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Gadget Guidance 2008: (Don't Call Them) MP3 Players

The market for MP3 players -- more accurately called "media players," since most also handle photos and video clips -- is dominated by one company, Apple, that didn't even enter this business until the fall of 2001.

Should you do anything about that? Probably not. The iPod deserves most of its success: It's simple, it's stylish and it works. Competing players are often cheaper, but most fail to match the iPod in at least one of those core virtues.

If you were already planning on getting an iPod, you just have to pick one of Apple's four models: the tiny, cheap, no-display-included iPod shuffle, the shirt-pocket-sized iPod nano, the larger, high-capacity iPod classic and the iPhone-minus-a-phone iPod touch. (Technically, the iPhone counts as a fifth.) For most uses, I'd go with the nano. It plays music and displays photos about equally well, it's almost as effective for playing shorter videos (I wouldn't want to watch a full-length movie on the thing), and it has the same elegantly simple clickwheel control as other iPods.

What about non-iPod players? Microsoft's Zune comes closest, between its own multimedia support, its built-in FM tuner and a desktop Windows program that makes finding, downloading and subscribing to podcasts almost as easy as in Apple's iTunes.

Since my comparison of the latest iPod nano and the most recent Zune, Microsoft's player has gained an extra advantage: If you subscribe to its $14.99/month Zune Pass service, you can download permanent copies of 10 songs a month, in addition to the unlimited number of restricted copies this subscription option allows.

Other aspects to consider in an MP3... er, media player:

* Flash-memory storage is better than hard-drive storage. Flash is far more durable and is getting cheaper all the time. Today, a 16-gigabyte flash player, enough to store many people's entire collections, costs $200 or less; a year from now, that price should buy at least a 32 GB model.

* Check what music formats a player can handle in addition to MP3, the most widely used type. Support for AAC will allow a player to handle songs copied from CDs in iTunes using its default settings, plus iTunes Plus downloads from Apple's iTunes Store. Windows Media Audio support permits playback of songs ripped under Windows Media Player's default settings. Some non-Zune, WMA-compatible players also support an old Microsoft system called PlaysForSure, which a diminishing number of music stores and some library audiobook downloads require.

* If you're considering an entry-level player, see if your phone can't do the job. Many phones include basic music software that does more than enough compared to stripped-down players like the shuffle.

Other suggestions for media-player shoppers? The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 26, 2008; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Music , Pictures , Tips , Video  
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You should also consider which media players support bookmarks for those of us who use them for recorded books. The only popular brand I know of that has bookmarking capability is Creative. With my Creative Zen Plus, I can bookmark up to ten different audio books which allows me to switch between them without losing my place in any of them.

Posted by: jhp1505 | December 1, 2008 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Although the iPod seems to be the MP3 of choice, it is not my choice. I much prefer the Archos. It is simple, the screen is clear, and it works flawlessly (as well as being far cheaper). I bought my wife an iPod a year ago. She love it and she loves being able to connect it to speakers. However, I found the setup difficult and sometimes downloading music is difficult too. Again, the Archos is simple to use and I don't need iTunes or another special program, just the computer and the device.

Posted by: mfk52 | December 2, 2008 11:11 AM | Report abuse

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