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iPod vs. the competition

By Eliot Hochberg, eliot@high-mountain.com, October 25, 2001

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On Tuesday Apple released the iPod, a portable music player. Apple claims it is a breakthrough machine, but is it? The only way to know is to compare it to its competition.

There are really only three products on the market that can compete with iPod. These are the Remote Solution Personal Jukebox, Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox, and the Archos Jukebox HD. Each of these is a hard disk-based system designed to play music.

The iPod

First, the iPod. It has a 5GB hard drive; FireWire connectivity; a backlit 2", 160-by-128-pixel LCD display; 20-minute skip protection; and a 10-hour battery. The iPod weighs in at 6.5 ounces, is 4" by 2.5" by 0.75" in size and supports VBR-encoded MP3, AIFF and WAV audio files for playback. It also will work as a FireWire hard drive for other kinds of files. Apple's iTunes music software, upgraded to Version 2, is the music software for iPod. It comes with earbud headphones and will cost $399. It is only Mac compatible (thus far).

Remote Solution Personal Jukebox

The first competitor is the Remote Solution Personal Jukebox. It comes with a 20GB hard drive, USB connectivity, 128-by-64-pixel display, 10-minute skip protection and a 14-hour battery. It weighs 9.9 ounces, is 6" by 1" by 3.1" in size and supports playback of CBR-encoded MP3 files. It uses its own software for ripping any kind of sound file to CBR MP3s, comes with rather large Koss headphones and costs $850. It is only PC-compatible. Personal Jukebox is only here for completeness, since it isn't Mac compatible and costs so much.

Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox

Next is Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox. Creative Labs has a couple of different models, but the top-of-the-line model has a 20GB hard drive, USB connection, 132-by-64-pixel backlit display, 5-minute skip protection and a 4-hour battery. Nomad is 14 ounces (without batteries), is 5" by 5" by 1.5" and plays back MP3 (VBR), WAV and WMA audio formats. It uses Creative Labs' own PlayCenter on Windows and SoundJam MP (upon which iTunes is based) on the Mac. It is PC- and Mac-compatible, costs $399, appears to come with unspecified headphones and has a line-in to record to 48KHz WAV format files. It's worth noting that Creative sells a Nomad, without recording capabilities and with a 6GB drive, for $220.

Archos Jukebox HD

Finally, there is the Archos Jukebox HD. It sports a 6GB drive, USB connection, 8-line backlit LCD screen, 2-minute skip protection and a 10-hour battery. It weighs 12.3 ounces and measures 4.5" by 3.2" by 1.3", with support for VBR MP3 files. It can also be used as a USB hard drive. Users drag files onto the Archos and organize them there. Archos includes wrap-around style headphones and sells for $350. It, too, has recording capabilities, besting the Nomad by including digital in/out capability and a built-in mic. Archos also has another model, without recording capabilities, for around $250.

Who wins?

So how do they stack up? Apple has made a very competitive unit. While it lacks the hard drive size of the Nomad and the Personal Jukebox, and doesn't have recording capability, it makes up for those by being smaller, lighter and faster. iPod is much closer in size and weight to a Flash RAM-based MP3 player, which is a big advantage. The speedy FireWire connection takes less than 10 minutes to fill up 5GB of storage, compared to a couple of hours for USB-based systems. The iPod plays more formats than some of its competition, and its price isn't out of line. Arguably, the integration with iTunes 2 is also a major advantage, especially considering that Mac support on the other compatible units was done well after PC support was established. And then there are the other niceties: FireWire-based recharging, simple interface, simple design. For sheer storage size, the Nomad is the best bet for Mac users. But in every other area, iPod competes favorably with its competition.

Not a revolution, but a nice evolution

Is it "breakthrough" or "groundbreaking?" Well, it isn't the first hard drive-based player – it's not even the first to work with a Mac, or to work as both a music player and a hard drive. But in execution and finish, it is certainly superior, and its FireWire capabilities put it well ahead. Groundbreaking? I would say evolutionary; the iPod appears to be the best next step for digital music portables, possibly getting right what others have been working on for a while. If Sony made a hard drive-based digital music player, it would look a lot like the iPod.

Eliot Hochberg is a Web developer with over 6 years experience. In addition to struggling with tech support, he is the author of MacEdition’s ongoing feature on DVD authoring.

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