As music listeners gradually make the transition in their collections from CD- and tape-based music to digital files, a huge new market is developing. That is, everyone who can is doing their best to get into the portable mp3 player market. Easily the most popular device, Apple’s iPod
revolutionized the industry by integrating its product with their own iTunes software and iTunes store. Coupled with snappy marketing and those hard-to-miss white earbud cables, the iPod came out early and grabbed a large part of the market share. But other manufacturers have more recently joined the game. Creative Labs offers some formidable competition for the standard 30GB iPod with its NOMAD Jukebox Zen Xtra 40GB mp3 player. And Toshiba’s Gigabeat MEG-F40S 40 GB rounds out the most popular of the high-capacity digital audio players. How they stack up – and how they price – can help you make the right decision if you’ve been waiting to make that leap to digital and go portable with your mp3 player collection.
The iPod, of course, remains the standard against which all the others must be compared, due mainly to its pervasiveness in pop culture. Available directly from Apple or from online retailers for about $300, it packages 30GB of hard drive space along with the ability to show pictures and play back videos. Its design is sleek, the access it comes with to music is unbeatable – iTunes now boasts ten million customers, making it one of the largest Internet retail sites in the world – and the integration between hardware and software is seamless. The recent upgrade to video-playback ability is the most recent in a string of upgrades that Apple has put at the fore of its marketing plan for the iPod. So far, the plan has worked, since other manufacturers still lag behind in the video delivery market. As far as functionality, the iPod has a superior battery life of up to 20 hours, in optimal conditions, and its 30GB hard drive translates into roughly 10,000 songs, if you assume a standard song comes in at around 3 minutes or a little over 3MB for a 128kb/s conversion. Though there were previous concerns about the long-term durability of iPod hard drives, it seems Apple has smoothed out the problem and pushed its product back to the top of the list as far as reliability is concerned.
What the iPod lacks, however, due to its particular type of branding and marketing, is affordability. Available now from Amazon.com for around $220, the Creative NOMAD Jukebox Zen Xtra 40GB mp3 player (yes, it’s a moutful), offers the dual benefits of possessing a 33% larger hard drive and costing the consumer about $80 less. The question, of course, will be how the Zen Xtra stacks up by way of performance against the Apple device. By linking up with a couple of Creative’s own software products, the Zen Xtra strives to have the same kind of media integration as the iPod. Using either the Creative MediaSource or the NOMAD explorer, and by connecting to your computer via a fast USB 2.0/1.1 port, this process is pretty easy. MediaSource is a media browser based pretty much on the iTunes layout, with many of the same functions, and NOMAD Explorer, which is integrated into the Microsoft web browser of the same name, provides drag-and-drop functionality for digital files at your disposal. Creative doesn’t have its own digital music retailer like Apple, which is a drawback; those who download music through iTunes can’t drag their music directly to the device. But a large, bright LCD screen makes the Zen Xtra easy to read, and the control buttons are pretty usable as well. The search-and-play functions are icon-driven as well, for the visual-oriented who prefer pictures to the text-predominant system of the iPod. And the Zen Xtra can also function as an external hard drive for storage of pictures and multimedia files, a nice feature, though the screen doesn’t allow for video or picture playback like the iPod. Overall, if you’re not as concerned with these multimedia elements, it’s a pretty good bargain considering you pay about $5.50 per gigabyte with the Zen Xtra as opposed to $10 per gigabyte with the iPod.
The Toshiba Gigabeat MEG-F40S 40GB Digital Audio Player comes closer to the iPod in both functionality and price, though at a slight discount. Retailing at around $280, you still have the additional hard drive space that you get with the Zen Xtra, the Gigabeat allows you, like the iPod, to download and view album art at a resolution of up to 240 x 320 at 65,000 colors on its bright 2.2-inch LCD screen. In addition, the software linkup that comes with the Gigabeat is functional with Windows Media Plays For Sure, which links you up to a bunch of music downloading sites, and Napster To Go, which gives you access to thousands of songs in the Napster database for the standard Napster monthly fee of $9.95. This comes closer to Apple’s total integration, though it does require an extra step or two between buying music online and having it directly on your portable player. The 16 hour batter is pretty powerful, and it can be recharged via USB, which means you won’t have to remove it and charge it like with the Zen Xtra. Interesting customizability comes with the Gigabeat MEG-F40S, as 28 preset equalizer options and the SRS WOW surround-sound simulation technology give you a little more leeway with how you listen to your music. For nearly the same price as the iPod, though, the main reason – aside from the display and picture options – you would want to go with the Gigabeat is the added hard drive space. If you’re the kind to take your entire music collection with you on the go, and if you have a large music collection, the 33% boost over the iPod is a huge step up, as it can allow you take as many as a couple hundred more albums with you.
It’s easy to think that the mp3 player market is small; the Apple marketing brains have done a good job of convincing the public that theirs is the only player anyone would or should want to listen to. While they do provide a player about as perfect as possible in functionality and design, it’s important to remember there are other options, and for a little less money as well. If you’re looking for your first high-capacity, hard drive-based portable mp3 player, consider these other two, as well as the iPod, when you go out to do your shopping.