Apple owns the market for tiny players.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
The Cheapskate's Guide to iPods and other portable music players

Dec. 10, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   "I came, I saw, iPod." Julius Caesar might have changed history if he'd been wearing one of Apple's tiny iPod shuffles instead of that two-ton armored breastplate when he conquered Gaul. Instead of swinging a sword, Uncle Jules might have been swinging his arms in go-go fashion, and the Gauls, prepping themselves to become what we now know as the French, would have appreciated fewer conquering heroes and a lot more rock and roll.
   Ah, if only we could scramble history. So we're left with the next best thing, unscrambling the present -- especially, unscrambling the mess that greets us when we try to shop for a handheld music player. I'll run through this without a single buzzword, too. No geeky stuff for me.
   Apple owns the market for tiny players. It made about 80 percent of all players in use worldwide. The name Apple gave to its music (and now video) players has become semi-generic, like Kleenex. And so when you think of a handheld player, you think of an iPod even when you're not thinking of an iPod, if you know what I mean. (Kachoo! Grab a Kleenex!)
   iPods do have a few competitors, but they're all second rate. (Well, not all of them. Some, like Microsoft's new Zune player, are third-rate.)
   The reason all the others are also-rans isn't what you might think. Experts on this sort of thing sometimes babble on about the iPod's superior design or even the product's svelte packaging. Boo-ha. That's not it at all. The iPod is the top dog because it has magic software.
   The software is called iTunes. It runs on Windows and on Macs and might well be the single best thing that ever happened to a byte. (Oh. Sorry, that's almost geeky. I mean "small unit of computer memory.") iTunes manages music and videos on both your iPod and your computer. This means two things: You don't ever need an iPod to enjoy these delights, and you don't ever have to manage your iPod if you do have one -- because iTunes does all that for you.
   Just plug your iPod into your computer -- Windows or Mac, remember? -- and iTunes grabs the next bus out of your hard drive and shows up inside your iPod, taking along all the latest tunes and videos you put on your computer the day before. As soon as it's charged up, your iPod has the same music and videos your computer has, with no work from you.
   And if you're a fan of podcasts, iTunes does a podcastic job of sorting them out and transferring them, too. You never need to monkey with downloads. Just charge it up and run.
   Trust me, nobody else does this as well as Apple. Scratch that. Nobody else does it half as well. The software is the secret.
   And that means the iPod family -- yes, there are brothers and sisters and little nephews, more or less -- is the way to go. There are three iPod relatives I recommend:
   iPod nano. $149 to $249, depending on capacity. The new nano (the old one is officially retired -- even when you're a nephew, you get retirement benefits) is rugged, looks so cool it should be frozen, and has an amazingly sharp but tiny screen. It plays music and shows pictures, but it won't show movies.
   iPod shuffle. $79. No screen, but who'd want a screen on something the size of a money clip? Great sound quality and clever clip-on design, but it won't show pictures or movies.
   iPod. $249 to $349, depending on capacity. Bright (and very sharp) screen that works well for movies if you don't mind looking close. Huge music, movie and photo capacity, and you can even squeeze dozens of TV shows onto an iPod, too. (Apple's iTunes store sells TV shows for only $1.99.)
   There are a zillion iPod accessories, too. I like the ones that turn the tiny player into a room-filling music machine. Check out Apple's own iPod Hi-Fi ($349) and the Klipsch iGroove ($199).