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The 'Pod and Beyond

Apple's iPod may have spawned a brave new world of portable digital entertainment, but the current frontiers far surpass simple MP3 players.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

Even someone like me, who finds the cult-like devotion of die-hard Mac users vaguely creepy, has to give Steve Jobs credit -- he and his team at Apple have created an entertainment phenomenon in the iPod. Here's a tech toy that delivers on its promises, filling your pocket with hours of high-quality audio, featuring easy-to-use controls, menus and software, all wrapped in an industrial design that practically begs to be held. In a world where so many digital products are physically unappealing and just plain frustrating to master, it's no wonder that the elegant iPod exudes such mojo.

Even while bestowing this wet sloppy kiss on the pride of Cupertino, California, I want to make clear that the iPod is not the be-all and end-all of portable digital entertainment. Several competitors offer devices that surpass iPod in key areas, including battery life, price point and features. There's also a major change under way in the world of portable music -- the growth of online subscription services that let you pay one monthly fee and choose from hundreds of thousands of songs that can be downloaded to a handheld player. It's a powerful notion, one that Mr. Jobs has publicly pooh-poohed on more than one occasion. And then there's the recent influx of all-in-one portable media devices, which not only play music, but also TV and video, and display digital photos too. For many users, an iPod is absolutely the right choice, but before plunking down your cash and jacking those distinctive white buds into your waiting ear canals, it pays to consider the alternatives.

MOVING MUSIC

The first question to ask when shopping for a portable music player is whether you want one that uses a hard disk drive, or one with solid-state memory (called a flash player, since the chips inside are called flash memory). The big advantage of a hard-disk player is capacity -- a flash player with extensive space holds 128 songs, a typical hard-disk model about 5,000. On the other hand, flash players are tiny (the butane-lighter-sized Creative Nomad MuVo TX, for example, weighs just 1.5 ounces), run for hours on off-the-shelf batteries and, most important for hard-charging athletic types, have no moving parts (other than the control buttons). You can pound away on the pavement without having the music skip or damaging the player.

For most of us, though, hard-drive players are much more practical. They come in two basic size classes. Ultraportables (like the iPod Mini) with 4- to 5-gigabyte drives slip easily into a shirt or jacket pocket, while even full-size models (like the standard iPod) are still only about as big as a pack of cards and can accommodate a complete music library.

When comparing hard-drive players head-to-head, capacity, price and design are obvious factors to take into account, but there's more to consider than meets the eye.

Battery Life. Carrying a hard-drive music player with a dead battery is more frustrating than not owning one at all, and they all rely on rechargeables, so there's no quick fix at your local convenience store. Battery life figures vary widely, from about eight hours of playback to a whopping 24 hours on a charge.

Musical Formats Supported. Virtually every digital music player sold today plays MP3 files, the lingua franca of the digital music world, and if you only want to listen to digital files you've ripped from your CDs (a service at www.ripdigital.com will even do this for you) or downloaded by nefarious means over the Internet, that's all you need. If you plan to pay to download music, though, format matters. The iTunes music store, the 800-pound gorilla of legal downloads, sells only AAC files with special digital rights management encoding. These will play back fine on any Mac or PC with the free iTunes music software installed, but for play on portable hard drives, only an iPod will do (Apple has refused to license the required software to other manufacturers). Most other online music stores (including Napster, Musicmatch, Wal-Mart, etc.) use a version of Windows Media Audio files that include their own digital rights management lock and key, one that's built into most non-Apple players and lets you play the songs you paid for on a variety of devices.

And then there's Sony, which once again has decided to go off in its own proprietary-format direction. The company recently introduced, to great hoopla from the business press, two attractive hard-drive music players along with its own music download service. For reasons known only to itself, Sony decided to support a music format called ATRAC on both the players and the music service. Software supplied with the players lets you "transcode" your MP3 files, converting them into the ATRAC format, but that's a time- consuming process, inevitably causes some audio-quality deterioration, and leaves you with either two files for each song (if you choose to keep your original MP3s along with the new ATRAC version) or ATRAC-only files that require Sony software and devices to be played. Unless you own stock in Sony, the whole thing makes no sense, given the wealth of easier-to-use alternatives available.

