Full confession here: I own two iPods. Matter of fact, pretty much everyone I know—including my dad—owns at least one. So I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know if I say that iPods are sleek, well designed and easy to use.
Good. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I am going to brave the hate mail from the Apple zealots and suggest the unthinkable. Maybe, just maybe, you should look beyond Apple when buying your next digital music player.
There are two good reasons to do so. The first is to encourage innovation. A lot of companies do excellent work in this category, but they’re ignored because of our love affair with the iPod. The other reason is value. Buying a non-Apple MP3 gadget usually gets you more features at better prices than a corresponding iPod.
The only catch? Non-Apple players either rely on their own software (in other words, you can’t use iTunes with them) or they use the built-in Windows Media Player that comes with Windows. In either case, the software is not always easy to figure out.
If you’re up to the software challenge, some of the iPod alternatives are very fine indeed. I suggest that you at least look at the following devices before handing Steve Jobs your money.
FITNESS BUFF – If you exercise with your music player, then you need a small, light MP3 player that can take a smack without missing a beat. My pick is the SanDisk Sansa Clip. It’s a tiny matchbox- sized MP3 player that can pack 250 to 500 songs into its flash memory, depending upon whether you choose the 1 GB model ($49.99) or the 2 GB version ($69.99). Since its memory has no moving parts, the Clip is ideal for situations where the device may get dropped or jostled. As its name suggests, the device also has an adjustable clip so you can attach it to clothing, a waistband or even a hat. It even features a tiny screen and an FM radio tuner. With the Clip around, it’s easy to skip Apple’s iPod Shuffle. More info at www.sandisk.com/sansa/.
Sansa Clip 1 GB $49.99
iPod Shuffle 1 GB $84.99
BUSINESS TRAVELLER – When I climb on a plane, I want to watch videos and lull myself to sleep with music. I also want to be able to show photos of my cats to the guy in the next seat who really, really wants to tell me his life story. (Believe me—a dozen or so cat shots are enough to discourage even the most determined conversationalist.) Granted, you can do all those things with the touch-sensitive, video-capable iPod Touch, but a fine alternative is the Archos 605 WiFi. This handheld device is designed for video playback on the go. It features an 11-cm touch-sensitive screen and comes with storage capacity of 30 GB, 80 GB or 160 GB, which gives you space for 40, 80 or 200 movies. Want more? It can connect to a wireless network so you can surf the Internet. It can also record TV-to-go and play games. Check it out at www.archos.com.
Archos 605 WiFi 30 GB $329.99
iPod Touch 16 GB $449
COMMUTER – If you’re looking for a pocketsized device that does video on a small but ample screen, plays your music and shows off your pictures, you can rush out and buy an iPod Classic. But first check out the SanDisk Sansa View. This cellphone-sized player fits in your hand and features a dialand- click browse wheel that is as good as the one on the iPod. Its screen dominates the device and its memory comes in 8 GB or 16 GB versions. It also has an expansion slot so you can add 2 to 8 GB of storage using a tiny MicroSD data card. The unit is priced in line with the 8 GB iPod Nano, but you can also compare it to the more robust iPod Classic, which has 80 GB or 160 GB of storage. For my money, the Sansa View is a happy medium between the two. More info at www.sandisk.com/sansa/.
iPod Classic 80 GB $259
Sansa View 16 GB $219
iPod Nano 8 GB $199
URBAN HIPSTER – If you’re a yoga mom or an aspiring illustrator, the iPod Nano is meant for you. A fine alternative, however, is the Creative ZEN. It’s a purse- or knapsack-friendly device with a nice 6-cm screen. Besides video and audio playback it has an FM radio, an SD data card expansion slot to add memory, and an audio recording feature that lets you store conversations or voice memos (“Note to self: pick up laundry soap”). Granted the ZEN is not as pretty as the Nano, but if you want a small, sturdy device that can endure being banged and jostled in the bottom of your purse or courier bag this could be the player for you. I dropped mine on my hardwood floor and on a snowy sidewalk with no damage. More info at www.creative.com.
Creative ZEN 8 GB $219.99
iPod Nano 8 GB $199
The $25 iPod alternative
Before you rush out to buy a new player, you might want to first crack the manual for your cellular phone. Many newer phones—especially the smart ones, such as BlackBerry, Treo and some Nokia devices—can store and play music. They can also play video files and display photos. While the built-in storage on these devices falls short of the generous space on dedicated music players, they have slots for data cards, which can greatly expand the memory. The BlackBerry slot, for example, is under the battery. A 1 GB MicroSD card ($24.99) can hold more than 200 songs. Double that for a 2 GB card ($30.99).