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Scott's Column
MP3 Player Comparison, The Perfect Mac

December 1, 2007
By Scott Lewis

This month I want to concentrate on comparing a batch of MP3 players. I am going to get something for my birthday in December, so I have to do my usual due diligence and determine which is the best... for me. I also contemplate what I want/need in a Mac. After last month's massive OS X testing I think I know enough to decide that none of the current Mac computers are right for me. So what would be the perfect Mac... for me.

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The Perfect Mac... For Me

Last month I wrote about all the testing I have done with OS X. I really do think that a Mac will be my next computer. I am pretty sure I can get away with running Microsoft Money (Money 95) and Expression Web with Parallels on a Mac. I will also use Boot Camp to dual boot to Windows when I need the added performance.

I have been having a very hard time lately playing games on my laptop. I find it a little difficult to actually play while sitting in bed, or on the couch. This begs the question, do I really need gaming performance in a laptop. At the moment I think the answer to that is no.

My current goal for gaming is to play Crysis. I don't own the game yet, but whatever gaming computer I go with must be able to play this game. This is basically the sequel to FarCry, which I loved and played to the end. I can't wait to see the graphics of Crysis in action. I figure I will build a new gaming desktop sometime soon. With that I don't need gaming capabilities in a laptop. Not that a little casual gaming won't be enjoyable, but the hard core stuff I will leave to my next desktop. So let's take a quick look at the Apple line up to see what is the best Mac for me.

I probably should take a quick look at desktops, just to see if I could get away from building a gaming desktop. I managed to get some time with a couple of iMacs. One was the $1,199 model with a 20" screen, and the other was priced at $1,799 and had a huge 24" screen. I liked them. The screens are amazingly clear and I could see buying one of these machines. But the graphics in the iMacs don't have any serious gaming capability, even if booted to Windows in Boot Camp. Also, I will not spend enough money to buy a Mac Pro. That was quick. Let's start looking at the Mac laptops.

If I did need gaming performance in a laptop I would have to go with one of the MacBook Pro models. For me that would be a 15" model. This should provide decent gaming performance from its nVidia video card. The least expensive MacBook Pro comes with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 15.4" screen with 1440 x 900 resolution, 2GB memory, 120GB hard drive and nVidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics with 128MB SDRAM for $1,999. However, I have read that the 8800 GT series video card with at least 256 MB of memory is preferable for playing DirectX 10 games.

With gaming performance covered by a Windows based desktop computer I only need moderate performance in a laptop, so what does the MacBook line provide. The mid-point MacBook has a 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 13.3" screen with 1280 x 800 resolution, 1GB memory, 120GB hard drive and integrated graphics for $1,299. I am pretty sure I will feel constrained on a 13" screen coming from my current laptop's 17" screen.

What I really need is a MacBook, not a Pro, with a 15" screen. What would something like this cost. I think a MacBook with a 15.4" 1440x900 screen priced close to $1,499 would be ideal, even if the memory was 1GB. I could always add memory later if necessary. Apple could even skip the latest LED screen for the older design.

If Apple built a non-Pro version of their 15" laptop for $1500 I will be all over it. As it is now I would have to seriously consider the 13" version.

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iPod Touch, Zune, iPod Nano, Sansa View, Zen

I am thinking hard about Christmas (and my birthday, which is also in December). My eDigital MXP 100 is getting very long in the tooth. It has 1 GB of memory, which was a lot for a player of its size. When new it was smaller than the 5GB iPod and $70 cheaper (this was also the time when iPods only used FireWire ports and that would have been another expense). By today's standard it is huge in size and low in memory. Plus it is slow. It only supports USB 1.1 and even requires proprietary software to load songs. Basically it is so far out of date that I can easily justify getting a new music player.

Here's the lineup I am considering: Apple iPod Nano, Apple iPod Touch, Microsoft Zune 80 GB, SanDisk Sansa View and the Creative Zen. Here are the basic specifications for each player.

Product
Price
Memory
Screen Size
Resolution
iPod Nano
$199
8GB
2"
320x240
iPod Touch
$299
8GB
3.5"
480x320
Zune
$249
80GB
3.2"
320x240
Sansa View
$199
16GB *
2.4"
320x240
Zen
$199
8GB *
2.5"
320x240

* The Sansa View and Zen each are expandable with SD cards.

