Tech Toys 2006, Part 2: Portable Music

As with last year, the hottest electronics products this year are MP3 players, portable digital devices that play digital music and other digital audio content, such as podcasts and audio books. This market, as ever, is dominated by Apple and its line of superb iPod devices, which were all upgraded recently, and just in time for the holidays. Waiting in the wings, however, are a number of competitors, including a surprising new entry from Microsoft. Here are your best bets for portable music this holiday season.

Apple iPod
In the portable music space, there's Apple, and then there's everyone else. Apple dominates digital music in the same way that Microsoft dominates the PC industry, but the good news is that Apple's iPod devices actually live up to the hype. You simply can't go wrong with any iPod, and the ecosystem of cases, speakers, and other add-ons is as large as it is valuable. You can't go wrong giving an iPod-related gift this holiday season. The only problem you'll have is figuring out what to get.

iPods
The iPod family is logically split into three models, although each has changed, often dramatically, since the 2005 models. On the high end, the iPod with video (sometimes simply referred to simply as the "iPod") offers a traditional iPod form factor with a 2.5” color screen and fantastic battery life. In the center of the line, the most popular model, the iPod nano, has been dramatically upgraded with a new aluminum skin and a variety of colors and capacities. Finally, at the low end of the line-up is the inexpensive and crazy-gorgeous new iPod shuffle, which brings Apple's vaunted miniaturization policies to an almost hilarious conclusion. Here's how the iPod model lineup breaks down this year.

The iPod with video is available in 30GB ($249, about 10,000 songs) and 80GB ($349, about 20,000 songs) versions. Both are available in either black or white. As with the 2005 models, the new iPods can play videos and photo slide shows, as well as music, and Apple now offers near-DVD-quality TV shows ($1.99 each) and Hollywood movies ($12.99 and up) for sale via the iTunes Store. Although the selection of TV shows is absolutely stellar, only a small selection of Disney movies is currently available, but that's expected to change over the next year.

Apple's fantastic iPod nano got even better this year with new anodized aluminum bodies that don't scratch as easily as their predecessors. The new nanos are even thinner and more attractive, too, and come in four different versions. On the low end is a 2GB version ($149, about 500 songs), which is available only in silver. In the middle is a 4GB version ($199, about 1000 songs), which can be had in silver, green, blue, or pink. And on the high end is an 8GB version ($249, about 2000 songs), that comes only in black. Additionally, there is a new fourth model, the iPod nano RED Special Edition, which comes only in red and ships in 4GB ($199) and 8GB ($249) variants. A portion of the proceeds from this special-edition iPod nano goes to the Global Fund charity.

Like the iPod, the iPod nano can play music (with color album art) and photo slide shows. However, it can’t play video or access the new line of iPod-compatible games.

At the low end of the iPod lineup is the gorgeous new iPod shuffle ($79.99), which is so small you might not believe it's an iPod at all. The shuffle is about the size of a box of matches, weighs almost nothing, and can hold about 250 songs. Like its predecessor, the new shuffle doesn't feature a screen, but you can switch between straight playback and shuffling. The shuffle comes in an aluminum casing, includes a special iPod shuffle dock, and features a built-in clip so you can attach it to any clothing. And you'll want to do that because the iPod shuffle looks like it was made to be lost.

Given its low price and small size, the iPod shuffle might just be the ultimate stocking stuffer, even for those who already own other iPods. It's the perfect gym or travel companion, and its sleek looks will garner jealous glances from anyone who actually sees the tiny device. Highly recommended.

iPod Accessories
More than ever before, the market for iPod add-ons and accessories is the number-one reason to own such a device. The iPods are fantastic on their own, but thanks to a burgeoning market for speakers, in-car adapters, and other devices, iPods take on new levels of functionality that make them infinitely valuable. For gift givers, this means there are plenty of excellent gift opportunities.

Although Apple's in-box iPod headphones are dramatically better than the models the company shipped last year, many iPod users are going to want to look to third-party solutions that provide better sound or comfort. I'm a big fan of Shure's expensive in-ear sound-isolating headphones, although they're admittedly not for everyone: These headphones don't feature any active sound-cancellation technologies but instead rely on a tight seal to keep out exterior noise; they're great for commuting and plane rides, but not so much for jogging or biking, or other situations in which you really need to hear what's going on around you. The Shure E2C Sound Isolating Earphones ($99.99) are relatively inexpensive; higher-end models such as the Shure E3C Sound Isolating Earphones ($179.99) come with a variety of sleeves for a custom fit. Another fine option in this category is Etymonic Research's 6isolator Earphones ($149), which also offer a secure, in-the-ear fit, with great music reproduction and noise isolation—provided you squeeze them into the ear canal just right.

If you're looking for traditional noise-reducing headphones, the recently released Bose QuietComfort 3 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones ($349.99) are expensive but excellent. The company also still sells its QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones ($299.99) for less, although they're larger and heavier than the new model.

