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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.


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