I am thinking about a MP3 player with video capabilities. Let's see how we came to the list above. First there is the refreshed iPod lineup. Apple recently refreshed its entire line. I won't bother with the iPod Shuffle. At 1 GB that's not an upgrade, and it has no display, something I can't live without (although it might be interesting watching video on the shuffle). Also, I don't need a phone (yet) so the iPhone is out of the question. That leaves the iPod Nano or the iPod Touch in Apple's line up.

I am firmly in the camp that believes Apple's music players are always missing something and there really are other good players out there. Frequently when you leave the Apple cult for a MP3 player you will get some extra features for the same money, though probably less style and maybe even a more complication user interface. Apple's interface is quite easy and pleasant to use compared to the others. But improvements are happening elsewhere.

The first thing that comes to mind when pondering an alternative to the iPods is the Zune. I almost gave up on Microsoft. They released their first player in time for last year's Christmas season... then nothing for so long. Since Microsoft released its initial player Apple refreshed its players... twice! Well, I guess they were waiting for another pre-Christmas launch, and the Zune is now a lineup, albeit a small lineup with only 3 different units. You have the all new Zune Flash player, a new Zune 80 GB player and the "classic" 30 GB player. The Zune Flash players have only a 1.8" screen, which is too small if I ever really want to play videos. I want to go with the Zune 80 GB if anything from Microsoft.

Next up is two lesser know players, especially if you don't follow the market. The SanDisk Sansa View and the Creative Zen. Creative dropped all other identification with its latest model refresh calling it Zen, and giving this flash based player a 2.5" screen. The Sansa View is an update of an older model and has a nice 2.4" screen. Both of these players have SD card slots to increase their memory capacity which could come in handy as a way to hold movies and TV shows while leaving the main memory to music. Plus these players have an FM tuner as does the Zune, something Apple never puts in its players.

Let's start getting into some of the details of these players, and how they relate to how I might use them. I like that the Zune goes to 80 GB and gets an increase in screen size while the overall unit size gets smaller. The 80 GB capacity with a screen over 3" almost puts this into the PVP (Personal Video Player) category. Apple's iPod Touch has the largest screen here making it the hands down video champ, but it is hampered by only 8 or 16 GB of space. Personally, I think Apple is going to get away from hard drive based memory in the near future. Look for two more model refreshes to get rid of the hard drive all together. The only thing holding back the Zune is the screen resolution. At 320x240 it is the same number of pixels as most players with screens in the 2.0" - 2.5" range, like all the other players mentioned here. The Zune adds WiFi syncing to the mix, something that should be available with the iPod Touch, but isn't.

As I said earlier all the devices here have a screen resolution of 320x240... except the iPod Touch which has a whopping 480x320 resolution on a 3.5" screen. Clearly the iPod Touch is the best equipped to play video from a screen standpoint, but its limited memory does not mean you will be travelling out of town with a few movies available to watch. I need to get one thing out now... I will not pay more than $300 for a player. So I will not even consider an iPod Touch with 16 GB of storage for $399. That being said, I would probably only be able to load 1 or 2 movies on an iPod Touch considering the amount of music and possibly photos I would put on it.

This leads us into the meat of this comparison. Video. All of these devices can play videos. But, which ones would you be willing to watch a feature length movie on? Even if you did watch movies on it, how often would you do this? Once a week? Once a month? Every other day on your lunch break? I really need to figure out how important video is. If video is not important then the iPod Touch is seriously hurting. It has Cover Flow which is a cool way to show off your music (as long as your music is organized by albums). The Touch's WiFi capability will probably not do me much good at work (we don't have wireless there) where I expect to listen to a player the most. At home I can jump on my laptop for anything I need, so I see little value in the WiFi there. In fact, the missing software (weather, e-mail, maps, etc.) from the iPod Touch bothers me a lot. This device has the same operating system as the iPhone but gets hamstringed in the software department. I just plain hate that.

