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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Ground Rules for Buying on the Cutting Edge: mp3 player

IPod or not? Faced with that decision, people tend to flock toward what's most popular.

And there are good reasons to do so. Apple's tiny iPod Shuffle, barely-larger iPod Nano and the full-sized, video-capable iPod combine utility, elegance and style as few electronic items ever have. The iPod also works with the best music-jukebox program available, Apple's iTunes.

So why buy any other player?

The first reason is the most important feature of a digital music player: which kinds of music files it accepts in addition to MP3s, by far the most widely used type. (Only some older Sony models balk at that format.)

Beyond MP3s, Apple's iPods support the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) formats used by the iTunes program and music store, but not Microsoft's Windows Media Audio, or WMA. Windows Media-compatible players by such firms as Creative and iRiver, however, can't play Apple's formats. Sony's hardware accommodates Sony's proprietary ATRAC format, but not Windows Media or AAC.

Although the big music-download stores carry about the same inventory, Windows Media-based sites such as Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo offer one thing iTunes doesn't: the option to pay $10 to $15 a month to download unlimited songs. These downloads can't be burned to audio CDs and expire when the subscription does-- but for those who want to acquire a lot of music in a hurry, this rental option might work. If so, look for a player marked with a blue "Plays For Sure" logo that has a checkmark next to "Subscription."

The other reason to buy a non-iPod player is to get things that Apple won't offer--for instance, FM tuners and user-replaceable batteries. (Those inside the iPods are sealed inside their shiny cases; Apple's mail-in replacement service costs $60.)

Lastly, since the Windows version of iTunes only runs on Win 2000 and XP, users of older Microsoft systems who don't want to pay for third-party iPod-management programs will have to stick to Windows Media-based players.

How to choose among the many different Windows Media models?

Most are compact devices that use flash memory to store anywhere from 64 megabytes to two gigabytes of music. If you go this route, pick up one with at least 256 megabytes of storage. One useful bonus feature to look for is the ability to store a computer's address book and calendars, which may eliminate the need for a handheld organizer.

If, on the other hand, you'd prefer to join the iPod-purchasing hordes, the next step is to choose between the iPod Shuffle, the iPod Nano and what I'll call the "big" iPod ("big" being a relative term).

For most people, the iPod Nano makes sense. In two- and four-gigabyte sizes ($199 and $249), it stores enough music for days of nonstop listening, as well as copies of digital photos and a Mac or PC's contacts and calendar files.

The big iPod, $299 for a 30-gigabyte model and $399 for a 60-gigabyte version, can also play videos bought at iTunes or converted from other sources. But the limited selection on iTunes -- and the way video playback drains an iPod's battery in just a few hours -- makes that feature a dubious value. The real reason to get the big iPod is to be able to carry around an entire music collection at once.

The iPod Shuffle starts at just $99 for a 512-megabyte version. But with little storage and no screen, it's best as somebody's first player ever -- especially if the recipient may subject it to some abuse -- or as a second player used during exercise.



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