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.
That said, I have some problems with the iPod.
- The iPod is boring. How can I properly rage against the machine with the same standard, factory issue music players that everyone else has? I don't want this to devolve into a knee-jerk rejection of all iThings, but let's be honest here: when every soccer Mom carries an iPod, it's no longer a cool technical accessory. It's completely mainstream. I'd be lying if I said this didn't matter to me.
- The iPod has no support for subscription services. I'm a member of Yahoo Music Unlimited, which gives me unlimited access to a massive library of music for 6 bucks a month. I can stream any of this music to multiple PCs, or I can download it to my hard drive or mobile audio players. And it's in a very respectable 192kbps 2-pass CBR format, too. For that same six bucks a month, I could buy a whopping six tracks from the iTunes store. While I can certainly understand the desire to own music, why not give us a choice? Apple's insistence on purchase-only models is a huge mistake.
- The iPod does not support WMA. Although Jobs grudgingly made the iPod Windows compatible two years after its introduction, he still gets his jabs in. The conspicuous lack of WMA support is a not-so-subtle f*ck you to the Windows community. And what of OGG? Or FLAC? Clearly, the hardware is capable, but the political forces inside Apple won't allow it. You'd figure a company that had the guts to make a stunning, wholesale switch to x86 processors could deign to support a few alternative audio formats on their music players. But no.
- 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. Heck, you might even want to record FM radio. That's just crazy talk! And the list goes on: there's no voice recording, no EQ settings, no gapless playback, etcetera.
- The iPod requires custom software to work. Every music player on the market should have this down to a science by now:
- plug in the USB cable
- drag and drop your music on the device
- disconnect the cable and ROCK
The iPod fails miserably on this count: it requires iTunes installed (or another custom application) to transfer any music to the device. You can't even use it as an external hard drive without setting up a separate, special partition on the device first. Of course, use iTunes if you want, but you shouldn't be forced to use iTunes because the hardware is a brick if you don't. How did Apple get this so very, very wrong?
Now, your goals may not be my goals. But when my wife wanted a new music player to replace her aging Rio Carbon (RIP-- a great little player for its time), these are the criteria I used to evaluate them.
Unfortunately, music devices that can be used seamlessly and interchangeably as a generic external USB hard drive and digital music player are quite rare. The sole exception, at least for hard-disk devices, is the Cowon X5L. The Cowon is a decent player, but it suffers from Soviet Russia-era design aesthetics. Due to lack of choices, I was forced to compromise on devices that support Microsoft's Media Transfer Protocol. When connected to a Windows XP or Windows Vista machine, MTP support allows you to drag and drop music directly on to the device-- without installing any software. It's not ideal, since it's tied to Microsoft, but it's the best I can do.
The Digital Audio Players Review website had the most helpful advice. Their top pick was the Creative Zen Vision:M. I agreed, so I went with the pink one. You know, for the ladies.
It's a great little device, and as promised, we just dragged and dropped our music on it-- which happens to be a mix of MP3 and WMA files. And it worked with our Yahoo Music Unlimited subscription as well.
To complement the 30gb hard drive player, I also picked up a flash device-- the new, larger 4gb iRiver Clix.
I've owned a few iRiver products in the past and they've always been excellent. dapreview gave the Clix high marks, and so has everyone else who has reviewed it. The feature set is great. It meets every one of my criteria, throws in video support, and even goes a little beyond with support for Flash Lite games.
I respect the way the pioneering iPod has collectively led the industry out of the dark Napster ages. And I like the iPod design. But until Apple at least supports subscription services and the WMA/FLAC/OGG file formats, I can't justify purchasing any iPod hardware.