Now that the iPod and its little brother, the iPod mini, have gobbled up the overwhelming majority of the MP3-player market, what's a competitor to do? Prior attempts to beat back Apple's hardware with devices offering more storage, a lower price -- or both virtues -- have gone nowhere.
Faced with this challenge, Hewlett-Packard decided it would be easier to become an Apple sales rep. The "Apple iPod by HP" that it began selling in August mirrors the original in every aspect save its packaging, the HP logo on its back and the printable "tattoo" covers that HP sells for it.
Other manufacturers, however, aren't giving in. IRiver, a relatively recent entrant to the digital-music market, aims to beat the iPod on features with its H320. This $330 device packs a color screen that can display your digital photos, an FM radio, two headphone jacks and even the ability to make MP3 recordings from its own microphone or analog and digital audio inputs, all in a device only slightly thicker than the current iPod.
But will most buyers use all those non-music features? That seems a bit unlikely. And as a music player, the H320 could stand some improvement. Its controls, while simpler than those of earlier iRiver models, still lag behind the competition. For example, this device is missing a scrolling control to speed up navigating through lengthy song lists.
Battery life in our tests exceeded iRiver's touted figure of 16 hours by a full hour. But to hit that number, the H320's color screen -- unlike the black-and-white displays on other players -- must shut off automatically, a behavior that won't please people in the habit of glancing at the screen to see what's playing.
The H320 doubles as an external hard drive without any configuration or driver installation -- it shows up on your Windows desktop automatically.
(Like the other music players reviewed here, it requires Win 98 SE or newer and a USB 2.0 connection to a desktop PC.)
Creative Technology, meanwhile, is counting on a mix of price, performance and iPod-inspired design -- if not size. Its new Zen Touch -- $250 for 20 gigabytes of storage -- is thicker and slightly wider than its pricier competitor. But it delivered fantastic sound and 26 hours of battery life (versus the 14 hours we achieved on an iPod in our tests).
The Zen Touch's controls start with a novel, up-down touch pad on the front: Tap its very top or bottom to scroll quickly up or down through a playlist, then press the "OK" button above it to select a song. This isn't quite as fluid an experience as the iPod, where the finger never has to leave the scroll wheel, but it feels more elegant than most other portables.
The Zen Touch can also serve as an external hard drive, but this option requires that you install Creative's special driver software first.
Creative makes a second attempt at besting Apple with its Nomad Muvo2. This rival to the iPod mini costs $50 less, at $200, while offering the same four-gigabyte capacity. This squarish player is thicker and wider than the mini, if a little lighter, but its plain, plastic looks leave it far behind in the style department. Its too-tiny buttons and two-line display make selecting music tricky; these controls leave no way to build your own playlists on the go.
The Muvo2 does, however, offer something missing from the iPod and every other MP3 player in this lineup -- an easily replaceable battery (it's rated at 14 hours, but we got 16). Unlike its bigger sibling, it can serve as an external drive without needing you to install any software drivers.
Rio, the pioneer of the MP3-player market, now finds itself a student of Apple -- but its new Rio Carbon shows what an adept pupil it has become. The $250 Carbon could be a distant cousin of the iPod mini, considering its compact size and stylishly smooth contours. It claims an extra gigabyte of storage, five versus the iPod mini's four GB.
The Carbon's controls have thankfully been pared down from older Rio models to just a four-way controller on the front and a jog-dial switch on the corner. Battery life, at 20 hours, far surpasses the 11 hours an iPod mini lasted in our tests. Joggers will appreciate the Carbon's rubberized side grips; those prone to dictating their thoughts will value its basic voice recorder.
All of these players are attractively designed and competitively priced, with the Zen Touch and the Rio Carbon coming out ahead. That's good news -- especially for shoppers at such Windows Media-based online stores as Napster or Wal-Mart, since those sites' downloads won't play on an iPod.
But if your music library -- like most -- is dominated by MP3s, there's still no beating the iPod. Except for maybe the iPod mini.