Jun 22, 2007 (08:06 PM EDT)
Review: 8 iPod Alternatives
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
I'll go out on a limb here and say that you have heard of the iPod. I think I’ll go a bit further and say that you have seen and used an iPod. But have you ever heard of the Archos 604 Wi-Fi? What about the iRiver S10?
Both these fine players do what the iPod does and then some. But chances are you have never heard of them because Apple controls such a significant share of the digital player market. Go to the park and look around at the people who are listening to music. The vast majority of those people will have white ear buds hanging from their ears while their thumb gently glides over a scroll wheel in search of the next song. Coincidence? I think not.
The digital music player market is flooded with alternative players that companies promise will be the next big thing. Many of these players are downright awful. But amidst the bad, the good shine through. And believe it or not, some of these players are actually better than the iPods that they are competing against.
I put some hands-on time with eight iPod alternatives to see how they measure up against Apple's market leaders in design, usability, and price. While you can't absolutely compare all the media players against similar iPods because of the difference in features and price, I've done my best to pit each player against the iPod model it is most likely to be compared against.
In most cases, despite some extra features, the competitors don't quite make it to the finish line -- but I did find a few surprises.
The iPod Shuffle is aimed at the more active and cost-conscious consumer. With a small design that allows you to clip it onto your clothing, the Shuffle is a nice player to bring along on a jog. But without a screen, the Shuffle is sometimes unwieldy and, for anyone who wants to skip to a certain song, may not be the best choice.
Besides its size, iRiver’s decision to place an OLED display on the face of the player is a welcome addition. The screen is bright and maneuvering through the menu is simple. Similar to the iRiver Clix, the S10’s faceplate is clickable and moves up, down, left and right. These movements not only control the menu, but it makes navigating the S10’s menu easy.
If you’re not in the mood for your songs, the S10 also offers an FM tuner. And if you really like the station, the player also supports presets so you won’t have to scan your way through the FM band again. However, small often means reception problems -- if you decide to put it in your pocket, the crackling of the radio will become an annoyance in no time.
Although the S10 is the best iPod Shuffle alternative, it doesn’t quite compare to its main competitor. The S10 will play Ogg, WMA, MP3 and ASF files, but does not support DRM-protected music, so if you want to dump some songs you purchased off of a music store onto the player, you will need to burn them to a disc, and rip them back onto your computer in MP3. Additionally, the S10 does not offer the same seamless experience as the iPod, and I sometimes found it frustrating to sync the player through its headphone jack (there is no USB connectivity). Even worse, if you are a Mac owner, you might as well move along -- the S10 does not support Mac OS X.
All in all, the iRiver S10 is a fine player that offers better sound quality than the iPod Shuffle, but still can’t match the end-to-end functionality of its main competitor. And for what the player offers, nothing can justify the steep price: $170 for 2GB.
The design of the Opal is simply awful. With awkward blue marks on the front and sideways navigation buttons, I couldn’t help but wonder what RCA was thinking when they released this player. Not only is it difficult to get your thumb in the right place when you want to click the bottom and top of the navigation circle, the buttons are small and lack any significant tactile response.
Even worse, the middle button -- which controls the menu and song selection -- is too small for the average hand, and trying to click it will sometimes cause you to click on the outside circle.
Sound quality was average at best. Bass levels were where they should be, but more complex songs (like a classical piece) sounded tinny and hollow.
The Opal also includes digital voice and line-in recording, which is a nice addition to a 2GB player that, at $70, is priced less than most.
A bump up in design and capacity over the Shuffle, the iPod Nano is designed for the person who doesn’t care about video, and wants a nice screen but a slender design. With capacities of 2 GB to 8GB and prices ranging from $149 to $249, the following players have one tough competitor.
Creative Zen V Plus
Although the company was probably going for the clean look, it would have been nice to see more buttons on the face instead of the sides, as this set-up made it far more difficult to navigate the player than it should have been.
This difficulty was increased by the poor design of the navigation joystick. Although it is obviously meant to add character and uniqueness to the design, I found it frustrating until I finally got the hang of using it (a few hours later). Even when I finally got it down, there were still times when I couldn't find my way through the menu; pushing in the joystick sometimes made me pick the wrong song. However, that said, with some modifications, the joystick could really become the menu navigator of choice.
The Creative Zen V plus offered superior sound quality. My songs played exceptionally well, and some parts that were more difficult to hear on other players were crystal clear.
The Zen V Plus is a nice player that offers a bundle of features, but it doesn't quite top its Apple competitor.
Much like the S10, the Clix uses the same intuitive interface and features a clickable face that, once I got used to it, actually became my preferred way of working through the menu. Sound from the FM radio is superb and the included voice recorder turned out to be quite handy when I had to remember quick thoughts. And besides its support of Ogg files as well as subscription content (I suggest Urge for this player -- it is optimized to work with the Clix device), the player boasts SRS WoW technology, an EQ setting that significantly enhances audio fidelity (you can also use your own customized EQ setting). In short, the Clix sounds great.
