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iWant more toys

by Gary Penn, October 30, 2001

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When things were slow at my last job I brought CDs to work – except I never had the one I wanted to listen to. Therefore, I dove head-first into creating my ultimate CD jukebox. I’ve filled an 18GB drive with MP3s and I don’t plan on stopping. That’s only 50 percent of my CD collection, which is growing each year. I don’t have a use for the MP3s at home, but rather when I’m away from my hundreds of CDs, including when I’m exercising. I’d been using a Panasonic Shockwave CD player, but then I had to burn my mixes onto CD-Rs.

In early 2001 I caved in and purchased my first MP3 player. I performed all the standard research in terms of cost and performance versus size and storage. My determination was that in order for it to be more useful than my Shockwave CD player (which already provided perfect sound without ever skipping on normal CDs and CD-Rs) it would have to be tiny, easily manageable, and hold at least 74 minutes (one CD worth) of songs encoded with no loss of quality.

Shopping at Fry’s was a good starting point. I got to play with four or five beat-up models containing everything from 32MB of flash memory to hundreds of megabytes of hard disk space. Nothing seemed "right." The lightest and most skip-proof players only held six or seven songs at my standard MP3 "ripping" settings. I’m a hi-fi audio buff, and the idea of listening to something at 128kbps over headphones just doesn’t cut it for me. I rip everything at 160-192kbps, variable bit rate. With those settings, a 32MB player will only hold about four or five songs from my CD collection if I’m lucky. I also happen to like "jam" bands whose songs can go into the 15-minute range.

Just about the time that I was researching MP3 players, SonicBlue came out with a revision to their Rio 800 model which bumped it from 64MB to 128MB of RAM. They also promised the availability of a backpack with an additional 320MB (a promise they later reneged upon). I figured this would be enough to replace the ol’ Shockwave. Essentially, the functionality was on par with what I was seeking: I could listen to over 74 minutes of music, but I could mix it up infinitely, and the weight and size would be a fraction of what they had been before; it also came with a handy belt clip which was great for a run.

My Rio arrived in the mail and I instantly tore open the packaging and dove in. After all, I didn’t need to rip any CDs since my MP3 collection was pretty thorough. I plugged the Rio into my USB hub... and the problems began. First off, it was packaged with SoundJam MP, which wasn’t even a viable product anymore. Apple had bought SoundJam not long before from Cassady & Greene, along with the engineers who developed it. I had been a big SoundJam supporter and had owned a full license for it, but since Apple’s acquisition, I was now an iTunes junky. I assumed SoundJam’s compatibility with the Rio would transfer over to iTunes – and it did, sort of. It wasn’t iTunes that was lacking, but rather the driver for the Rio. To start, I encountered issues getting iTunes to recognize the player. Turn it on, then load iTunes? No. Turn it off, then load iTunes? No. Turn it off, load iTunes, then turn it on? No.

It turned out the issues I was having were with USB. So much for the perfect plug n’ play technology – I’ve had almost as many problems getting my USB gadgets, such as scanners, cradles and MP3 devices to work the first time as I used to with SCSI. When I took my powered hub out of the equation, things went a little more smoothly. When iTunes recognized the player it looked like a playlist with a different icon – it just popped up. I began the transfer of some MP3s... and the transfer froze halfway through the second file. I tried it again in a different order and the same thing happened. Finally, I tried transferring the files one by one. That worked.

That brought me to realization number two: the speed – or lack thereof. Oh Lord! I’ll be the first to admit I think Ultra ATA/66 drives are too slow. I use Ultra160 SCSI drives in my personal G4 just because I can. But USB? I’d never dealt with data transfer over USB and it’s not an experience I would recommend. Dog slow, unreliable and generally plagued with problems related to connecting through hubs. I couldn’t figure out why someone hadn’t put out a FireWire MP3 device.

All told, the Rio 800 became slightly more pleasant to use over time, but not much. The playback is flawless once everything is in place. I’ve dropped it while running at a full clip and it never so much as cracks. However, battery life leaves something to be desired. The supposedly "rechargeable" battery that the Rio 800 comes with lasts about five hours if you play constantly – but it loses charge when sitting on the shelf. So if I run and then try to use it again without charging, it usually dies on me. Regular batteries don’t do much better. If I let it sit idle for two weeks and then try to use it, it usually has about an hour of playtime left. The battery is inside the removable backing, too, so Rio’s engineers have something to learn about functional design. But overall I would say it has successfully replaced my Shockwave.

A few days ago Apple came out with iPod and I face the MP3 dilemma all over again. Apple has obviously addressed the weight vs. capacity issue pretty well. But how do I know which 1,000 songs to load? I adore the "sync your music collection" idea but alas, it is disabled when your music library exceeds the size of the iPod’s internal storage. Since I have 18GB (and growing) worth of music, I’d pay an extra $100 for a 20GB hard drive if it were available.

Apple has also addressed the transfer speed problem. When I want to run, I want to run immediately – not 30 minutes later when my songs are done transferring. Bravo to Apple for recognizing this huge flaw in the other MP3 devices that are out there.

But in terms of initial price, I can’t justify the iPod. My Rio’s resale value is already down to $150 on eBay – brand new they are $249. Granted, we’re talking about an upgrade consisting of a single chip of RAM for $249 so nobody is saying that SonicBlue isn’t ripping off the world as well. But $399 for a music player? Beside storage, the iPod does allow data transfer but it doesn’t have two critical elements would that make it perfect: voice memo, and cross-platform usage. Overall, the consensus around the Macintosh-based Web sites thus far seems to be the same: It’s a bit pricey.

Upon its release, the iPod became the dominant MP3 force to reckon with relative to functionality and flawlessness. But for my money, I think it’s relegated to more of an iWant rather than an iNeed. I hope the holiday bonus is a whopper this year.

Other issues I’ve mentioned, such battery life and plug n’play will pan out in due time. The charge-over-FireWire should resolve the former for most people. As for the latter, I’m not experienced with FireWire hubs yet since I only currently have a single FireWire device.

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