Subscription Services. Online subscription music services have been around for a few years and, frankly, I was always pretty indifferent to them. Suddenly, though, they've become my pick hit for hot entertainment technology. Why the change of heart? First off, more and more of us have fast, always-on broadband Internet connections in our homes, so listening to a song from an online service is as easy as double-clicking the name. Second, and more important, Microsoft introduced a new technology in September that radically changes what you can do with songs from a subscription music service. Used to be you could only listen at your computer. Now you can download those same songs to a portable player and take it on the road. Napster is the first service to make the take-along plunge, but Musicmatch is working on a similar service, along with Microsoft's own online music service. Think about it -- instead of paying 99 cents to download each individual song, you pay roughly $15 a month for access to hundreds of thousands of songs, and can take them with you. I'm sold.

The trick is, you need a portable player that supports Windows Digital Rights Management (DRM) software. First out of the block is a combination video/music/photo player, Creative's Portable Media Center (see page 132), and it works like a charm. The other video players based on Microsoft's Portable Media Center software (from iRiver and Samsung) will also be compatible with subscription content. As for music-only models, Archos, Creative, Dell, iRiver, Rio and Samsung have all promised to get on board, including upgrades to older models wherever possible.

Bonus Features. Manufacturers have taken the basic music-player idea and festooned it with add-on functions that may or may not have any value to you, the credit-card-carrying consumer. Voice recording is one example. I use this feature frequently (on an iRiver H120) to record interviews, live via microphone or over the phone with an inexpensive Radio Shack adapter. I end up with a small digital MP3 file I can transfer to my computer, play back easily for transcription, make copies for safekeeping and even e-mail them to my editor if need be. Many users, though, will never use this feature at all. In fact, one product manager (who shall remain nameless) released an MP3 player promising voice recording and, after shipping, discovered the feature didn't work. Seems the company never got a single complaint.

In addition to voice, some players let you record music right on the device -- pretty useless, seems to me. A built-in FM radio can be handy (nobody offers built-in AM, unfortunately). Some players (including iPod) also let you store calendar and contact info and view it on the player's LCD screen -- don't know anybody who uses it, but you just might.

One feature I particularly enjoy is the ability to play downloaded audiobooks from Audible (www.audible.com). They cost about as much as traditional tape-based programs, but you can't beat the convenience, and there's something comforting about having someone read you a story while you travel. Players from Apple and Rio support this feature.

Hard-drive music players embrace two common size-and-capacity categories. Most full-sized models, roughly the size of a deck of cards, include 20-gigabyte hard drives (though they run as high as 60 gigabytes and as low as 1.5). Then there are the mini models that fit neatly in the palm of your hand and offer 4 to 5 gigabytes of storage. Here are my favorites in each group.

The Skinny on Mini

Apple iPod Mini -- The stylemeisters at Apple have garnered lots of praise for their munchkin version of the iPod. The good news: the software is nearly identical to its big brother, both on the device itself and the computer, and nobody does it better than Apple when it comes to putting your music at your fingertips with a minimum of fuss, bother and tech intimidation. Controls are simple and intuitive, the screen bright and legible, and sound quality is just fine, thank you. The Mini's metal-clad case (available in five decorator colors) is more durable than the scratch-prone full-size iPod (though both iPods now ship with no protective case, which is criminal at these prices). And speaking of prices, cost is a real issue here. You get 4 gigabytes of storage for $249, versus 20 gigabytes for a full-sized iPod costing $299. Yes, there's a price premium for miniaturization, but a regular iPod isn't exactly a daunting behemoth -- does the value proposition make sense to you?
4-gigabyte hard drive, 3.6" x 2.0" x 0.5", 3.6 oz., Mac and PC compatible, $249 www.apple.com, 800-692-7753

Creative Nomad MuVo2 -- Creative's take on the tiny tune take-along category offers the same 4-gigabyte capacity as the iPod Mini in a slightly smaller size and shape, albeit in demure black and silver. Creative tops Apple in two key areas: price (a not inconsiderable $50 savings) and battery life (a true 14 hours per charge versus iPod Mini's 8 hours). The battery's also removable, so you can buy a spare and take it with you, not possible with the closed-system iPod. The sound quality, as with all Creative portables, is excellent, though the menu system is organized by files and folders versus the iPod's more elegant artist-album-genre system.
4-gigabyte hard drive, 2.6" x 2.6" x 0.8", 3.2 oz., PC compatible, $200 www.creative.com, 800-998-1000

