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New Competitors Can't Measure Up to iPod Standards

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The iPod shouldn't dominate the digital-media-player market.

That's not a value judgment, just a statement about economics.

For all the success of Apple's iTunes Store, most digital music still consists of MP3 files, which anybody can build a device to play. And anytime one company must compete with the collective talent of everybody else in the world, it should be lucky to grab one-third of the market.

Instead, Apple owns more than 70 percent of it and has wiped the likes of Sony and Dell off the map.

Last month, Apple renewed its drive for the rest of the market by revising its lineup of iPods. Its new models don't mark a major shift in the iPod formula, but still worked far better than two other players put through the same tests.

As before, all of Apple's models-- the $79 iPod Shuffle; the iPod Nano, from $149 to $249; the full-size iPod, $249 and $349-- can play iTunes Store music purchases, AAC and MP3 files, audio books and podcasts. The Nano and full-size models also display photos, calendars, addresses and text notes. In addition, the full-size iPod plays TV downloads, movies and games.

The iPod Shuffle, shipping later this month, is much smaller. But on the other iPods, the size and basic design have barely changed: a sharp, color display below the clever ClickWheel control, which puts every possible function a flick of your thumb away.

The new Nano, just 1.75 ounces with its headphones, is the easiest to spot in this bunch, encased in colorful anodized aluminum instead of scratch-prone plastic. The $149, two-gigabyte model is silver; the $199, four-GB version can be had in silver, blue, green or pink; and the $249, eight-GB variant comes only in black.

Inside that sturdy exterior, the battery life has been boosted to an advertised 24 hours -- though the four-GB Nano I tried lasted almost 26 hours. (Its battery, like those of all iPods, is sealed inside its case; Apple charges $59 to replace it. ) The Nano also now lets you search for a song by spelling letters out with the ClickWheel.

The full-size, don't-call-it-video iPod looks no different from before but adds the Nano's search option and longer battery life. An 80-GB model lasted for 22 hours of music and seven hours of video.

This updated model can also double as a handheld game player, at least for the small set of $4.99 titles sold on iTunes.

The program included with these new models, however, needs work. ITunes 7 (Win 2000 and XP and Mac OS X 10.3 or newer) can transfer iTunes purchases from an iPod to another computer signed into your iTunes account, eases updating an iPod's software and finally brings "gapless playback" to iPods, removing pauses between classical, opera and other tracks meant to be heard uninterrupted.

It also fetches album-cover images automatically (with moderate success), then lets you view your collection by that art-- just like Microsoft's upcoming Windows Media Player 11.

But its slick new "CoverFlow" album-cover view bogs down older computers. Many users have reported more serious problems, including crashes and difficulties playing iTunes purchases.

That kind of unreliability is more commonly associated with non-iPod players, as SanDisk's Sansa e280 (eight gigabytes, $250) and Toshiba's Gigabeat S60 (60 gigabytes, $399) illustrated over a week of tests.

The Sansa -- also available in two-GB, four-GB and six-GB sizes for $140, $180 and $220-- looks like an overinflated Nano. The Gigabeat (a 30-GB model goes for $299) resembles the regular iPod and offers a comparable range of music, photo and video support.

The iPod is allegedly a luxury item, but the prices of the others, at best, barely undercut Apple's. And the SanDisk and Toshiba players don't approach the iPod's simplicity.

Consider the basic task of copying your music to the device. With an iPod, you plug it into the computer, the iPod starts up, iTunes sees it and offers to synchronize your song files. You plug one of these into the PC, press its power button, wait for Windows to pop up a dialog asking you to pick a music program, then hope that Microsoft's XP-only Windows Media Player 10 recognizes the new hardware -- something it often failed to do with the Sansa.

Neither of the two gadgets comes with any podcast support, and putting pictures or video on the Sansa requires a second program.

The controls of each player were more cumbersome yet. The Sansa's array of buttons looks like a ClickWheel but is less elegant and feels flimsier. On the Gigabeat, adjusting volume, pausing playback or skipping to the next or previous song requires pressing tiny buttons on its side, not the big four-way control on its front.

Their screens almost wash out in direct sunlight, while the iPod's stays legible. And after a few minutes of playback without user input, these displays shut off instead of just dimming, forcing you to adjust the volume or tap another button to see what song just came up.

These gadgets didn't run as long as iPods, either. The Sansa sustained 18 hours of music playback, while the Gigabeat allowed 10 hours of music, four of video.

Replacing the Sansa's battery requires just $20 and a steady hand with a jeweler's screwdriver. The Gigabeat battery isn't accessible; Toshiba charges $35 to replace it.

For all of their issues, these gadgets offer a few useful extras. Both include FM (but not AM) tuners, and the Sansa can also record FM and voice and accept additional memory via a microSD card slot.

It's supposed to matter that these Windows Media-compatible devices can play songs rented from such subscription services as Napster, and that the Gigabeat also supports video-download stores such as Amazon's new Unbox.

But those non-iTunes stores possess a tiny fraction of iTunes' popularity, which undermines that aspect's entire relevance. How many shoppers will base their decisions on the lure of a store they've never tried? How many will, instead, only see devices that are uglier, heavier and buggier than the iPods everybody else seems to like?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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