[24 September 2008]
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
Just in time for late back-to-school or early holiday shopping, Apple, Microsoft and others have unveiled a new crop of digital media players.
Some have radical design changes. Many have neat new features. And most offer more storage space for songs, videos, pictures or games at a lower price.
Here’s a look at the new lineup:
The iPod may have debuted seven years ago and its sales may be maturing, but there’s no sign Apple is about to relinquish its industry lead.
Apple has effectively cut the price on all of its iPod lines, except the low-end shuffle, by reducing the amount you have to pay for storage. The 16-gigabyte and 32-gigabyte models of the iPod touch have dropped in price by $100 each.
One new feature on all the new iPods, again except the shuffle, is called Genius. After users select a song, the feature creates a playlist of like music found on their iPod and, on their computer, suggests related songs they could buy from iTunes.
The biggest change this year is with the mid-range nano. It returns to an elongated shape from last year’s square model derisively dubbed “fatboy,” and is available in new colors.
The device also gets an accelerometer that detects and reacts to how you are holding or moving it. If you rotate the nano 90 degrees to one side, for instance, the image on its screen will also rotate. Shake the nano, and it will create a new mix of music for you to listen to. Game makers are designing games for the device that allow you to play by tilting it.
The iPod touch gets a presumably more stable operating system and thinner case. It also has software from Nike that uses an additional sensor to keep track of users’ workouts.
The low-end shuffle also gets new colors. Meanwhile, Apple has consolidated its lineup of hard-drive-based iPods, renamed the “classic,” to a single 120-gigabyte model in black or white.
SanDisk’s line of Sansa players has long been runner-up to the iPod in market share. But the company has made only one notable update in recent months: introduction of the all-new Sansa Fuze.
Ironically, the Fuze, which was introduced in April, seems to take its design cues from the discontinued “fatboy” iPod nano, having a similarly square shape.
But unlike the nano, it has a built-in FM tuner and a microSD card slot. The card slot allows users to add additional memory and to plug in albums that are starting to be sold on the cards.
And the 8-gigabyte Fuze is priced at about $120, some $30 less than the similarly sized nano.
When Microsoft entered the MP3 player market with its Zune players two years ago, some wondered whether Apple had finally met its match. But the Zune has barely gotten traction.
Microsoft hasn’t stopped trying, though. Taking a page from Apple, it updated its lineup with higher capacity versions of both its flash- and hard-drive-based players, lowering its prices for older models and adding new colors.
Also, it’s updating software, adding new ways for users to find music. Users can subscribe to “channels,” which provide song lists customized by artists, DJs and other music industry figures who update the lists weekly.
Zune users, like iPod and iPhone owners, can now purchase music directly from their devices, using the gadget’s built-in WiFi antenna to connect to the Internet. But Microsoft has taken the feature a step further, integrating the Zune player’s built-in FM tuner with the Zune service’s online store, allowing users who hear a song they like on the radio to instantly purchase it over the WiFi connection.
While Apple’s new Genius feature is available only to users of its newest iPods, all the new Zune features are available to all Zune owners via a free software update.
Slacker is a newcomer to the MP3 player market, releasing its first device in January. It issued a quick update, replacing its boxy and bulky first generation Portable Radio Player with a smaller, sleeker device dubbed the G2 Personal Radio Player.
Like Slacker’s original player, the G2 is tied tightly to Slacker’s Internet radio service. Like other Internet radio services, Slacker lets you subscribe to pre-set stations or create your own. With the G2, users can take their Slacker stations with them on the go.
The device works by storing songs and stations downloaded from Slacker. Users then “tune” into particular stations. The device creates a unique playlist of the songs it’s stored that fit into that station’s format. Users don’t have to pay anything for songs they get from Slacker. But, as with over-the-air radio, they can’t choose the order of the songs. There also are limits on how many songs they can skip unless they get a premium account. And unlike other media players, the G2 will only play songs, not videos or photos.
Slacker has dropped the price by about $50 on its two models, to $200 and $250, and streamlined the user interface, making it easier to play songs. The new device also adds a port to connect to speakers and other accessories.