If video is important than the Zune looks good on paper. It has plenty of storage space to hold quite a few movies and a few TV shows while still holding my entire music & photo collection. But the screen resolution comes back into play. When you blow up a 320x240 image up to 3.2" is it going to look grainy, or crisp? Surely 320x240 on the smaller devices should look remarkably crisp and clear. But do I want to strain my eyes watching such a small image. Clearly a movie on a device with a screen of 2 to 2-1/2 inches will grow tiresome quickly. But these small screens may be enough for watching a TV show during a lunch break.

If videos are not part of my requirements then I need to look at features of the music playing capabilities of these devices. We already covered Apple's Cover Flow and excellent interface for album centric music collections. The Sansa View player is the memory champ of the group with twice the memory of any of the flash based players for the same money. Plus it has a screen that is larger than the iPod Nano's. Let's not forget the FM tuner. That could come in handy if I get bored with my own playlists. More important than getting bored, I find that if I spend too much time listing to my own music I loose touch with new music. So the FM radio could be useful.

The Zen would be fighting toe-to-toe with the Sansa View if they had the same memory for the same price, but the Zen matches the iPod at 8GB of storage in a $199 player. Fortunately the Zen also includes a FM tuner or the Sansa View would knock it out easily. Both the Zen and Sansa View have expandable memory, as I stated earlier,  which could come in very handy with video. Keep a couple of SD cards around with a few movies on each and the player's built-in memory can be used strictly for music and a few photos. I have played around with a Sansa View and I like it scrolling wheel. When I tried to get some face time with a Zen the unit was not charged up. I don't think its directional buttons will cut it. In fact, I think the Zen is out of the competition. It doesn't offer anything the Sansa View doesn't.

I think the Sansa View's 16 GB of memory, larger screen and FM tuner are putting the hurt on the iPod Nano. However, the iPod Nano is really cute. It is also ubiquitous and available everywhere. Heck, my wife can pick one up for me while doing grocery shopping at Super Target. Add to that the fact that everyone else in my house has an iPod of one design or another and the iPod Nano is an easy, if simple choice. I would cross the Nano off the list in a heartbeat if it had not been for a friend letting me play with his. The iPod Nano has one thing going for it that none of the other players do... games. There were three games on my friend's Nano, and I am sure there are more out there you could download. Playing games on the device might be a fun way to pass time when standing in long lines and on airplane flights.

At this point I am thinking the Zune 80 GB or the iPod Touch if video is important. On the flip side I think the battle is between the Zune 80 GB and the Sansa View if video is not important and music is the sole priority.

Well, fifteen paragraphs have been spent detailing and comparing 5 music/video players. So what have we decided. At this point I have decided nothing. I can't make up my mind. I already know what to expect from the the Apple products. That's a big plus because the experience won't be bad, but I may feel cheated on some missing features. I have played with Microsoft's first generation Zune and it is likable. The new features, bigger screen and huge capacity are tempting. If the screen resolution was higher it would be a slam dunk. I need to see a good quality video on this device to see if I could live with it. Finally, there is the Sansa View. I likes its main menu interface, but unfortunately they went to a straight text based menu once you leave the main menu. Darn, this had the chance of upstaging the Apple products.

Video. I keep coming back to this. How much effort will I have to go through to get video (movie and TV shows) on any of these devices. The Apple products work great if you don't mind buying all your movies twice, once on DVD and again on iTunes. The same goes for TV shows. You can buy them even though they are free and I record them now on my DVR. Is there ever going to be an easy way to get video content I have available to me on any of these players.

I would like to copy some of my favorite DVDs to the player I buy. None of them provide software to do this. I will be left with third party software that could be hard to use, or worse. The only way I see getting TV on these machines is if I put a TV tuner card in my next desktop so I can record TV shows there and then sync them up with whatever player I get. In this regard the Zune will probably come out on top because Media Center on Windows can record shows if you have a TV tuner, and the Zune can sync up with that content.

My experience with the Sansa View can be summed up with these comments. I really like the device. It is a little bulky, especially compared to the Nano. But it looks nice and the screen is definitely larger. I really love its main menu interface. It is very slick. Unfortunately it does not last. As soon as you enter any menu item you are looking at lists just like the iPod. I was hoping for something better. So much for showing off to iPod users. I did not get a chance to listen to the Sansa View, but I did get to watch a video clip on its tiny 2.4" screen. It is small, and I think watching long videos would be a chore. Video on this device is a cool novelty, about what I also expect of the iPod Nano.

