a life of coding

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

iPod killers abound

I've been watching the portable MP3 player market since the iPod first came out. As a long time Apple aficionado, I was excited to see their product become a smash hit, but was curious how long it would last. The iPod team whipped up a fantastic product, but it wasn't really Apple's core market, and surely someone else would come up with something better soon... right?

Its now been four years, and while an "iPod killer" is announced every month, I still have yet to see a product that holds a candle to the iPod. Titus blogged a recent review of the zen nano plus. It sounds nice, but to me the trade-off has always been simple: features for usability. If you don't like the iPod, its generally because you require (1) recording or (2) an FM tuner. Price, non-essential features, and support for non-MP3 formats (like Plays For Sure) which can easily be automatically converted to MP3, just aren't worth the sacrifice of a complicated user interface. Simple consumer devices need focus, not cheap features.

Calling an ergonomic hammer extravagant, only to buy a slightly cheaper one with a universal remote that juliennes fries, seems short sighted. How often are you going to use it to julienne fries, can you change the TV channel while doing it, and how does this feature affect your 95% use case? Do you want to use a crippled device 19 times for every 1 time that you record something? Most friends and family would be excited to receive a hand-me-down iPod, but a niche, difficult to use MP3 player / voice recorder / FM tuner / Julienne fry maker is just going to gather dust. Listening to music is a relaxing or energizing event that doesn't jive well with the frustration of little buttons. Focus and simplicity translate into resale value, be it with your friends or on ebay. Today, the original four year old, 5 GB iPod is selling for around $50 on eBay (some are going for $100, but that seems high to me).

Its been often said that the iPod is at a disadvantage because it uses a ("non-replaceable") rechargeable battery. Since this first became an issue, there have been 3rd party battery replacement programs for $40 ~ $50. The iPod market isn't small, there will be a replacement kit for every iPod that will ever come out. It seems that the battery lasts about two years (mine's almost there), so if you instead used two AA batteries a week, thats 208 batteries. If you bought these batteries in 24 packs from Home Depot @ $10.70 ea, thats $92. So, if my battery keeps another few months (works fine now), I will have saved myself at least $35. Even if the iPod rechargeable only lasts a year, its the same as AA batteries, and a lot more convenient. The answer could be rechargeable AA batteries - Much better than disposable AA's? Sure. Better than a built-in rechargeable-on-the-fly, while syncing or transfering files, high performance lithium ion battery? Not to me.

Some day, someone will make a product better than the iPod, or at least a better value. I think that day will only come when a company tries real design innovation, instead of commoditization. While the swiss army knife aproach might make a product look like a better value, I see the exact opposite: every extra feature is a sign of less time spent on the core feature(s?) that you are shopping for. Its a lesson learned over many purchases of products with fancy features that I've never used. After a while, you really just want one that does what you bought it for, and does it so well that years from now you won't regret the time you've wasted because you saved a buck.


  • Thanks for the write-up. You make some very good points. As I said, the Zen Nano is not for everyone. I imagine that most MP3 users, for example, aren't exactly concerned about Linux support.

    Also, you must remember that the Zen Nano Plus isn't targetting the full-featured iPod. It's competing against devices such as the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle. With only 1 GB, you can't fit a great deal of music on it anyway, so the limited playlist interface isn't a big hindrance. And to be fair, I find all of Creative's other MP3 models to be quite lacking in comparison to the equivalent iPod.

    As far as your criticisms on the non-replaceable batteries, I would like to mention that the Zen Nano uses a single AAA battery. If using a Rayovac, your charge times are only fifteen minutes. So simply keep a spare charged battery around, and you'll be fine.

    Moreover, while syncing, the Zen Nano requires no external power, using phantom power from the USB port itself. Your batteries don't even need to be plugged in while syncing.

    Usability is an important point that you mention. But so is durability. The iPod Nano seems quite fragile, as if it will break if you touch it the wrong way. The Zen Nano appears to be able to take a lot of abuse. But I've only had it for about a week now, so take that remark with some reservation.

    By Blogger Titus Barik, At 11/8/05 7:32 PM  

  • I forget that flash based players can operate entirely off of USB power - hard drive based players need to use an AC adapter when syncing to USB.

    I would still rather have a built in rechargeable than to use rechargeable AAA's, but I see your point. How many charge cycles do you get out of rayovacs?

    As far as the durability of the Nano, the first Ars Technica review does some extensive stress testing that shows the nano to be pretty durable. I think that the current problems are mostly (unknowing) user abuse. People are placing a very long, thin piece of electronics in small pockets while sitting. If you've ever tried to dig something out of your jeans pockets without getting up, you'll realize how much pressure that can be. I suspect that proper care will make a nano last a very long time. That said, a thicker / shorter design with a smaller screen is probably more durable.

    By Blogger ynniv, At 11/10/05 2:09 AM  

  • A battery lasts for up to 500 charges. An eight pack of batteries is about ten dollars on the high end of the spectrum.

    By Blogger Titus Barik, At 11/10/05 10:06 AM  

  • I concur, over 10 dollars on a pack of batteries seems a little inflated; although i buy mostly generic batteries from a dollar store since i don't see much difference in performance from name brands. Also, i am presuming the charging is a little more of a hassle than you let on. It seems much easier to me to simply pop in a new batter when one goes dead instead of waiting at all for it to charge. Not to mention if you also charge your old batteries you're getting the best of both worlds.

    However, i wont disagree with the fact that there hasn't been any mp3 player that has surpassed the ipod in popularity. It seems "Ipod" has actually become a "brand eponym" (when a specific brand of a product is used to refer to the general product) such as: coke, xerox, Kleenex, scotch tape etc. Most people I know call every mp3 player an "ipod" no matter what brand it happens to be.

    By Anonymous Joe, At 12/27/06 12:19 AM  

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