My iPod Thoughts

If you know me, you know I am pretty obsessive about MP3 players. I like music and I love audiobooks. I am almost never without my MP3 player. I was a very early adopter of the CD-based MP3 players. The CD-based players offered a huge advantage (at the time) of being able to store vastly more than the flash-memory based players. Blank CD-R’s storing 700mb were very cheap and easy to swap in and out. Flash-memory was small (storage-wise) and expensive. At the time, the flash-memory based players only stored 64mb (or at best 256mb… which still isn’t very much). Yeah, you can run with a flash-memory based player, but, I don’t do that much running. I tried a few flash-memory based players, but, they just didn’t provide enough bang for my tastes (notably, they didn’t even come close to storing an entire book with any kind of reasonable quality).

When the hard drive-based players came out they were very expensive. I still couldn’t see spending the money on them and they were verboten at my place of work, anyway (which the CD-based players were not) so I held off. About the time of the iPod Mini I tried both the iPod Mini and the Rio Carbon. At the time, I found the Rio Carbon to be vastly superior. They both supported content, but, to support bookmarking of, MP3 books (bookmarking for audiobooks is imperative) you had to convert your book first into a single MP3 file and then convert the format from MP3 to M4B (which is based on AAC). The conversion into a single file is fast and easy. The conversion to M4B is slow. At the time I was recording radio content and listening to that, so, I wanted a completely automated process to make the content listenable on whatever device. This just wasn’t possible with the iPod Mini. My other complaint was that the iPod forced the structure of Artist/Album on you. If you had a soundtrack or similar compilation album, things were laid out “funny” for my taste. I decided on the Rio Carbon. Ultimately I was very happy with the Carbon because it is smaller than the iPod Mini, is very light, bookmarks any audio format it supports, etc. It is a nice player. All was beautiful in paradise until I lost my Rio Carbon.

So, I started the search again. Although the Rio, Apple, and Creative players are really the only players supported by, I wasn’t seriously considering Apple and Creative players because I found them to be considerably sub-par to Rio, feature-wise. After much debate I discovered the Zen Sleek was actually now a good contender as was the iPod Video. The general features I wanted, and how each player compared:

