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Does It Really Have To Be An iPod?

Yes, you do have other options! A look at some of the alternatives to the ubiquitous iPod.

By Bill Camarda

Not every tissue is a KleenexTM, and not every photocopier is a XeroxTM. But some folks think every portable music player is an iPodTM, and every online music store is iTunesTM. You’ve got to hand it to Apple for that: they’ve done an amazing job delivering first-class products and services, and backing it up with award-winning marketing campaigns.

But there are plenty of alternatives to both the iPod and iTunes, and before you simply buy into Apple’s offerings, you might want to check some of them out. So strap on your helmet: let’s go beyond Apple into the wilds of the digital music marketplace, discover some of the other choices that are out there, and see if any of them make sense for you.
Why look elsewhere?
One thing you’ve got to say for Apple: they’ve done a great job making the iPod and iTunes work with each other. And they can afford to: some 70% of the digital music players sold nowadays are iPods. Apple, and pretty much only Apple, can afford to ignore everybody else. And that means ignoring non-iPod compatibility issues: if you don’t choose an iPod, it’s hard to use iTunes as your music store; and if you do choose an iPod, it’s even harder not to use iTunes.

Why might you swim against the tide, and choose something non-Apple? First and foremost, value. With Apple’s market share, it can get away with offering fewer features or less power for the money. So, for example, Apple’s low-end iPod Shuffle doesn’t offer a screen, while most of its competitors do. Apple’s iPods don’t have built-in FM radios; many competitors do. You might get 8 GB storage on a competitive MP3 player for the same price as Apple’s 4 GB iPod nano. And, when it comes to music stores, you might prefer a subscription “all-you-can-listen-to” approach that iTunes doesn’t offer, or appreciate the specialized selection of a competitor such as eMusic. (Then, some folks simply don’t like Apple, and would rather not be seen wearing those ubiquitous white iPod earbuds.)

With all that said, first let’s take a look at some alternatives to the iPod in three segments of the market:

  • Low-end, inexpensive MP3 players with small amounts of “flash memory,” capable of storing roughly a couple of hundred songs
  • Mid-range flash memory players with larger capacities
  • High-end players that use miniature hard drives to store thousands of songs

Low-end iPod alternatives

Creative’s small Zen Stone Plus competes head-on with Apple’s iPod Shuffle, adding a small blue screen to help you keep track of your tracks, as well as an integrated FM radio, and stopwatch. The Zen Stone Plus will play both MP3s and Microsoft WMA files – as well as unprotected AAC files you might someday buy from Apple’s iTunes store. (What’s that about? Until recently, most iTunes music has been “protected” with “digital rights management” software that limited where you could play it. Now, if you’re willing to pay more, you can get files that aren’t locked up like that.) If you ever want to share the music, Creative offers a version with a built-in speaker – something you’ll rarely see in other MP3 players.

Alternatively, check out the Sansa Clip from Sandisk, the folks who’ve carved out a distant #2 spot to Apple in the MP3 player marketplace. The Clip also offers the screen that Apple cut out of their Shuffle, as well as an FM radio, and a design that’s perfect for the gym. Last, but definitely not least, for a device that comes in under $50, the Clip sounds really, really good.  

Mid-range iPod alternatives

If you’re not buying an iPod nano, you’ve got plenty of alternatives to choose from. With its intriguing tile-based design, the Creative Zen Mozaic looks like no other MP3 player we’ve seen (and you can show it off in black, gray, or pink – your choice). The Zen Mozaic sounds great, offers solid video support, and with built-in recording capabilities, can double as an on-the-go notetaker, too.

We like Microsoft’s latest flash-based Zunes, which – like many Microsoft products – started slow and then improved rapidly. Now available in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB versions, the Zunes have the best integrated podcast support you can find outside iPod/iTunes. Even better, they offer super-convenient wireless syncing through your home Wi-Fi network. Plus, to encourage you to buy lots of media stuff, it’ll connect to Zune marketplace through many public Wi-Fi hotspots – notably, the ones that can be found in thousands of McDonalds’ hamburger joints nowadays.

