What's the iPod missing?

Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod has so completely captivated the imagination of music fans that rivals have been left reeling -- on Friday, the company that pioneered the MP3 player market, Rio Audio, said it was exiting the business. But the huge market for iPod accessories, estimated at more than $2 billion, shows that Apple hasn't found an answer to every buyer's wishes.

So what if you could buy a player with these extra features built right in? Apple's competitors are trying to find out if they can regain some ground that way -- in addition to charging often lower prices and offering support for such newer subscription-based services as Napster To Go, Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited.

The most common iPod add-ons provide new ways to get sound in and out of the device -- microphones to record conversations and FM tuners to let you catch up on the news on your jog. As add-ons, these capabilities pad out the weight and bulk of Apple's trim device, but when incorporated into a device, they hardly take up any extra space.

As a result, these options have become nearly standard among Apple's competitors, even in devices as small as the iPod mini. The microphones on these players are hardly hi-fi, but they do fine for recording voices in meetings and lectures. The FM tuners may not have crystal-clear reception, but they have station pre-sets and can even record radio for later listening -- perfect for listening to programs broadcast at odd times. AM support, however, is usually absent; sports fans will still need a separate radio to keep up with games on the go.

Another opening for competitors comes in batteries. The iPod's -- like all rechargeable units' -- degrade with use, delivering less playback over time. But iPod users must send their players to Apple for battery replacement, a $59 procedure. (Some third-party firms charge less.) Most, but not all, non-iPod players allow users to remove and replace their rechargeable batteries just by popping the back open. Replacement batteries typically sell for $15 to $40, are available from many dealers and don't require you to miss a day of your tunes.

While Apple now offers color screens on all of its regular-size iPods, it came to this technology after other manufacturers -- many of which now allow their users to play video as well as view photos. But the clarity of clips watched on their screens varies, and there's also the issue of finding anything worthwhile to watch: The existing video-download stores are weak, and getting video off a DVD, videotape or digital video recorder is far harder than copying songs off a CD.

Buyers of tiny, flash-memory-based portables who want to see what's playing have no choice but to shop outside of Apple's orbit. Apple's iPod Shuffle omits a display, while most competing devices include a compact, if sometimes hard-to-decipher, readout.

Music players also plug into music-management programs on a computer, an area where Apple retains a sizable advantage with its iTunes software. All other competing players require using some other application, often Microsoft's Windows Media Player software. That has been greatly improved and offers more features than iTunes but still lacks the seamless integration and ease of Apple's program.

That problem alone leaves competing players stuck in second place -- at least, among the great majority of buyers who don't covet extra features for their own sake. The other manufacturers, for all their occasional creativity, have yet to integrate all the components of a successful audio-on-the-go experience as thoroughly as Apple has.