The Active-Matrix LED screen was crystal clear, and did justice to both album art and MPEG-4 video. I found few imperfections during video playback, and once I got past the small screen, it was actually enjoyable to watch home movies (converted into MPEG-4). Getting video onto the device was the only issue I had -- as of this writing, there were no directions in the manual that described exactly how to do it. However, the iRiver site offers a useful tool called iRiviter that converts the files and helps get the video onto the player.
The device gives you the option of changing the background to one of the seven pre-set color schemes that will either stay the same each day, or cycle through the days of the week. You can also load some JPEG images onto the device and use those as the background.
Priced comparably to the iPod, the iRiver Clix is a must-see for anyone who wants the best functionality and quality at a price that won’t empty the wallet. Simply put, the iRiver Clix is one of the best music players I have ever used.
Sandisk Sansa Connect
The Sansa Connect only works with a DHCP router, which means a static IP setup will not work with the player. Unfortunately, Sandisk did not include a menu option to input a specific IP address -- in order to get it to work, you need to set your router up to accept dynamic IP addresses or (if it doesn't have that option) go buy yourself a new router.
And as this was being written, Sandisk was working on a solution to fix a pretty significant issue: the player currently cannot get past the "Terms and Conditions" page you find on a number of hotel and public hotspots.
But wireless is not the only feature the Sansa Connect offers. The menu system is great and easily navigable, and its compatibility with Yahoo! Music makes adding media to the device a cinch. The player even includes an external speaker and access to free Internet radio via its wireless connection. Simply navigate your way over to the Internet radio menu option, input your Yahoo! ID and username, and within seconds you have access to all of LaunchCast’s Internet radio stations for free.
Although the wireless functionality is a bit of a disappointment, the Sansa Connect boasts a great menu and impressive sound -- in other words, it's a fine alternative to any iPod. Let’s just hope the issues mentioned above will be corrected in the next generation.
Sandisk Sansa e280
The e280’s sound quality is simply superb. Even with the included low-quality earbuds (that became a bit uncomfortable after prolonged use), the e280 performed above my expectations, and competed admirably with the Clix. The tactile navigation wheel made it easy to maneuver through the menu system, and the blue light that illuminates the wheel is a nice touch. However, with such a big wheel, the buttons surrounding it seemed too small and were difficult to press. I sometimes found myself having to hit the play button several times to get a song to start.
The Sansa e280 offers a number of features that help differentiate it from the iPod. Not only does the player boast admirable video playback, the e280’s sound quality is top-notch. The menu system is much friendlier than the iPod menu for the novice user, and the inclusion of a lighted scroll wheel is a must-have feature the iPod is lacking.
Unfortunately, issues with the buttons and the inability to use the player's microSD slot for video or photos means this player can't quite rise above the best in its category.
The iPod with video is simply a powerhouse in the digital music player market. With a nice screen and iTunes to back it up, the iPod with Video has become the leader in the high-end player market. With that said, my findings for the Archos 604 WiFi and the Microsoft Zune may surprise you.
Archos 604 WiFi
The Archos 604 WiFi offers music and video playback, as well as photo viewing, Web browsing and television recording (with the recorder sold separately). Simply put, this player does it all. Unlike the iPod, the 604 delivers a touch screen that makes jumping around the interface much easier than using the buttons to the side of the screen. The 4.3-inch TFT widescreen display is simply gorgeous, and watching video for an extended amount of time is actually enjoyable. Although the sound of the built-in speaker was (expectedly) rather poor, it is a nice addition, and the option to view photos while simultaneously listening to music became one of my favorite features.
Recording audio and video could not have been easier. An optional ($99) recording kit lets you view video and record onto the 604 just by placing it into the recording kit’s dock. Even better, the recording kit comes with an AC adapter so it charges the player while it records.
The biggest issue I have with the 604 is its price tag. Even with the updated 704 hitting stores, the 604 is still retailing at most major outlets for $450. Given its functionality and its paltry 30GB hard drive, I would be hard-pressed to spend that kind of money for this player. With that said, the 604 offers much more than any other player on the market.
The inclusion of the Zune Marketplace (Microsoft's answer to iTunes) was the first thing that caught my eye. Much like the iPod and iTunes, Microsoft has created an end-to-end experience with the Zune where you open the box, install the software, and start adding media to the device. It is as simple as that.
The Zune sounds great, and the included earbuds are actually much better than you might expect. Even better, the 3-inch, 320 x 240 screen makes viewing videos a better experience than you will find on the iPod.
My one major gripe with the Zune is its scroll wheel -- or lack thereof. If you are an avid iPod user, or if you have ever used one before, you will immediately try to scroll your way through the Zune’s menu system. Unfortunately, the black navigation circle does not scroll, and can only click up, down, left or right.
The Microsoft Zune, although not the "iPod Killer" so many were hoping, is still a nice player, and a great first run-through for Microsoft.