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Tech Toys 2005: A Holiday Shopping Guide, Part 2: Portable Music

There's little doubt that Microsoft's blockbuster Xbox 360 is the gotta-have-it gift of Christmas 2005, but portable music devices and services are as hot as ever, thanks to the success of Apple Computer's stunning iPod family and iTunes Music Service. In the second installment of this year's Tech Toys holiday-shopping guide, I'll examine your portable music gift-giving choices, including Apple and non-Apple options.

Apple iPod
Four years ago, Apple introduced a portable digital music player called the iPod that, frankly, didn't really set the world on fire. Available only to Macintosh users, the original iPod was expensive and FireWire-based, and it required users to rip their music collections to a computer before transferring them to the device. Over the years, Apple steadily improved the iPod, adding new product models, opening it up to Windows users, and introducing the world's best legal music-download service, the iTunes Music Store. Today, there's an iPod for every need and budget.

Best of all for gift-givers, however, there's also a multitude of iPod-related gifts available, so if you're seeking that perfect gift for a family member, friend, or coworker who already owns one of Apple's revolutionary devices, fear not: You'll have no trouble making him or her happy. Let's take a look at the possibilities.

iPod Models
Today, the iPod family is split nicely into three model lines: the iPod (sometimes referred to as the "iPod with video"), the iPod nano (which replaced the iPod mini), and the iPod shuffle. All three models are new to 2005, so even those with previous iPod models might want to consider taking the plunge. Here's how the iPod model lineup breaks down.

The iPod comes in 30GB ($299) and 60GB ($399) versions, although those capacity designations might mean little to most people. Think of it this way: The 30GB version can store as many as 7500 songs, and the 60GB version can hold as many as 15,000 songs. Both of the new iPod versions are much slimmer and lighter than the models they replace, with better battery life, and both feature a gorgeous 2.5" color screen. And both iPods are available in either black or white, although you should know that the majority of iPod accessories are still white.

The big change with the new iPod, of course, is that it can play videos and photo slideshows, in addition to music. It's not yet easy to convert home movies into a format that the new iPod can display, but Apple is making a variety of TV shows (including hit ABC series such as Lost and Desperate Housewives), Pixar short films, and other video content available via the iTunes Music Store for about $2 apiece. The new iPod's color screen is also particularly nice for enjoying album art, if you've encoded your music with that information.

In the middle of the iPod line-up is the family's new bestseller, the ultra-thin iPod nano. Like its big brother, the iPod nano features a gorgeous color screen and is available in two models, a 2GB version ($199) that can hold as many as 500 songs and a 4GB version ($249) that can store as many as 1000 songs. Apple describes the iPod nano as "impossibly small," and that description is apt, as the device clocks in at just 1.5 ounces and is less than one-third of an inch thick. It's the ultimate iPod for the fashion conscious, or those with typical (i.e., not vast) music collections.

Like the iPod, the iPod nano is available in black or white versions. It can play music (with color album art) and photo slideshows, but not video. Frankly, the small storage capacity of the iPod nano restricts the device to music for most people, but that's just fine.

Another feature that both the iPod and iPod nano offer is the ability to have Apple add a custom laser engraving to the back of the device. This option is available, however, only when you order an iPod or iPod nano from the Apple online store and is free.

On the low end of the iPod totem pole is the iPod shuffle, which doesn't feature a screen at all, but instead assumes that you're going to be OK playing a music playlist in order or randomly. The iPod shuffle is about the size of a pack of gum and, like other iPods, comes in two versions, 512MB ($99) for as many as 120 songs and 1GB ($129) for storing as many as 240 songs. The iPod shuffle is available only in Apple's signature white.

You might wonder why anyone would want such a device—after all, competing products from companies such as Creative Labs do feature tiny screens and additional functionality—but I've found the iPod shuffle to be the perfect companion at the gym and on crowded commuter buses and trains. Thanks to a bundled lanyard, you can wear the shuffle around your neck like jewelry and easily conceal it in your clothes. Additionally, you can use part of the iPod shuffle's memory as a dedicated flash storage device, making it even more useful.

When you consider the iPod lineup with regards to gift-giving, you need to consider cost, of course, but also how well each product model matches the needs of the user. The top-shelf iPod is expensive but features massive storage capacities and video capabilities. The mid-line iPod nano is probably most applicable for the widest range of users and is wonderfully small with a beautiful color screen. And the iPod nano is perfect for those on the go, especially for gym rats and those with small music collections.

iPod Accessories
The success of the iPod has spawned a diverse cottage industry for iPod accessories. There are all kinds of things you can get for an iPod owner, including a number of accessories that Apple should have included in the box with its devices.

The most obvious of these is headphones. Apple includes a pair of low-rent in-the-ear headphones with all of its iPods, but music lovers will want something nicer. All kinds of different types of headphones are available. My favorite in-ear model is the Sony Earphones MDR-EX81LP/W ($49.99), which comes in iPod white, of course, and features an over-the-ear hoop and three different rubber eartips for comfort. For over-the-ear comfort and versatility—not to mention low cost—check out Sony's classic Street Style Heaphones MDR-G42LP ($14.99), a favorite of joggers and gym rats everywhere.