I tried to handle the Creative Zen, but the only store to have one didn't have it charged. However, I have seen a number of videos of the Zen on YouTube. Basically it has a simple menu like the Sansa View, but a lot less slick. The Sansa View has a moving scroll wheel. The Zen has buttons. From what I have seen on YouTube the Zen will not be much more inspiring than the Sansa View. It does feel a little slicker in the hand though. I kind of like the way it feels in my hand better. But I give the nod to SanDisk on this one as the Sansa View has twice the memory (at the $199 price point), a much nicer main menu, and the fast scroll wheel.

Next up is the Zune 80 GB. I like it. The size is reasonable, though not ideal compared to the flash players I have put it up against. Its screen is bright and clear. However, the only unit I was able to put my hands on was never setup so all I know is that the main menu is crisp and clear. I really need to see a video being played on this device. (Note: I have seen video on the Zune Flash with its tiny 1.8" screen and I would not be looking at it for anything more than a few minutes, and mostly just to show it off.) It is a shame the Zune has a low resolution screen. The capacity begs to be loaded with video. The Zune has some other video features I like. Even though the Zune's screen is 320x240, you can load video up to 720x480, which is DVD quality. Add to this that the Zune can be hooked up to a TV easily and you have a place to store DVD quality movies in a portable device. I can see this coming in very handy going on trips where the Zune could be hooked up to a TV in a hotel room. I will need to research this further. It also bothers me that the Zune is not Play4Sure compatible... a specification that Microsoft itself created. My Live Free or Die Hard movie came with a downloadable copy that can be put on a portable device, but the device must support Play4Sure. Oops!

Finally we have the iPod Touch. This player is loaded with cool factor. But its limited memory means I am going to have to do a lot of memory management. I was thinking I would re-RIP all my CDs when I get my next player. I would RIP them with the software that I will be using with my portable device. This will give me all the bells and whistles such as high bit rates than where not readily available when I first ripped the songs. Re-ripping my music collection makes it easier to attach album art to it then manually getting the album art to a ton of songs that don't have album information in their meta data. The problem here is that if I re-rip all my music to a higher bit rate it will overfill an 8GB player, and that leaves no memory for movies. I will be forced to tag songs whether or not they are to sync with the player to keep the memory available for other items. The browser is definitely a cool thing, but will I use it much on a music/video player.

I think the item that bothers me the most about the iPods (both of them) is the lack of a subscription with these players. All of the other players are compatible with at least one music subscription service. I am considering this. I may join a service for a couple of month to discover new music and then buy a couple dozen songs to have permanently. I would probably continue to subscribe for only a month or two each year to help me discover music.

Let's cover one last issue with screen resolution. The Zune and other players with a 320x240 screen are not wide screen. 320x240 is the "square" TV aspect ratio of 4:3. Nowhere near 16:9. The iPod Touch's 480x320 screen is close to wide screen at 16:10.6. This means that movies on the 4:3 screens will be letterboxed with black bars on top and bottom. On the Zune's 3.2" screen this will be less of an issue than the others.

At this point I think I am torn between the iPod Touch and the Zune 80 GB. The Zune has plenty of storage, reasonably large screen, available subscription service, and easy TV hook up. The iPod Touch has the best screen for watching movies and other video content. I assume it can be hooked up to a TV. But its lack of memory makes it a bit of a novelty, and Apple still doesn't do anything to help you get your own movies onto its players. They expect you to buy your video content from the iTunes Store. Plus they don't offer a subscription. The biggest plus for the iPod Touch is its expandability. Although they don't provide all the software I want, they have the ability to add it latter... easily, and can add even more software that I have not even thought of yet. Microsoft has shown no sign of adding a web browser to its Zune, but with the WiFi syncing capability I have to assume this is just a software issue that can be resolved later. Then again a web browser on a 320x240 pixel screen would never look hold a candle to the iPod Touch.

Does anyone have any advise? I need it quickly, because my birthday is on December 12th, and I expect one of these two devices to be in my hot little hands by then.

Tune in next month to see which device made the grade... and why!

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Conclusion

This is where I wrap up for the month.

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