April 12, 2007


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The new iPod substitutes
Yes, it's time for more Apple bashing
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

The first edition of this column was all about all the non-Apple portable music players out there.

That was almost two years ago, so I figured it was time for an update.

Problem is, everybody and their brother makes wannabe iPods. The list of just name brands is staggering, and once you get down to the second-, third- and fourth-tier players, you get a pile that collapses under its own weight. So let's focus a bit and look at a growing segment of the market: high-capacity flash-based players.

For a while now, Apple has been selling the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle on the theory that you should have a smaller, more portable player for taking to the gym or jogging or whatever. The flash memory is less likely to skip or be damaged by jostling than the full-size iPod's spinning hard disk drive.

Problem is, competing flash players have joined the Nano in reaching the 8GB mark. With that much capacity, they can hold 2,000 songs, or, say, 200 albums. A lot of music libraries will fit on that, and with desktop and laptop hard drives holding hundreds of gigabytes, the large portable hard drive is becoming less and less relevant. These players can be someone's primary library all by themselves.

That doesn't mean Apple is in trouble. It still dominates the portable music player market, because nothing can beat the iPod cachet or the ease of use of iTunes with the device. What competitors have over Apple is features. The iPod Nano now has an 8GB version and plays videos as well as music, but so do the players listed below. In addition, they all feature FM radio reception and voice recording through built-in microphones. They can also be used to store data files.

* Creative Zen V Plus (MSRP: $199.99)

Cool feature: Line-in recording for higher quality microphones or audio equipment.

Deal killer: You must use Windows Media Player and XP or Vista to transfer audio and video for use on the player, even though you can drag and drop any file onto a partition that's just for storage.

* Sandisk Sansa e280 (MSRP: $199.99)

Cool feature: Expandable by up to 2GB via a microSD slot.

Deal killer: Unlike the other alternatives here (but like the iPod), the e200 series uses a proprietary connector. If you lose or damage it, it's off to Overpriced Accessories Land rather than your choice of generic stores for a cheap replacement cable.

* Dane-Elec Meizu (MSRP: around $150 to $200)

Cool feature: Big screen for such a small player.

Deal killer: Ever heard of Dane-Elec? Does the fact that this player is an American rebadging of a foreign brand that's also making a spitting image of Apple's iPhone make you feel any better?

* Unbranded Chinese iPod Nano knockoffs (MSRP: under $100)

Cool feature: Too-good-to-be-true cheapness.

Deal killer: Mostly available on eBay, the vast majority of these things don't actually hold 8GB of anything. They've been hacked to show a higher capacity than they actually possess, usually by a factor of four, and it's questionable that there are any genuine 8GB models. That makes them not such a great deal after all.

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