  • Reasonably good battery life, should be rated at least for 15 hours
    • Rio Carbon: Advertised at 24 hours.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Advertised at 18 hours.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Advertised at 14 hours.
    • Overall: My listening habits don’t tend to get the advertised amount (I pause playback too often), but, they are a good indicator. I did get a lot more life out of the Rio Carbon than out of the Sleek or the iPod, but, I don’t see a huge difference between the Sleek and the iPod. Winner Carbon, 2nd place is probably a tie between Sleek and iPod Video 30gb.
  • Support for content
    • Rio Carbon: Native.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Native.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Native.
    • Overall: All support content directly. Three way tie.
  • Ability to use the device on a PC (to copy music to and from the device) without the need for special drivers / software
    • Rio Carbon: Requires no special software. Period.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Requires Windows Medial Player 10. After that you can use drag and drop to get MP3 files onto the unit.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Requires iTunes and the iPod software.
    • Overall: The Rio Carbon is without a doubt the winner here, for me. Others would probably disagree. The second place is quite debatable. If you use Windows Explorer to drag music to the Sleek it is probably easier than iTunes, but, to keep things organized, re-tag your files later, synchronization, etc. I would argue that iTunes and its tight integration with the iPod is considerably smarter and more powerful than Windows Media Player. If you are keeping a small amount of music, the drag and drop method of the Rio Carbon is my favorite. If you are keeping your music library on the device, the iTunes/iPod, for me, is clearly the best.
  • Support for Podcasts
    • Rio Carbon: ?? No idea.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: ?? No Idea.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Tight integration with iTunes.
    • Overall: I didn’t even know I cared about this until I tried the iPod. I now subscribe to at least half a dozen tech-oriented radio shows including DL.TV and I really like Podcasts. I just plug in my iPod overnight or while I am showering and all my content is there for the train-ride. It is VERY cool.
  • Store non-music data, like a hard drive
    • Rio Carbon: The player is a removable hard drive. easy. Works on any WinXP machine with no special drivers.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: You can store data on the player or put it in a hard drive mode. I think it does require Windows Media Player 10 on any machine you go to, though.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Easy, just load the data. Probably requires iTunes/the iPod software, though.
    • Overall: The easiest is obviously the Rio Carbon. After that it is somewhat of a wash. Sleek requires Windows Media Player 10 and the iPod requires the iPod software. In the case of both the Sleek and iPod I didn’t try it on a machine without the required software.
  • Good form factor / weight / build quality
    • Rio Carbon: By far the smallest, lightest player in the group. 5gb.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Reasonably sized, reasonably light for a 20gb player.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Reasonably sized, reasonably light for a 30gb player.
    • Overall: The Rio Carbon stores considerably less than the Sleek or iPod, but, it also weighs considerably less and is considerably smaller. That said, the build quality of the Rio Carbon is not as good as the Sleek and nowhere near as good as the iPod. The iPod is notably thinner and somewhat lighter than the Sleek.
  • At least 5GB of storage space
    • Rio Carbon: 5gb.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: 20gb.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: 30gb.
    • Overall: If 5gb is enough, the carbon is the right size physically. Otherwise the extra 10gb on the iPod Video is very nice.
  • Keyguard (“lock”) so you can have the device in your pocket and not worry about pushing buttons
    • Rio Carbon: Requires a special key sequence.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Slider on the top of the unit.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Slider on the top of the unit.
    • Overall: I always wished the Rio Carbon had a slider. Oh well. The iPod has a better slider, but, the Sleek’s is fine.
  • Bookmarking of tracks (nice for audiobooks)
    • Rio Carbon: Manually bookmark any file. Remembers set of files that were playing. If you don’t bookmark and then add new content to the player it will lose the position in the file.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Manually bookmark any file, but, it doesn’t remember the set of files that were playing. If you don’t bookmark and the player completely turns it self off (about an hour? of non-use) it will lose the position in the file.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: New in the last few months, you can mark any MP3 or AAC file as “remember where I was” under Get Info in iTunes and the iPod will automatically bookmark the file for you. Also notable is that when you sync with iTunes, iTunes has the same bookmark. If you then listen in iTunes and later sync back to the iPod the bookmark will sync back to the iPod. This is an incredibly strong feature.
    • Overall: The Rio Carbon and Sleek both have major quirks with bookmarking, but, while the Rio Carbon’s quirks are livable, the Sleek’s quirks are no (IMO). The iPod has the best bookmarking facility I could imagine with the caveat of you really want to have your audiobook in just 1 (or 2, or maybe 3) files, not split up into 100 files.
  • User Interface and Screen
    • Rio Carbon: Very limited screen real-estate and small buttons, but, the layout works well. Easy to read screen, easy to use buttons, easy to use “in the pocket”.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Nice monochrome screen with plenty of real-estate. The buttons are are pretty good and are mostly usable “in the pocket”, but, the selection slinder (for volume, selecting items from the menu) is great for volume, but, when selecting from a long list of artists, etc. is a drag. you have to slide, lift, slide, lift, slide over and over and over and over to find what you want.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: The iPod Video screen is quite amazing. It really does kill the battery though (it appears). The user interface is very easy to use “in the pocket”. The thumb circle thing for changing volume and selecting artists work great. Also, they have a accelleration feature so moving between albums that start with “A” to “T” goes very quickly and is easy to control.
    • Overall: Rio Carbon is simple and easy, but, the iPod interface and screen just blows away the competition. There really is no comparison.
  • Recharge via USB
    • Rio Carbon: Yes. Normal “small” usb connector.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Yes. Proprietary “Creative Dock” connector. This is a drag because you can only order a second cable from (at least right now).
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: Yes. Proprietary “iPod Dock” connector. You can buy one of these cables anywhere. Bums on the streets will sell you one.
    • Overall: I have several devices that use the “small” use connector, so, it is nice that I didn’t need any special extra cables with the Rio Carbon. Second in line is the iPod as the cables are cheap and plentiful. Zen Sleek last. Forget your cable and your on a long trip? SOL.
  • Playlists
    • Rio Carbon: Never really used them. Sorry.
    • Creative Zen Sleek: Supports importing M3u via Windows Media Player or creating them using the Creative software. Pretty fast and easy.
    • Apple iPod Video 30gb: You must create them in iTunes, but, iTunes supports Smart Playlists were are FANTASTIC. Just make a playlist of “Artist” “is” “AC/DC” and you are done. Ever song by “AC/DC” is in the playlist. You can make the “and” or “or” and search on any of the tagged fields. It will even make a suffle playlist with a limited number of files. Really neat.
    • Overall: iPod BY FAR.

I would have bought another Rio Carbon, but Rio is pretty much now defunct. Given my analysis above, I have decided on the iPod Video 30gb and am very happy with my choice.

One final thing, I mentioned problems with compilation albums with the iPod Mini before. You can now tag the tracks of a compilation album as a “Compilation” in iTunes and it will group these together in “Compilations”, so you don’t have tons of stray artists cluttering up your Arist list (unless that is what you want).

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