When it comes to portable music players — often referred to as MP3 players — most people immediately think of Apple's iPod or Microsoft's Zune. This should come as no surprise, given that nearly half of MP3 player owners have an iPod, according to the market research firm In-Stat. Moreover, this impressive portion of all the music players in use, will likely become even more substantial, since that same study indicated that the iPod's market share reached almost 80 percent at one point.
Likewise, Microsoft may not have the reputation for creativity or ease of product use enjoyed by Apple, but they are second to none as a marketing juggernaut, and will probably leave no stone or dollar unturned to push the Zune in the marketplace. Various sources reported in late 2006 that Microsoft was expected to invest more than $100 million in promoting the Zune, including more than 20 ad spots.
These two industry titans may be carving up the lion's share of the marketplace in an effort to recoup the untold millions of dollars spent on the design, development, production, and marketing of their music players. But that does not necessarily mean that those particular players are the best ones available to the consumer in general, and certainly not the best for anyone who has more specialized needs, such as the ability to listen to satellite radio stations.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the iPod and Zune, for anyone who concludes that neither offering would be their optimal choice. This is especially true for anyone who wants features not found in the big-name options, or who wants to avoid "features" such as getting locked into Apple's iTunes or Microsoft's DRM-based copyright protection. I will examine some of the most promising though lesser-known music players, and see why they deserve greater recognition.
Aiming at the Apple
With the most sizable portion of the audio player market, Apple has certainly set itself up to be the standard that all its competitors can try to match, if not exceed. One competitor that is aiming its arrows directly at Apple's product line, is SanDisk, a veteran in flash memory products. The company naturally benefits from its many years of research, innovation, and expertise with consumer products based largely upon flash memory, which now includes music players. In addition, they are able to reduce their unit costs by not having to purchase their flash memory from a middleman — unlike most of the other music player manufacturers, including Apple.
As of this writing, SanDisk offers no fewer than 10 different MP3 products, and most of them are clearly designed to compete with the iPod. For instance, their low-cost Sansa m200 Series can store up to 4 GB (gigabytes) of music, which translates into 16 hours of music in MP3 format, or double that in WMA (Windows Media Audio) format. Assuming an average song length of four minutes, that's 240 or 480 songs, respectively. Their Sansa e100 Series features FM tuning, for anyone who misses all those broadcast radio commercials.
SanDisk also has more specialized products, including their Sansa Connect MP3 player, which has built-in support for WiFi. Not only does it play music, but it displays pictures and can also stream Internet radio. Another example is their Sansa Express, which can store 1 GB of music, and does not require a cable to be connected to the user's computer, but instead plugs directly into any MP3 port, just like a standard thumb drive.
One competitor of Apple that would have even more reason for relishing a battle, is Creative, which had introduced its Zen Nano more than a year before Apple came out with their iPod nano, thus effectively stealing the name by "virtue" of greater brand recognition. Creative struck back with the ZEN Neeon 2, which is offered in three different capacities — 1, 2, and 4 GB — and rivals the iPod nano in size, weight, and pricing. It also features FM tuning, as is found in the iPod counterparts, but also built-in voice and audio-in recording.
Rivals of Redmond
At the same time that Microsoft's Zune provoked a chorus of derision from the company's critics, it also provoked a slew of portable music players designed to make it look even worse than Microsoft's initial choice of color (brown and light black, perhaps with the idea that the creative types at Apple already had dibs on all the attractive colors). The competition firing torpedoes at Microsoft's flagship music player, have probably cheered at every revelation in the press concerning the Zune's weaknesses — such as its limitations in sharing songs over its WiFi connection, or its finding just a fraction of users' MP3 files.
Having been stung by Apple, and burned by its partner-turned-rival Microsoft, the underdog Creative hurled a well-aimed stone at the Redmond Goliath when it released its ZEN Vision W. Like the Zune, the ZEN Vision W (apparently for "widescreen") plays music files and FM radio stations, and also displays static pictures and movies. Both are offered in a 30-GB base capacity, but the ZEN also has a 60-GB model.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the size of the screen, and thus the capability of each device to play movies so as not to cause blindness. The Zune only has a three-inch LCD screen, with a resolution of 320x240, while the Creative offering has a more attractive screen that is 4.3 inches diagonal, with a resolution of 480x272. Perhaps most important of all — particularly for anyone who enjoys watching wide-aspect movies — is how the ZEN Vision W is designed with the 16:9 widescreen movie format in mind, while the Zune's screen is square.
As if the comparative features between the two different products are not enough to clarify the positioning of the ZEN Vision W against the Zune, Creative released its product on the exact same day that Microsoft announced the details of its own product.
Product and Format Wars
There is a plethora of other music players that are competing head-to-head with the iPod and Zune, including offerings from Samsung, Sony, and even Sirius, whose Stiletto naturally leverages their Internet radio service. As always, prospective buyers should research the features and costs of all the available options.
Before leaving this subject, it should be noted that even though MP3 is by far the most popular music file format at this time, it is certainly not the only one in use. Other commonly seen formats include a variety of nonproprietary ones, such as Ogg Vorbis, as well as proprietary ones, such as Microsoft's WMA, which is supported by many online music services, as well as most of the players mentioned above.