening to an audiobook, maybe to look up the author, or book series, or get some details on a device or plot point. The iPod Touch can use Wi-Fi to go online, but mobile wireless networks let the iPhone connect almost everywhere.

If you’re already happy with your phone and wireless carrier, it’s nice to know that the iPod Touch has a couple advantages of its own:

  1. Contract-free.

    No commitment to a wireless provider you may or may not want to be in a relationship with. (See below.)

  2. It’s thinner and weighs less.

    It’s not a lot, but especially if you want to use the device while exercising, this can be nice.

iPhone 5S vs. iPhone 5C vs. iPhone 4S

Older iPhones are still on the market, and they can be free with contract. The iPhone 5C is new and a great device, and costs less than the iPhone 5S, which might also seem like a good deal.

Get the iPhone 5S. The iPhone 5S has a faster processor, more memory, a better screen, a much better camera, and a host of other improvements. (You’ll be surprised how quickly you expect TouchID everywhere.) You’re going to spend way more money on your two years of wireless phone service than on the hardware; getting the top-of-the-line iPhone 5S is definitely worth it.

AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile

If you’re happy with your current provider, and they offer the iPhone, you should stick with them. The iPhone gets reception similar to, if not better than, other smartphones. Your experience shouldn’t change.

Living in San Francisco, I suffered with AT&T for years because I wanted the iPhone more than I wanted to make calls. (I don’t actually like to talk on the phone.) I switched to Verizon two years ago, and their coverage is—in my experience—far better. AT&T was always pretty good when I traveled, but here in SF, it was bad both at home and at work, and that was the end of that.

All of the carriers are improving their networks. I’ve even been using T-Mobile with a Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 Android phones, and have found service to be pretty solid within San Francisco—better than AT&T was when I was with them. And, to be fair, when I got a decent connection with AT&T, their speed was terrific. (All that said, I’m not making a change for a while, myself.)

What Size (Capacity) Should I Get?

With an iPhone or iPod Touch, you will want capacity not just for audiobooks, but for other media (movies, TV, etc.), for recording audio or video with your camera, and of course, for other apps. While the 16 gigabyte iPhone has plenty of capacity, you can double it to 32 gigabytes for only $100 more, and double again to 64 gigabytes for another $100. If you can afford it, do it. (My 32 gigabyte iPhone was almost full when I upgraded to the 64 gig model.)

If you decide to go with an iPod Nano, the 16 gigabyte version is $149, the lowest priced device I recommend. Then again, if you need a phone anyway, the excellent 16 gigabyte iPhone 5C is actually cheaper, only $99, with a two year contract…

Here’s a rough estimate for how many audiobooks you can fit on some common iPod sizes:

Device Size# Books
8 gig30-40 audiobooks, fills 75% of device
16 gig50 audiobooks, fills 50% of device
32 gig100 audiobooks, fills < 50% of device
64 gig100 audiobooks, fills < 25% of device

I don’t generally put more than 25-30 audiobooks on a device at a time, as the lists of titles and tracks become long and hard to manage. But it’s nice to have a fair number of audiobooks on your device. I have had the experience of trying to pick out a new book for my commute, and as many as 10 books don’t sound good to me at that moment. “Nick Hornby? Feh. Michael Crichton? Double feh.” Some days you want a couple dozen books to choose from, even if you’re only going to listen to one. You can also fit a lot more music (or podcasts, or videos, etc.) onto a larger capacity device, without giving up variety in your audiobook selection.

I’ve written a full-length article about how to manage audiobooks on a small-capacity iPod that gives a lot of tips and tricks for fitting a nice selection of audiobooks and other content onto small capacity iPods.

What About the iPod Nano?

Apple iPod Nano The iPod Nano was my recommended solution for audiobooks for years. The newest generations of the iPod Nano are a radical change from those prior versions, but remains a terrific product, and works reasonably well for audiobooks, even if it doesn’t offer everything an iOS device does. But it does have one compelling aspect, its tiny size, that can make it extremely useful for some people.

If you plan to be very active while you listen to your audiobooks—exercising, doing housework, gardening, etc.—you may find the small size and weight, and the built-in clip to attach it to your person, make the iPod Nano more convenient to use.

My own experience is that when I jog/run, the heavy weight of my iPhone is awkward, and finding the right place to keep it can be tough. In loose running clothes, my pockets jounce around, and with the iPhone in one, I’m afraid it’s going to bounce out. So when I exercise, I use an iPod Nano. The latest iPod Nano is the smallest, lightest device Apple has made that works well for audiobooks, and it clips wherever, making it effortless to use during physically active tasks.

What About the iPad?

I also have an iPad, and while I love it for a lot of things, I never use it for audiobooks. It’s larger size is great for reading text and watching video, but for audio-only programs, it offers absolutely nothing for the size and weight trade-off.

What About the iPod Classic?

An iPod Classic is physically larger than an iPhone or iPod Touch, to say nothing of an iPod Nano. I have often, over the years, sacrificed features and capacity for a smaller form factor. And I only want to carry one device.

But that’s me. If you have determined that the size of your audiobook device is not that important, then the iPod Classic can be a fine choice. In terms of handling audiobooks, it’s pretty much identical to older generation iPod Nanos I used to recommend. And it might be a better choice for you if you want to carry a really large collection of music, videos, or podcasts along with your audiobooks. The iPod Classic has almost 3 times the capacity of the largest iPod Touch, while costing $150 less.

But it’s a dead man walking. I thought it would be discontinued 2013, and expect it to go away any day now. The future is iOS devices.

Why Not the iPod Shuffle?

So if size is such a big factor, why not consider an iPod Shuffle? Because a screen and a scrubbing control are essential for listening to audiobooks. Although the iPod Shuffle is a nice enough device, its design as a random shuffle music jukebox makes it ill-suited for playing audiobooks, where linear playback is required. While you can turn off shuffle mode, the iPod Shuffle has minimal controls for fast forward or reverse, and no way to see where you are. You will inevitably get into a position where you are in a random spot in the book, not know if that’s were you’re supposed to be or not, and have no easy way to skim forward or backward to find the right place.

And that’s the issue in two words. The iPod Shuffle was designed with the philosophy that there is no “right place” in your playlist, all that matters is where you are now. Terrific for music, not so good for audiobooks.

Note: I’m not saying it’s impossible to use an iPod Shuffle for audiobooks. I’m just saying it’s a crappy experience.

Closing Thoughts: Why iPhone or iPod?

I’ve been writing about audiobooks, iTunes, iPhones and iPods for seven+ years now, and people regularly accuse me of being a “die hard Apple fan boy.” I’m really not.

I’ve worked with a lot of software, and at least played with a good range of hardware. With Android and Windows Phone 7 (and who knows, maybe RIM will recover), the iPhone is finally getting a run for its money. If you have an Android or a recent BlackBerry phone, Audible makes a version of its app for your phone too, and it’s probably very nice. I’m sure a Windows Phone 7 version isn’t far away.

But, no one else offers a non-phone device that is nearly as good as the iPod Touch. No one offers a miniature player nearly as good as the iPod Nano. And even though iTunes is far from perfect, no one else offers media management software that works as well with its hardware as iTunes does with Apple’s handheld devices. Apple quite simply offers the best range of high-quality solutions for normal people.

Once you might have paid a premium for that experience, but these days Apple’s products are priced competitively with comparable products, especially for handheld devices. A premium experience at a competitive price is a great value, and that’s why I recommend these products.