Finally, there’s Sandisk’s Sansa Fuze, which starts with the feature that has consistently helped Sandisk cement its place in the marketplace: a surprisingly low price. Sandisk’s core business is memory cards, which may explain why the Fuze (like many of Sandisk’s players) has a slot for memory expansion. That’s handy if you take advantage of Sandisk’s support for MP4 video, or for FLAC audio – which generates large files that sound significantly better than conventional MP3s. Oh, and if you happen to subscribe to the Rhapsody music service (more on that later), the Fuze supports Rhapsody Channels, which – with some limitations – are a bit like having your own private Sirius-like Internet radio system.

High-end iPod alternatives

Want to take your entire media collection with you? Then you want a player with a built-in hard drive. Apple will be happy to sell you its iPod Classic, of course. If you’re turning your affections elsewhere, you have fewer choices than you once did, but the choices you have are solid. There’s Microsoft’s new Zune 120, with a whopping 120 GB hard drive and the same powerful Wi-Fi music discovery capabilities we mentioned earlier. (Much of the Zune’s power lies in its tight linkages to the Zune marketplace, which we’ll discuss when we turn to online music stores in a moment). Alternatively, you might consider the somewhat-pricey-but-very-powerful Archos 5, which is positioned as an Internet media tablet, and offers exceptional video support – not to mention a complete built-in web browser and Wi-Fi connectivity).

Where to get your music

One thing that made the iPod so successful: its smooth, seamless connection to the iTunes music store, which offers a massive collection of purchasable music, TV, and movies – as well as movie rentals and easy access to zillions of free podcasts. But iTunes isn’t the only music store: not by a long shot. Here are some of our favorite alternatives...

If you’ve ever shopped Amazon.com, you’ll like Amazon’s fully integrated online music store, which offers millions of songs in unprotected MP3 format (once you’ve paid for them, you can move them anywhere, even to your iPod. You can even burn them to recordable CDs, if that’s your pleasure.) The Amazon MP3 store uses Amazon’s handy 1-Click ordering feature, which makes buying music almost too easy. One very nice touch for audiophiles: Amazon’s music is encoded at 256 kbps: that’s higher quality than many competitive MP3 sites.

Buying a Zune? Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace works superbly well with it (though you can buy individual MP3s from Microsoft that will play on any device you like). Microsoft’s new Zune Pass subscription allows you to download all the music you can “eat,” for $14.99 a month. That music stays available to you as long as you keep your subscription up, but disappears if you stop paying. However, the Zune Pass now gives you free MP3 tracks per month: music that remains yours forever, no matter what. Like iTunes, Zune Marketplace also offers nicely-designed access to free podcasts. And its “Mixview” feature helps you build podcasts and find new music that fits your taste – sort of like iTunes’ much-ballyhooed new Genius tool.   

Like Zune Marketplace, Rhapsody offers both subscription models and individual song downloads. “Rhapsody To Go” subscriptions cost $14.99/month, and – as with Zune – you get access to all of the site’s copious music for as long as you stay subscribed. To take your “subscription” music with you, you need a Rhapsody-compatible player. (Fortunately, plenty exist – notably the Sansa Disk and Fuze, Best Buy’s Insignia Sport, Philips’ GoGear, and Sony’s Walkman NWZ-A816.) Our favorite Rhapsody feature: Rhapsody Channels. Pick your favorite style of music, and Rhapsody will send you three hours of it – almost like having an XM or Sirius subscription, and completely commercial-free.    

Finally, if your musical tastes take you off the beaten track, nobody beats eMusic. This service specializes in music from independent labels, and it’s especially strong in genres like jazz and folk that tend to get short-shrift from the big guys. You pay a monthly subscription, but – unlike Zune and Rhapsody – that buys you a specific number of downloads which you’ll own forever, without restriction. The site has a personality, the reviews are smart, and if you use all the downloads you’re entitled to, you’re paying just 25-40 cents per song – compared with the typical 99-cent price you’ll find elsewhere.

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.

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