iPod Alternatives

I have a great deal of respect for Apple's iPod juggernaut. They've almost single-handedly legitimized the market for downloadable music. The kind you pay for. The kind that, at least in theory, supports the artists who produce the music instead of ripping them off.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2006/11/ipod-alternatives.html

“1. The iPod is boring. How can I properly rage against the machine with the same standard, factory issue music players that everyone else has?”

Well, you do have your choice of colors: white or black for the regular iPod; silver, black, blue, green, pink, or red for the iPod nano. Only the iPod shuffle still comes in only one color, but it’s so inconspicuous (a tie-clip that plays music is my description of it) that colors would only be distracting.

“2. … Apple’s insistence on purchase-only models is a huge mistake.”

Not so much. The iPod drives the iTunes store, and the iTunes store drives the iPod. It’s a closed model for a reason, and it works. Remember that Apple is a company that exists to make a profit; they are doing very well at this with their current system. :slight_smile:

“The iPod lacks features. I’ll never understand why the iPod chooses to deliberately ignore FM radio and its rich history in the music industry.”

You can buy the FM radio attachment. (http://store.apple.com/1-800-MY-APPLE/WebObjects/AppleStore?productLearnMore=MA070G/A)

“… And the list goes on: there’s no voice recording,”

Yes there is. (Belkin attachment that Apple itself promoted heavily when it came out.)

“no EQ settings,

Yes there are. (No customization, but there are a lot of presets.)

“no gapless playback, …”

Yes there is. (New with iTunes 7.)

“5. …You can’t even use it as an external hard drive without setting up a seperate, special partition on the device first.”

Yes you can. (On my Mac, anyway. Windows I don’t know about.)

If Apple let you play WMA, how could they stop you buying online music from somewhere other than iTunes?

“You can’t even use it as an external hard drive without setting up a seperate, special partition on the device first.”

Um, you can. It’s not a seperate partition, but it DOES hide the files (MP3’s and metadata, that is). Oh, and I’m talk NANO, not “full” ipod.

Of course, SERIOUSLY, how hard is it to find “hidden” (attribute) windows file? Come on… all the meta info is XML…

There is other IPOD software out there, BTW. You dont HAVE to use itunes.

All the devices I’ve had which do cable+drag+drop+rockon! have had SUCH bad UI’s, as to be unusable.

So, each to their own. I love my nano, and woudl get another one if it broke, but I woudl consider a Zen, I think. That said, it’s working just fine :slight_smile:

for other iPod software: yamipod is pretty good. And you can keep it installed on your iPod, so you can hook it up to any computer.

What I want now is a player with wifi / last.fm support.

I supposed that just means what I want is XM.

Oh yeah, I’ve been able to use my ipod as an external hard drive on Windows boxes that don’t have iTunes installed. (Although I’m pretty sure I wasn’t able to do that when I first got it three years ago)

On the Creative Zen:M, don’t bother getting it. I just got threw with my second one, and both of them bricked with that Black screen of death. Other than that, it was great.

You’ve summed up all my opinions of the ipod. But the real deal breaker was the the itunes download for me.I got a MicroPhoto from creative and it just works…I’m really glad I got it…a lot more features.

I always figured the iTunes software was part of the iPod’s success, not an obstacle. Dragging dropping files to try to keep the device synced is not fun, especially when you start having smart playlists, podcasts and other dynamic sort of things.

The iTunes lock-in and the inability to play audio in other standard formats are the biggest reasons I have avoided the iPod.

I do understand your concern with the Cowon iAudio X5. I’ve been using an X5 for several months and I love it, but it does have its own disadvantages: it takes a while to get used to the stick control; getting out of FM radio and audio recording mode isn’t dead obvious; the FM receiver isn’t good with weak signals, although I suppose this is expected with no external antenna; it disconnects from the USB bus when Windows XP goes to sleep and requires undocking/redocking to get it to connect again.

I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, though. My X5 has been rock-solid reliable since I purchased it several months ago, even with extended play time on a daily basis. As you so gracefully allude, the greatest feature of the X5 is that is is a plug-and-play USB drive so no special synchronization software is required. I use SyncToy to keep my X5 synchronized with audio, documents, and miscellaneous other files. I usually keep my X5 docked and use Media Player to play the music from the drive. I have used it extensively in airports and planes with Sennheiser HD280 headphones.

FM radio and microphone are built in, so no special hardware is needed to record conferences. One feature that surprised me is that it uses Media Player play lists. I discovered this by accident when I accidentally copied a play list to the drive, then noticed I had a new play list in the menu.

one word. zune.

“The iPod lacks features”

Check out Rockbox (http://www.rockbox.org/)
and IpodLinux (http://www.ipodlinux.org)
to really take advantage of iPod’s capabilities. These are 2 really cool open source firmware’s, which can be installed along side the Mac firmware. Neither worked very well on my older iPod, a 3G, but it looks like the newer ones are fairing better, as well as more support/features.

It’s all about the software ;).