Rio Carbon -- This sleek little player, with a sports car's tapered lines, a rubberized edge and a shape that pops easily in and out of a pocket is my design favorite among the MP3 small fries. It has a hearty appetite for music, boasting a 5-gigabyte hard drive. There's a built-in microphone for voice recording, an extraordinary 20-hour battery life, plus support for Audible audiobook files.
5-gigabyte hard drive, 2.5" x 3.3" x 0.6", 3.2 oz., PC and Mac compatible, $250 www.rioaudio.com, 866-286-3662

Dell Pocket DJ -- Another serious contender among pocket-size players, the 5-gigabyte Pocket DJ boasts rugged construction (a rarity in this "please-don't-scratch-me" product category) and terrific audio quality at the right price, in a size and shape that's practical without being showy. Battery life is about 10 hours, not top-of-the-heap but acceptable.
5-gigabyte hard drive, 3.5" x 2.1" x 0.5", 4.3 oz., PC compatible, $199 www.dell.com, 800-999-3355

Full-Size Favorites

Apple iPod -- In this, its fourth generation, iPod has several important improvements -- probably not enough to warrant an upgrade if you own the previous version, but still a blow to would-be competitors. Most important, Apple boosted battery life to 12 hours (a 50 percent increase over previous models) and dropped the price by $100, to a reasonable $299 for the 20-gigabyte model. The controls, already impressive, have been improved with the addition of a click-wheel that simplifies navigation while eliminating extra buttons. An important addition for audiophiles is the ability to record and play tunes using lossless compression -- the resulting files sound exactly the same as the CD used to create them, though you do pay a price in storage capacity (a lossless file takes up roughly 10 times as much space as a compressed MP3). Simple yet sophisticated, the iPod is a tough act to beat. But that doesn't stop the competition from trying…
20-gigabyte model: 2.4" x 4.1" x 0.57", 5.6 oz., PC and Mac compatible, $299/40-gigabyte model: 2.4" x 4.1" x .69", 6.2 oz., PC and Mac compatible, $399 www.apple.com, 800-692-7753

iRiver H120 -- Music playback works perfectly well on the H120, but what sets it apart is high-quality recording capability. You can record using the built-in microphone, plug in an external mic or use a line-in cable from another audio device to create high-quality MP3 recordings right on the device, which has a 16-hour battery life. The built-in FM receiver is another nice touch, and iRiver promises support for subscription music content. However, the controls and menus aren't my favorite: while technically you can organize your music by artist, title and so forth, the indexing software misses too many songs to be practical, leaving you hunting through file folders instead. And after Apple's recent price cut, paying higher-than-iPod prices is tough to justify unless, like me, recording capability is a key feature.
20-gigabyte hard drive, 2.4" x 4.1" x 0.7", 5.6 oz., PC and Mac compatible, $329 www.iriveramerica.com, 800-399-1799

Creative Zen Touch -- The Creative Zen Touch is a bit bulkier than the iPod, but that disadvantage is outweighed by a more durable design and an incredible 24 hours of battery life per charge -- double the iPod's figure. The "touch" in the product name refers to a new Touch Pad control that lets you scroll through lists of artists and songs by rubbing your finger up or down on a touch-sensitive strip -- fast, effective, and completely intuitive. And, as usual, Creative boasts a price advantage over the comparable Apple model.
20-gigabyte hard drive, 4.1" x 2.7" x 0.87", 7 oz., PC compatible, $270 www.creative.com, 800-998-1000

Dell DJ -- In its new and improved incarnation, the Dell music player is a solidly built device at a very aggressive price. With an easy-to-use scroll wheel for on-screen navigation, support for subscription content and a metal-clad body that can take a licking without surrendering its good looks, the only hiccup for the Dell DJ is its run-of-the-mill 12-hour battery life.
20-gigabyte ($249) and 30-gigabyte ($299) models available, 4" x 2.4" x 0.7", 6.8 oz., PC compatible www.dell.com, 800-999-3355

The Video Road Show

When I first held a prototype portable video player in my hot little hands nearly two years ago, I was hooked. "The next step beyond the iPod," says I. "Take your favorite TV shows and movies on the road, plus your family photos and videos, plus all your music." It was all the poor product development guy could do to pry the thing away from me.

