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Fast Forward, by Rob Pegoraro

Gadget Guidance for 2008

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Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 30, 2008; Page F04

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Media Players

The market for MP3 players -- more accurately called "media players," since most also handle photos and video clips -- is dominated by one company, Apple, that didn't even enter this business until the fall of 2001.

Should you do anything about that? Probably not. The iPod deserves most of its success: It's simple, it's stylish, and it works. Competing players are often cheaper, but most fail to match the iPod in at least one of those core virtues.

If you were already planning on getting an iPod, you just have to pick one of Apple's four models: the tiny, cheap, no-display-included iPod Shuffle; the shirt-pocket-sized iPod Nano; the larger, high-capacity iPod Classic; and the iPhone-minus-a-phone iPod Touch. (Technically, the iPhone counts as a fifth.) For most uses, I'd go with the Nano. It plays music and displays photos about equally well, it's almost as effective for playing shorter videos (I wouldn't want to watch a full-length movie on the thing), and it has the same elegantly simple clickwheel control as other iPods.

What about non-iPod players? Microsoft's Zune comes closest, with its own multimedia support; its built-in FM tuner; and a desktop Windows program that makes finding, downloading and subscribing to podcasts almost as easy as in Apple's iTunes.

Since my comparison of the latest iPod Nano and the most recent Zune, Microsoft's player has gained an extra advantage: If you subscribe to its $14.99/month Zune Pass service, you can download permanent copies of 10 songs a month, in addition to the unlimited number of restricted copies this subscription option allows.

Other aspects to consider in an MP3 . . . er, media player:

ยท Flash-memory storage is better than hard-drive storage. Flash is far more durable and is getting cheaper all the time. Today, a 16-gigabyte flash player, enough to store many people's entire collections, costs $200 or less; a year from now, that price should buy at least a 32 GB model.

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