If you're looking for noise-canceling headphones—something I recommend strongly for airplanes, commuting, or other places where loud background noise can cause hearing damage—you have many options. You've probably heard of the incredible Bose QuietComfort 2 ($299), although they're expensive and large. If you're looking for something smaller that still offers decent protection, I've been happy with the Sony Noise Canceling Headphones MDR-NC6 ($59.99).

As with a set of headphones, Apple supplies a cheap case with each iPod (well, not with the iPod shuffle), but because the iPod nano and iPod are so delicate and easy to scratch, you're going to want something to protect your new investment. Apple makes a set of decent iPod nano Tubes ($29.99), which comes with green, white, blue, pink, and purple rubber sleeves for your iPod nano, and they work quite well. They don't, however, include a screen protector, which you might consider a requirement. For that, you could get a case that includes a screen cover, or simply get the Power Support Crystal Film for nano ($15), which adheres to the iPod nano's entire front fascia but doesn't leave any adhesive behind when you remove it.

The iPod needs protection, too, of course. I use and recommend the incase Pouch for iPod with video ($19.99 in separate versions for 30GB and 60GB iPod), which provides full body protection and a handy belt clip. Want something a little more fun? Check out Apple's iPod socks ($29), which are literally a set of colorful socks you can use to protect your iPod.

Any iPod is great on its own, but these devices really come into their own when you can use them in more open environments, such as a car or your living room. To do so, you're going to need an adapter. For the car, you have a variety of ways to go. If you have a cassette deck in your vehicle, try the Belkin Cassette Adapter for iPod ($19.99), which offers the best sound quality and reliability of all the cassette adapters I've tried. Or, you can use an FM receiver, such as the Griffin iTrip with LCD ($39.99), with virtually any car receiver, although you might have interference problems, depending on your location. For the best sound quality, you'll need a professionally installed system. Look at both the Harmon Kardon Drive + Play ($199) or the Monster iCruze ($379 with screen).

For the living room, check out an Apple iPod Universal Dock ($39.99) for connecting any iPod to a home stereo or, in the case of the high-end iPod, to your TV as well. There are also a variety of portable speaker options, such as the gorgeous Bose SoundDock Digital Music System ($299.99) or the slightly less extravagant Altec Lansing inMotion iM5 Mobile Audio Dock ($149.99)

There are plenty of other doo-hickeys you can get for various iPods, some of which are quite useful. Joggers and gym-goers might appreciate an arm band, such as the Apple iPod nano Armband ($29, various colors) or the XtremeMac Black SportsWrap for iPod shuffle ($29.95). If you're going to use your new iPod to watch recorded shows on your TV, consider an Apple Remote ($29), which lets you pause the action and change the volume from the couch. Need a voice recorder? Griffin's iTalk ($39.95) or the Belkin iPod Microphone ($19.95) are your best options. You can also use an iPod to offload photos from a digital camera. Apple sells a serviceable iPod Camera Connector ($29) for this purpose, but the Belkin Media Reader ($39.99) is a better choice.

There are all kinds of other ways you can do right by iPod owners. For example, consider giving the gift of (digital) music: Apple provides iTunes Music Store Gift Certificates (various amounts), as well as iTunes Gift Cards in $15, $25, and $50 versions. Or you can simply purchase an Apple Gift Card ($25 to $2500) and let your recipient pick out his or her own iPod accessories.

Other Portable Music Options
Apple might be the dominant player, but it's not the only MP3 game in town. A variety of companies are offering competing portable players and services, and some are actually worth considering.

iPod Alternatives
Creative offers several MP3 players, including the iPod nano-like the 6GB Zen Micro ($199.99) and 8GB Zen MicroPhoto ($237.99), both of which come in a variety of colors and offer a nice, small form factor; the Photo version includes a color screen. On the higher end, consider a Zen Sleek Photo ($219.99), which features 20GB of storage and a slender aluminum and white body.

Another portable player contender, iRiver, offers three versions of its sleek H10 series players, which come in 5GB ($229.99), 6GB ($279.99), and 20GB ($299.99) versions. Each is available in a variety of colors and features a beautiful color screen.

Finally, although Sony hasn't completely overcome the boneheaded design decisions that doomed its previous-generation players, the company offers one interesting option: The Sony NW-E507 Network Walkman 1GB Digital Music Player with FM Tuner ($149.99) offers more functionality than a comparable iPod shuffle and features a cool OLED screen.

Give the Gift of Service
Apple's iTunes Music Store dominates the digital music scene today, but several services are now available for non-iPod users. For example, RealNetwork's Rhapsody service provides streaming music content and a la carte song downloads, offering high-quality files that work on a variety of devices. You can purchase various Rhapsody gift cards, including Rhapsody Unlimited 6 Months & 20 Downloads ($49.99), Rhapsody Unlimited 3 Months & 15 Downloads ($29.99), and Rhapsody Unlimited 1 Month & 10 Downloads ($12.99). Or, if you just want to help someone jumpstart his or her music collection, consider gift packs of Rhapsody 50 Music Downloads ($34.99) or Rhapsody 20 Music Downloads ($14.99).

MSN Music also offers a variety of song gift certificates, which come in increments of 10 ($9.90), 15 ($14.85), 20 ($19.90) or 30 ($29.70). And Napster fans can purchase Napster gift cards in various amounts at retail locations such as Best Buy, CompUSA, and K-Mart.

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