But now that these devices are a reality, I'm getting mixed messages in discussions with non-geek civilians, and I see their point. A video-equipped media player is inevitably larger and less portable than a music-only device and costs about twice as much. The real question, though: when are you going to watch TV on a handheld device? People listen to their portable music players without paying much attention to them -- your audio soundtrack accompanies you while walking across town, working in your cubicle, striding purposefully on the treadmill. Video, on the other hand, requires more attention -- look at the screen, follow the plot, zip through the commercials -- which cuts down on the occasions where it's a viable portable companion. Frequent fliers are a prime audience -- having a video player during a recent six-hour delay leaving Indianapolis would have been good for my blood pressure. Same goes for bus and train commuters. For the rest of us, opportunities for quality time spent staring at a portable video player may be limited.

So much for my nod to practicality. In my heart of hearts I still love these devices. They work surprisingly well, sacrifice nothing in the music playback department, entertain me when my eyes would otherwise glaze over with boredom, and offer the important early-adopter rush of generating envy among passersby at Starbucks and the airport lounge. And while the photo display feature gets lost in the shuffle of video-playback hype, it's a significant capability. In fact, armed with a hard drive full of photos and home video clips, new parents who own these multimedia players could become the most dangerous people on the planet.

While trying to predict Apple's future product plans is a lot like juggling Jell-O, it seems safe to say there's no "video iPod" in the near future -- Chairman Steve has expressed his disdain for portable video players. Microsoft, on the other hand, has created a complete portable player software package it's licensing to consumer electronics companies (so far Creative and Samsung have taken the bait). There are advantages for companies choosing to follow this common standard, including availability of services that will sell downloadable songs, videos and movies that work on all compatible devices. And the Windows Portable Media Center software is an excellent system for organizing and viewing video, music and photo content. The menu structure is blissfully clear -- if you can work a TV set, you can handle one of these devices -- and playback quality for all media is first-rate, with smooth on-screen video, high-quality audio and small but crisp photo display.

Where Microsoft may lose potential buyers, though, is the question of where they're getting the video content they'll take along. Most of us will expect to record the TV programs we get now, whether over the air, by cable or via satellite, and carry them around on our portable devices. In the Microsoft world, that means recording on your PC, then transferring the programs over to your portable.

You say your PC doesn't know anything about TV? You're not alone -- for most users computers are computers, TVs are TVs, and the two live in separate worlds (and separate rooms, for that matter). The fact is, adding TV viewing and recording capability to a PC isn't that big a deal. Microsoft already makes a special version of Windows XP called Media Center Edition that turns a computer into a formidable multimedia device, able to record TV shows and play back video, music and photos, either with a mouse and keyboard or from across the room using a wireless remote. And the Windows Portable Media Center was made to work seamlessly with computers running Windows XP -- you connect the two with a USB cable, tell the computer what you'd like to send over to the portable and the software takes care of the rest. Many computer companies, including Dell, Gateway and HP, sell brand spanking new Media Center PCs. However, you can't upgrade an existing computer with Windows XP Media Center Edition -- it isn't sold separately.

There are alternative ways to teach your PC how to watch (and record) TV. If opening the case and installing add-in cards doesn't fill you with dread, choose an inexpensive TV tuner card. Some of my favorite solutions come from ATI, ranging from a simple $49 tuner card to a deluxe $199 All-in-Wonder package including high-definition TV reception and recording. The ATI advantage is the first-rate software included for viewing and recording programs (www.ati.com).

For those who don't want to explore the innards of their PC, external video input boxes can connect to your computer via a USB 2.0 port. I've been using the Instant DVD + DV device from ADS Tech ($285) to record everything from home movies to broadcast TV onto my PC with excellent results, and the company offers less elaborate options for inputting TV to your PC starting at $129 (www.adstech.com).

On the other hand, maybe you're intrigued by the idea of watching TV on a portable player, but don't want to deal with turning your computer into an ersatz TV recorder. No worries -- Archos and RCA offer portables that play files created on the computer, but also include their own built-in recording capability. Essentially they work like hard-drive-based VCRs -- you connect them to a video source and either hit the record button or set up a timed recording, much like programming a VCR (you do know how to program a VCR, don't you?).


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