Sunday, July 23, 2006

Top-cool MP3 players and more ...

Today it seems fashionable to make lists of best or worst products (for 2006, really, when did this year end ???) and so on, so why not a list of the best MP3 players a non-fanboy can get for their real value and features ?! (at the middle of 2006 - give or take a few weeks).

For a MP3 player SIZE MATTERS - so instead of mixing all MP3 players together I will eventually name a top dog in each size-based category, eventually with some 'also running' mentions and some quick reasons behind each choice - and at the very end there will be a few words on why the new M$ Zune might not change things so much ...

So let's get started - the very first category is USB-stick-size MP3 players - the iPod Shuffle was always a very bad choice in that category (big price for the memory provided, no screen, equalizer or anything else) yet somehow only recently we have finally seen some valuable contenders - and the winner is ... the Samsung YP-U2 - it is just the ultimate memory stick that has them all !!! (with the right firmware tweaks - shame on Samsung for not providing everything by default! also the availability of the 1 and 2 GB models worldwide leaves a lot to desire!). There are many other MP3 players of the same size but too often the designers leave out the USB direct connector so we will not even mention those ...

A second category is that of very small flash-based players - in this category the USB connector is no longer required and the screen is very important but the size and weight is essential - this category was mostly initiated by the iPod Nano but (as with all Apple products) after the initial start they just could not provide enough value for money - so the absolute winner here (so far) is the SanDisk Sansa e2xx series - better than the competition in almost every single aspect of a real-world MP3 player ! There were also a number of alternatives from lesser or better known names but while Apple is very happy generating an industry of expensive cases and protectors for their products they would rather force you to buy a new iPod every year or so instead of providing a simple replacement battery !!!

Those two categories pretty much close the flash-memory-based choices available in 2006 (the rest of the year will at most see some 8 GB models launched), so the remaining MP3 players are hard-disk based; it is however not fair to place all them together so we'll have to create at least 3 extra categories to correctly cover the desires and needs of most users.

Initially I was thinking that a separate category for players based on 1'' or smaller disk-drives will not be needed since the competition from flash-based players is just too strong - but currently you can get a Creative Zen Micro or one Archos 1xx series for at least 30-40% less money than a flash player of the same capacity - so for certain users those might be perfectly valid choices! (just be careful not to drop them too often).

Then we have a category of small (yet with decent storage) but mostly music-oriented players - even today my very first choice would go to Archos 2xx (20 GB so far but a 40 GB version at the end of the year might not be impossible) since it is so small yet so perfect for somebody that just wants music! If you would like more you might also take a look at some other (seriously bigger and more cluttered) alternatives - in order the Creative Zen Vision M or even the fifth generation ipod (you might want the older 4th generation if you only have firewire).

And we are now to the final category - where small size only means that you want something much smaller than a notebook and eventually with better battery life :) Again the winners are some not-so-well-known models - the Archos AV 500 , the Cowon A2 and eventually the Neuros 442 - all have large screens, multimedia and USB-on-the-go capabilities (with a special mention for iAudio X5 - smaller screen but apparently better USB-to-camera connectivity; too bad none of those has RAW picture capability since it will certainly be a huge hit for many pro photographers - especially the 100 GB Archos version!).

A lot of noise was done recently by the "Microsoft iPod killer" - I was looking at that as the last hope for breaking the Apple monopoly but it seems that more likely people will be seriously disappointed - apparently Microsoft was designing the new features in order to please the music industry - while some hopes remain (and I'll have to wait for the real thing to emerge) I am afraid that so far I was never impressed with a product that places some (more or less hidden) interests before what the consumer wants :(

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