As some of you may already know, I'm an iPod user. To be more specific, I own a 10GB third generation model that I purchased about three years ago. Since that time my experience with the device has been nothing but pure joy. iPod has served my digital audio needs in every manner, and very well I might add. But after several years of use, battery life is beginning to deteriorate significantly, often needing to be recharged daily..sometimes TWICE daily. Since my nephew's graduation is coming up this week, I thought I would donate my little white audio workhorse to him, and upgrade to a new device. So began my journey.A House Divided...
My choice in a new digital audio player was not quite so clear cut as my previous purchase had been. Back when the 3G iPod models arrived on scene, Apple's competition in the portable audio player market was laughable at best. Devices like the Creative Zen and Archos hard drive players were ugly bricks bundled with clumsy software. What a difference three years makes. Today the market is filled with some very compelling Windows Media based players, particularly by Creative. I have held a deep fondness for Creative's Zen Micro line, which in my opinion is the first truly compelling digital player conceived outside Cupertino. This little device has all the markings of a successful product that incorporates the best features of iPod; style, simplicity, and fun. It comes in a range of fun colors, is easy to use (for the most part), and priced appropriately for its class. You can't help but like this product.
In addition to the Zen and Zen micro, Creative has recently introduced other new models that equally impress, and even have a few tricks that excel and exceed iPod in many ways. The new Neeon line is absolutely drop-dead COOL! Available in a variety of colors (I'm a whore for color options) that look stunningly sleek, especially the black unit. And the concept of Stik-Ons skins may seem hokey to some, but will no doubt resonate with consumers..if marketed properly. Creative did its homework with this model. But wait..there's more!
Creative isn't alone. Korean based iRiver has also come on strong since the early days of iPod-mania. The H10 series offers a lot like. Though a bit on the pricey side, H10 delivers a great iPod Mini-like form factor with a nice color display (something not found on the mini), with all the bells and whistles of a modern digital audio device. iRiver may be a small fish in a big pond, but they sure know how to swim.
Even Sony has shown some improvement, to a lesser extent. Add to that a rapidly growing list of other lesser know, or less relevant players from Asian manufacturers.
And I haven't even got into devices that go well beyond audio. Video or multimedia players are seen by many as the next big thing, though I don't share that view personally. Microsoft's Portable Media Center devices deliver just about any content you could possibly want on one device, ranging from photos, audio, and video. And they sync up with your Media Center PC. Cool, but very pricey, I see PMC hardware as being very first generation. But look out for the next iteration of this device category.
That's just the hardware side of the equation. I haven't yet touched on what is perhaps the biggest factor; online music content. Plays For Sure, Just Not Here
One factor that I have becoming increasingly aware of is the bifurcation of the digital audio market between iPod and basically the entire digital content landscape. Although iPod dominates, Apple's native AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is used solely with iTunes Music Store, available only to the iPod line of digital audio players and nothing else. What's worse, iPods do not currently support Microsoft's WMA format which has become the linqua franca of all online music stores. This may prove to be iPod's Achilles heal. As good as iPod is, it locks you into Apple's business model without offering a choice in content services. This means that while you do benefit from having access to the best online music experience (for now anyway), you at the mercy of Apple's price structuring model. As other online services begin to slash prices and offer discounts, Apple may or may not follow suit...which means the potential exists that iPod users will always pay higher prices for music downloads compared to their Windows Media based counterparts.
Like Jason, I see the market ultimately shifting from a hardware driven model to a platform driven model. In other words, in a not to distant future, the greater battle will not be waged between iPod vs.. iRiver, but rather a showdown between Windows Media (Plays For Sure) vs. everything else. Apple is building hardware while Microsoft is building a platform. Unless Apple ultimately changes that focus, or makes a solid attempt to push AAC as a universal format, I see them coming out on the losing end of this equation. But that's for another discussion. The Choice
So what device did I finally settle upon as my next digital audio companion? iPod Photo. Why? For my particular needs, iPod just makes more sense. For starters, I already own an iPod and have invested money in peripherals, iTunes music, etc. And here at Digital Media Thoughts, I am sort of unofficially in charge of covering the iPod beat in news posts and commentary. Aside from that I strongly favor Apple's end-to-end experience. iTunes is still the best Jukebox/audio library management solution available, IMHO. So it makes more sense for me to stay on that path, at least for now.
But as I alluded to earlier, my choice was NOT clear cut. And over the past week in my quest for a new device I found myself constantly being pulled away from Apple. The Creative Zen (and Zen Micro) nearly had me, as did the new Neeon. For now, however, I'll stay with iPod.