8.1. Choosing a Digital Music Player
After nearly 10 years of evolution, digital music players now come in two basic types: the iPod, and everything else. Apple's sold more than 20 million iPods, capturing more than 75 percent of the market, and leaving hundreds of competing players scrambling to woo the remaining music lovers. Industry analysts don't see Apple's monopoly disappearing anytime soon.
Apple won the market because it simplified a few things that only seemed easy: buying a player, buying digital music, and copying that music to the player. For starters, Apple's iPod comes in three easy-to-understand sizes: small, medium, and large. Creative Lab's Web site makes visitors choose between 27 models with varying sizes and features.
To load an iPod with songs, you just plug it into your PC; iTunes stuffs it with all your PC's songs automatically. Many competing music players balk at Windows Media Player's automatic synchronization; some won't talk to Media Player at all.
Apple's iTunes comes with a popular online store, a large music catalog, and a single pricing policy: 99 cents for almost any song, and $9.99 for most albums. Media Player offers more than a dozen online music stores, each with a different assortment of songs, prices, and copy protection schemes.
Winning the market let the iPod grab the accessory and software market, too. Every iPod owner can choose between hundreds of different cases, plug-in attachments, and form-fitting speakers ; nobody makes anything to fit an Audiovox SMP3-330 player.
But no single player, not even an iPod, is perfect for everybody. Choosing a player is a constant balancing act between small size and more features; you can't have both. That's why all players cluster around these three sizes:
Small (256 MB to 4 GB memory) . Most compact digital players use flash memory, the same kind found in a digital camera's memory card (Section 5.3). With no whirling hard drive, these tiny players conserve battery power and slip easily into a pocket. Their small size and capacity, usually just a handful of gigabytes, limits them to a few hundred songsenough for a weekend , perhaps, but probably not enough to hold all your music. Apple's iPod Shuffle, shown in Figure 8-1, weighs less than one ounce.
Small players often come with small buttons , much to the detriment of fumble-fingered folk. Also, they're rarely big enough for large display screens, making it difficult to find that perfect "sunset song" before the sky grows dark.
Medium (2 to 6 GB memory) . Medium- sized players feature either tiny hard drives or lots of flash memory. They easily hold 1,000 songs with room left over to lug a few large data files, a feature highly valued by people who carry work to or from home. Apple's iPod Nano arrived in September 2005 and replaced the iPod Mini; both are shown in Figure 8-2.
Large (15 to 60 GB memory) . Serious music fans feel naked without their entire music collection, or at least a decent chunk of it, sitting within reach. Large players fill that niche by holding at least 5,000 songs, increasing your chances of finding the perfect tune for the moment. Slightly heavier and bigger than medium players, large players still slip easily into a pocket, although their weight adds a serious droop to a shirt pocket (Figure 8-3).
Some of these big boys even include a color screen, letting you display photos and videos , as well as song titles. As a result, people sometimes refer to them as "media players" rather than "audio players." You can also plug most media players into TV sets for convenient slideshows with music backgrounds. Apple's latest iPod also plays video; Creative and Archos make competing portable media players.
Figure 8-1. Created to compete in the small-player market, Apple's diminutive iPod Shuffle holds either 512 MB or 1 GB of flash memory, depending on your model. Apple markets the iPod Shuffle as a sort of personalized "radio station." Plug the iPod Shuffle into your PC, and iTunes fills it with a random mix of songsenough to last throughout your day. (You can turn off the random feature if you prefer hearing, say, your audio book's chapters in order.) The Shuffle's pop-off cap covers a standard USB port that plugs into any desktop PC or laptop for adding songs and recharging the battery.
To compete against the iPod, some larger players include extra features like FM radio tuners and voice recorders. (iPod owners can buy the voice recorders from third-party companies as plug-in accessories.)
Alternatives . Some USB plug-in keychain drives work double-duty as MP3 players, complete with a headphone jack. But even if you don't have an MP3 player, any memory card or keychain drive will "sync" with Windows XP's Media Player (Section 188.8.131.52), letting you grab a quick load of fresh tunes to play on any PC with speakers: your home PC, work PC, or the PCs at your friends ' homes .
When choosing a player, be sure it can play your music collection's file format (Section 7.3.1). If you buy music from the iTunes online music store, for example, you need an iPodonly iPods can play iTunes' protected AAC file format. If you buy digital music from Napster, Wal-Mart, or other online music stores available from within Windows Media Player, don't buy an iPod: iPods can't handle Media Player's protected WMA format (Section 7.3.2), the format used by most online music stores except iTunes.
Figure 8-2. Left: Apple's colorful initial entry into the mid-size market, the iPod Mini, weighed in at 3.6 ounces and came in five colors.
Right: The pencil-thin iPod Nano weighs in at only 1.5 ounces, coming in either black or white. A testament to the rising popularity of flash memory, the Nano crams either 2 or 4 GB of flash memory into a case smaller than its Mini predecessor, which used a hard drive.
Tip: Every digital music player can play MP3 files, making that format a very safe bet when ripping CDs or stocking your music library.
Be sure to choose a player that connects with your PC through either a FireWire (Section 184.108.40.206) or USB 2.0 port (Section 1.8.1). You need a speedy connection to send those huge digital music files into your player without taking all night.