On portable music players

by davidnielsen

I love music, podcasts, audiobooks and all the little wonders of the modern audio age. I also love it to be portable, so currently I have a 5.5 Generation iPod with 80GB of storage. A decent piece of hardware was it not for the frequent lock ups, the lack of support for free formats and naturally also the lack of wifi capabilities which I must be honest after getting used to the Bluetooth between my cellphone and laptop I would rather never again hook my player up via USB, cables are just so messy and I tend to loose them which is a pain with the proprietary plugs the iPod uses.

Now here’s my problem, I’m running out of space, I’d like to upgrade to something with more storage soon but my options are limited by my requirements. If I elect to prioritize Ogg Vorbis support then I can wave goodbye to storage as nobody makes a portable player that holds a reasonable amount of music and plays a decent format. An exception here would be putting Rockbox on an iPod but having attempted again and again to make Rockbox work on my iPod I’ve always found it a subpar experience to the shipped firmware as a user, not to mention I still haven’t make it sync with banshee using Ogg Vorbis. Another issue here is that the goal in picking a player with Ogg Vorbis support would be to show the vendor support for adding this feature not rewarding them for not doing so and then replacing the firmware with something the Free Software community spend time and money developing. That seems counter-productive.

The whole point of having a portable media player for me is that I can take all my music with me, and I mean all of it, I don’t know what mood I might be in during the day. Be it for an audiobook, a podcast or any of the number of genres of music I own. Limiting my storage forces me to sync more often and it assumes I know what kind of day I expect to have. That’s just not how things work, let me access my entire library on the go or perish.

So if I have to live with just having mp3 support, and I want storage then the options seem to be the Archos Generation 5 605/705 models which go to 160GB. My first harddrive based player was a 10 GB Archos Recorder 10, it’s a nice piece of hardware and was it not for the fact that it’s bulky and the isd200 driver seems broken in Fedora for the past many releases (#229190 rh-bz) it would still work to this day. Calling 605/705 models sexy would be mildly put.. a lie. I hate to make looks an issue but it looks dinky and very unprofessional. It’s user interface looks to be very unprofessional and overly complex. Finally it’s big, my iPod fits nicely in a pocket, I’m very happy with that form factor. I think the issue with the Archos is that it is trying to do to much, I don’t want to watch movies on a small screen in the bus, I want to listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts. Trying to add movie playing to a pocket device is about as senseless as adding video calling to my cellphone (which mine actually has, but I’ve never used it).

Then we have the iPod, their new 160GB classic model works pretty much the same as what I have.. which frankly is a problem, same exact set of issues and a company that will abuse their monopoly just to make it hard to work with the device for 3rd party software.. such as adding a crypto hash around the entire database for no apparent reason. I’d rather not buy an iPod and stimulate a bit of competition. Additionally the Classic has no wifi option which I admittedly really want. On the plus side the iPod being widely used is well supported under Linux (using Podsleuth and Banshee works very well e.g.) and despite the issues I have with mine it is a fairly well functioning device as a whole. I wouldn’t call the iPod sexy, but it is well designed even if the interface can be cumbersome at times. I just feel limited in what I can do with my device when Apple keep making it hard to use from anything except iTunes.

This leaves the Microsoft Zune as the last option, their second generation is very slick with a big screen, the little Zune pad control system, wifi and lots of nice little features. And boy is it sexy looking, packaging to interface the Zune is hands down my current favorite in terms of look and feel of the players. It does only come in a 80GB version now but as I’m not in the market for a player right now I am hoping this will change soon. Microsoft started selling TV shows and such on their web store so the rumours that they are releasing a new rev with a bigger drive are likely to be true. I do feel odd supporting a product that runs Windows and is produced by Microsoft but considerably less odd than I do supporting the Apple monopoly. The one snag is that one cannot actually get a Zune in Denmark so far as I know also I don’t know if the Zune syncronizes with Banshee which absolutely is a must for me.

In a perfect world we would have a device as sexy as the black 2nd Generation Zune running free firmware and supporting free formats out of the box while retaining big storage. As things stand that is a market niche that is yet to be filled. I wish someone would do a device like that, we have plenty of smaller players that do all this.