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iPods and Other Music Players

Your kids think of CDs the way you think of 8-tracks: in other words, the way your parents think of those old rock-hard 78s. Ancient history. Music isn't about objects anymore: it's about digital files you can take anywhere - all because of Apple's iPod and the many other digital music players that have sprung up to compete with it. But what is all this technology, anyhow?

It all started with "MP3": a data format that aims to shrink the size of digital music files by removing stuff humans can't hear. MP3 isn't perfect: audiophiles shriek about how much gets lost in MP3 files, and the smaller the MP3 file, the less perfect it is. But for most folks, it's good enough - and it makes your music totally portable. While other, technically compressed music formats are now available (like Apple's AAC and Microsoft's WMA), MP3 was so widely and freely available that it helped launch the digital music revolution - and it's still the #1 format, by far.

With free software like Apple iTunes or Windows Media Player, you can convert your existing CDs to the MP3 format. (iTunes will also convert to AAC, and Windows Media Player will also convert to WMA). Once you've converted your files, you can pack your CDs away forever. And you can start buying your new music, one song at a time, in the form of digital files - no clutter!

You can play your digital music files on any modern computer. But you can also play them on miniature devices built just for the purpose: digital music players, such as the iPod. (Sometimes, devices like these are called "digital media players," because many of them also play video and display photos.)

Believe it or not, digital music players have been around for a full decade. No, you're not getting old. And no, Apple did not invent them. You could buy an MP3 player three years before Apple introduced its first iPod. But, yes, Apple's iPod did make these players a household word -- and yes, Apple's iPod remains the #1 brand, by far.

Thinking of buying a player? You've got two big decisions to make. Let's help...

Flash vs. hard drive?

The smallest players have no moving parts: your music (or whatever else) is stored on "flash" memory chips. These players usually have smaller capacities: 2GB, 4GB, 8GB. That's still a lot of music, though: figure roughly a couple hundred songs per GB. But it might not be enough room for your entire collection. One great thing about "no moving parts:" these players are great to use while you're exercising.

The alternative: a player that contains a tiny hard drive, much like the one in your computer. These players can hold far more of your stuff. That's especially handy if you want to watch large video files, or store your MP3s at very high "bit rates." (Translated into English: that means you want to compress your music less, so it'll sound better.) But these miniature hard drives aren't just more expensive: they can be fragile, and do not like to be bounced around.

iPod vs. anything else?

You can buy an Apple iPod. Or you can buy something else. If you buy an iPod, you'll get a splendidly designed device - and you'll pay for it. (iPods are not cheap, and they are hardly ever discounted by more than a few bucks.) iPods are elegant and easy to use, and work perfectly with Apple's iTunes music store (where you can buy millions of tunes, most for 99 cents apiece).

But your iTunes purchases won't be MP3s. They'll be in Apple's AAC format, which won't play on anyone else's MP3 player. The more music you buy from Apple, the more likely you'll keep buying iPods to play them on - forever.

There's a complete line of iPods to choose from - from the $49 1GB flash-based iPod Shuffle (which doesn't even have a screen)... to the larger-capacity iPod nano, which now does video... to the iPod classic, whose hard drives now range all the way up to 160 GB (room for a lot of music).

Or you can buy a player from someone else. Dozens of companies make them. Among the leaders are Sandisk, Creative, Samsung, and Microsoft: if you look hard enough, you can find players from Sony, Toshiba, and Philips, too. These players won't work with iTunes. But they will work with many other music stores - and if you're running Windows, you can copy files to them with Windows Media Player, which is built into your computer.

It's not just music

Millions of people use their MP3 players to listen to audiobooks and other spoken word content. And - we talk more about this on our Internet Educational Tools page - you can also download thousands of free audio "podcasts." Podcasts are like radio programs, except they're delivered over the Internet as digital files: you download them, copy them to any MP3 player (not just the iPod), and play them whenever you want.

There's an incredible amount of great stuff delivered via free podcast these days - from Garrison Keillor's "News from Lake Wobegon" stories to complete sets of lectures from some of the nation's best university courses.

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