To make an iPod an usable MP3 player you need the Rockbox firmware (www.rockbox.org).

Rockbox is an open source replacement firmware for mp3 players. It runs on a number of different models:

* Apple: iPod 4th gen (grayscale and color), 5th gen (Video), 1st gen Nano and Mini 1st/2nd gen (Nano 2nd gen and Video 5.5th gen are not supported)
* iAudio: X5 (including X5V and X5L) 
* Archos: Jukebox 5000, 6000, Studio, Recorder, FM Recorder, Recorder V2 and Ondio
* iriver: H100, H300 and H10 series

Some of the many many features :

  • Just copy files and go
  • Support for over 10 Sound Codecs, including OGG and FLAC
  • 5-band fully-parametric equalizer, and crossfeed
  • JPEG image and text-file viewing
  • Doom!
  • Make playlists without a computer
  • Bookmarks

I’ve been using it on my Archos Recorder for more than 2 years !

Oh and btw, Archos makes some great audio/video players : www.archos.com

It’s a closed model for a reason

Fine. I have no problem with closed. Why can’t it be a closed SUBSCRIPTION model, too? (insert sound of crickets chirping here)

You can buy the FM radio attachment

This is hardly the point. Basic features like FM radio should be INCLUDED and not aftermarket third-party add-ons.

one word. zune.

Zune can’t be used as a MTP device; it’s software lock-in, just like the iPod. And I’m bitter enough about the shoulda-been-cool-but-instead-is-completely useless WiFi support to not want it at all. I do like the form factor and UI though.

That alternative www.rockbox.org firmware looks great, but unfortunately no support for WMA. :frowning:

Hmm, looks like I spoke too soon. The Zune can be used as a MTP device according to this fantastic 3-way hard-drive audio player comparison between the iPod, Zune, and Zen:Vision M.


I don’t really understand your desire to drag and drop files. I’d rather:

Plug in the USB cable
Disconnect the USB cable and rock

Call me lazy but I don’t want to have to manage my music library.

On your other complaints about the iPod/iTunes (1,2,3,4), you make a convincing case. I think with your requirements in the last paragraph, you’ve rightly assessed that the iPod and iTunes is not for you.

But point 5 (“requires custom software”) lacks your usual clarity. Don’t you want to manage your music at a higher level of abstraction than files and folders? Even you agree, as shown in “Trees, TreeViews, and UI” ( http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000246.html ):
"I’ve aggressively adopted the label approach, because it’s so much more reflective of the fluid way things are organized in the real world. Programmers may love rigidity-- to each item its appropriate folder and meticulously named class hierarchy-- but users prefer simple, flat lists. "

Could it be perhaps we are still stuck with the filesystem concept? I beleive you were talking about the length of an absolute path file name on Windows last week (excellent article, BTW).

This is what the iTunes application does. It provides more functionality that the filesystem. It has static (ID3 tags) and dynamic (your rating, play time, play count, playlist, playlist membership, etc) attributes. It can display arbitrary selections using those attributes into simple lists (Smart Playlists). It can automatically sync music and video based on those attributes. You can data-mine your own usage because the iPod records usage data.

With that I don’t see how iTunes can be compared to your 3 step drag and drop. Like James Randall said:

  1. Plug in the USB cable
  2. Disconnect the USB cable and rock
  3. (There is no step 3, even on a Windows!)

Then again it seems like you don’t require that type of usage.

With that said, iTunes is like the running back that stopped on the 50 yard line. So many programmatic things left untouched (no programmatic way to create SmartPlaylists, SmartPlaylists query language is 70% good enough, etc), so many implemenation flaws (auto-syncing only occurs on insertion and does not auto-sync new music added while iPod is connected, heavy CPU load, etc), and strategic design decisions like no WMA/OGG, iTunes store.

Oh and please correct the external hard drive comment. You obviously need to update your info on that.

I have to say that I totally agree with your article Jeff, you’re spot on. I’m a bit of a gadget freak (as much as my finances allow) and when I came to get an mp3 player, I quickly realised an ipod wasn’t the way forward.

I’ve now got a 512MB Packard Bell AudioKey player, its a USB flash disk with a few buttons, a little screen, and a headphone socket. It wasn’t expensive, and the multicoloured changing backlight is just a nice touch and not the reason I bought the thing in the first place … honest :slight_smile:

I mostly listen to podcasts, or mp3s of CDs that I own, and I change the contents of the player often (as its a small capacity). Since it gets docked to both windows and linux boxes, the very simple interface and ability to file manage is perfect for me.

Their top pick was the Creative Zen Vision:M. I

Too bad Creative are such weasels. My Nano failed irreparably w/in 6 months, boo-hoo. And Creative is in my experience the most weasely about rebates of any otherwise legitimate company. (“Sorry, you didn’t include the UPC, do you happen to still have it 12 weeks later?” Pure BS.)

Apparently I’m in the minority in favor of an FM radio. Aside from being a radio junkie, it’s also useful at the gym for tuning in TV.

And! I like USB drag-and-drop. Oh, well …