I'm also still a fan of Sony's old-school Street Style Heaphones MDR-G42LP ($14.99), which are great for the gym or bicycle.

If you're looking to fill a room with sound, check out some iPod speakers. There are many models available, from Apple's monolith-like iPod Hi-Fi ($349) and the Bose SoundDock Digital Music System ($299.95, available in black or white) on the high end to smaller and more economical models such as the iHome iH6 Dual-Alarm Clock Radio for iPod ($99.95, available in black or white). Looking for an iPod solution for the kitchen? Check out the iHome iH36 Under Kitchen Cabinet iPod Stereo Player ($149.95), which will make a nice replacement for that old under-cabinet CD player you've mothballed.

There are innumerable cases to choose from, and of course each iPod requires its own special case (even the 30GB and 80GB iPod with video models require different cases). My advice is to look for cases in person, or simply get one of Apple’s gift cards (various amounts; see below). That said, there are some fun cases out there that should appeal to many iPod owners. The best example is Apple's iPod socks ($29.00), which are exactly what they sound like: A set of colorful socks you can use to protect your iPod.

Also consider giving the gift of (digital) music, TV shows, movies, audio books, games and more: Apple supplies Tunes Music Store Gift Certificates (various amounts) and iTunes Gift Cards in $15, $25, and $50 versions. Or you can simply purchase an Apple Gift Card ($25 to $2500), which work both online and in Apple's retail stores.

Other Portable Music Options
Although Apple is only increasing its lead over the competition, there are indeed iPod alternatives out there and some of them are quite good. If you're a music fan who wants to integrate a portable player with your Media Center PC, for example, you're going to want to look at the various PlaysForSure-compatible devices. And then there's the dark horse: Microsoft's recently released Zune.

Microsoft Zune
Billed as an “iPod Killer,” the Zune is more of an iPod alternative, and it seems to exist solely to sop up the small market of people who are turned off, for one reason or another, by Apple's popular devices. Similar in size and capacity to Apple's 30GB iPod with video, the Zune ($249.99) is available in three colors (white, black, and brown) and offers a bigger screen than Apple's device. However, it also gets worse battery life and doesn't offer the wide range of features that iPod owners take for granted.

Here's what you get: The Zune comes with a pair of cheap headphones (which you should immediately replace), a slipcase, and a charging/sync cable. The device works only with Windows XP and later (Vista support is coming soon), and requires proprietary software that looks and acts like Windows Media Player (WMP) but isn’t compatible with any PlaysForSure online services (such as Napster, Yahoo Music, and MTV URGE) or the content they sell. Zune does offer one feature that the iPod lacks: Zune owners can share music and photos with each other wirelessly, thanks to the Zune's built-in Wi-Fi transmitter, but any music you transfer in this fashion will expire and automatically delete itself after three plays, or three days, whichever comes first. This applies to both commercially bought and unprotected music content.

What you don't get is support for iPod features such as audio books, video games, downloadable movies, TV shows, music videos, and other video content, or podcasts. For this reason, the Zune is largely an also-ran.

For diehard Microsoft fans, there are a handful of Zune accessories available, including a Zune Dock ($39.99), a Zune A/V Output Cable ($19.99), a Zune Wireless Remote Control ($29.99), Zune Premium Headphones ($39.99), a Zune Gear Bag ($29.99), and a Zune Car Charger ($24.99). Microsoft also sells a variety of packages that combine these accessories into logical, easy-to-buy sets. For example, the Zune Home A/V Pack ($99.99) combines the Zune Dock with the Zune remote, AC Adapter, and A/V Output Cables. There's also a Zune Car Pack with FM Transmitter ($79.99) and a Zune Travel Pack ($99.99). A number of third-party companies also sell a small selection of Zune-compatible speakers, cases, and other accessories.

Other iPod Alternatives
There are a number of excellent non-iPod MP3 players available. The SanDisk Sansa comes in a variety of versions, including 2GB ($99.99), 4GB (149.99), and 8GB ($199.99) versions. This small but thick and high-quality iPod nano alternative features a gorgeous color screen and an SD slot for memory expansion, a feature that is almost unheard of in this category.

Creative's tiny Creative Zen V also competes with the iPod nano but is quite a bit smaller (and, frankly, cuter) than the Sansa. It comes in 1GB ($79.99), 2G ($99.99), and 4GB ($149.99) variants, each available in a variety of bright colors. The Zen V features a cute-as-a-button control pad (too small for large hands), a pleasant color screen, and a fairly intuitive UI. Best of all, it uses a standard USB cable for connectivity and not another proprietary sync cable like most other players.

Finally, the iRiver clix ($169.99) should be at the top of any digital music lover's list: This 2GB device comes in a unique rectangular form factor that lets the user interact with its onscreen menus using its clickable screen edges, an effect that has to be experienced in person for the full effect. The clix features a wonderfully readable color display with logical menus and is hugely portable. Highly recommended.

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