Yesterday I said that Apple was going to come out with an iPod with touchscreen similar to the iPhone, but that if it had WiFi, they wouldn’t allow you to surf over it. Well, I’m completely wrong. Today they announced the iPod touch, which is essentially an iPhone without the phone part that many people were clamoring for. I actually can’t believe that Apple did it. They’re not known to make devices that people ask for, rather they make a device and make you want it. I thought they would limit WiFi usage somehow so that the iPhone is still their “high-end” offering. Perhaps they know that they’d get a lot more sales of an iPhone-like device without the phone, and are using the touch to make up for a slow down in iPhone sales? Or they’re just making sure all bases are covered by offering the iPod touch to users (like me) who really didn’t want to move over to AT&T? Whatever the reason, I’m very glad they made the iPod touch. In fact, I pre-ordered the iPod touch today. This is the first time I ordered a device online on the day of the announcement.
If you’re not as interested in the iPod touch, the rest of the iPod line got a nice refresh/update. The “regular” iPods are now called iPod classics. They got a bump in capacity up to 160GB, which is awesome. They also have a new metal casing, which I think looks pretty sleek.
The rumor of the “fat” iPod nanos turned out to be true! Luckily the devices do not look ugly. They have a bigger screen, video and game capabilities, and they have an upgraded UI like the iPod classic does. It seems both iPod classic and nano are running the normal iPod OS, but with different menus/display modes, while the iPod touch is running OS X. Don’t quote me on that, though. The nanos are also amazingly thin. I am a little wary about how fragile they could be in a pocket.
The shuffles are essentially the same, but there are 5 new colors. And one of them is purple! Purple is my favorite color, for those of you who don’t know. There aren’t many purple gadgets out there, so I may pick up a purple shuffle just because. Oh yeah, there’s also a Product(RED) edition of the shuffle and the nano.
All in all, a very nice line up of new iPods for the holiday season. But wait, how could I forget — there’s a version of the iTunes store for the iPod touch and iPhone that will allow you to download tracks directly to the device over WiFi. What a great way to make use of the WiFi! It really plays on the impulse buy thing, which can be bad for your wallet, but good for Apple.
The jury is still out on whether or not you can access podcasts via the WiFi iTunes store and download them directly to your iPod… I’m guessing that for the moment, that’s not an option. I hope that it will be in the near future, though. That would make the iPod touch pretty near complete for me (if it had external speakers, more PDA-like apps, and a BT connection for an external keyboard, it would be complete
). Wireless, direct podcast downloads is what I like best about my Nokia N95, but its music player lacks bookmarking, and its interface is sparse/basic.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the iPod touch and iPhone will get 3rd-party apps. If they do, they could be very close to becoming the Newton’s successors. As it stands, it looks like the iPod touch will have basic calendar and contact syncing. Combined with Gmail and Google Docs, the iPod touch could be a decent PDA-like device, or multimedia computer to compete with devices like the N95.
So now we have Leopard to look forward to sometime in October (hopefully), and perhaps around that same time, some MacBook or MacBook Pro refreshes will also be available. Still holding out for my ultra-portable MacBook with the 10″ screen… Very fun stuff for Apple enthusiasts.
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Thanks to a Twitter friend of mine, I got linked to a forum post about the issues that were fixed with the first firmware update for the Sansa Connect:
The release addressed a few functional items we felt were important to get out there, as well as a couple bug fixes. Here are the highlights:
1. Improved MTP error handling on the player that was causing some PC connection problems.
2. File transfer performance between the player and PC was
significantly improved allowing for much faster transfers of both DRM and clear tracks.
3. Improved streaming performance of the LAUNCHcast radio stations – this will minimize dropped connections and buffering.
4. Corrected an issue that was causing some track downloads to fail. These tracks were showing up in the “Unable to Download” queue.
5. Added an on-screen indicator for when your player is connected via USB to the PC. You’ll notice that the player is still fully functional when connected to the PC.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a newer version of the YMJ PC software than what was shipped with your player. The new release is significantly enhanced from a stability and performance standpoint and we highly recommend that you complete the upgrade.
While I applaud that Sandisk/Yahoo addressed these issues (several of these were issues I didn’t like during my short review of the Connect), I would much rather that they fix these problems before it goes out to the customers. I don’t like this trend of releasing products before they’re truly complete and fairly rigorously tested. Customers should not be beta testers. If they want us to be beta testers, they should be paying us for the time spent testing the product! The problem with this approach is that customers might just assume that, “Oh, yeah, there are issues, but I’m sure they’ll release a firmware update to fix this stuff,” and realize the company isn’t actually going to do anything of the sort (*ahToshibaGigabeatSem*!).
Again, I am glad that Sandisk hasn’t just put out the Connect and left customers to fend for themselves. If they fix more issues like being able to search Yahoo Music Unlimited directly from the Connect, or opening the WiFi support to other subscription services, and tweak the hardware a bit to fix the touchy scrollwheel, I might just consider their 2nd-gen product. So far the Connect’s net radio streaming has been a better experience than Rhapsody streaming on the N800!
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I got my iRiver Clix 2 in the mail today and took a bunch of unboxing pics for you. Check them out at Flickr. Here’s a preview:
I haven’t had much chance to play with it, other than turn it on and explore the menus and the pre-loaded content. My very, very, very first impression is that I really like this device. It’s small and sleek, but the screen looks huge, since it takes up the majority of the front of the Clix 2. The Clix navigation is very intuitive and responsive. It has a lot of “personality” from the user-configurable wallpapers, themes, and fonts. The AMOLED screen is bright and sharp. The pre-loaded videos look pretty good from a quick glance. I know I’m sounding fangirl-ish already, even though I haven’t even really gotten into the nitty-gritty with the player yet!
At first glance, I think that this player is a worthy competitor to the iPod nano. It trumps the nano in many ways — screen size, personalization of the player with wallpapers and themes, video support, and FM radio (though I couldn’t care less about this feature) built-in. There’s an on-board mic for voice recording, and you can record FM radio (IIRC). A memory card slot for expansion would have been nice, but since my iPod nano is 4GB, this is an even comparison. An 8GB version of the Clix 2 is supposedly due in June. I couldn’t wait that long. This is a well-done device from iRiver, and I look forward to using it as my “daily driver” for a while to see how it compares to my iPod for routine use, mainly for podcasts.
I’ll be very interested to see how easily I can get content onto the device, considering this has been the downfall of many mp3 players for me (*ahemToshibaGigabeatS*). As always, my best judge of a device is how well it fits into my daily routine. If I have to change my routine greatly just to accommodate a device, it’s likely a no-go for me.
Let me know what questions you have, and I’ll try to address it during my testing.
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I just wanted to post a quick “final thoughts” entry about the Sansa Connect.
Firstly, I think its WiFi functionality is the best implementation so far. The ability to stream LAUNCHCast radio stations and then use the Zing menu to get mixes of songs similar to what you’re listening to is an awesome feature. And the fact that you can not only rate individual songs, but also albums and artists is a very good way of tailoring your music recommendations even further. Also, downloading songs or albums directly to the Connect over WiFi was a great feature. It would’ve been even better if the interface to the Yahoo Music Unlimited library would’ve been more full-featured, but as is, the connection to the YMU library was okay. If you’re a big streaming music or subscription music user, I think the Sansa Connect would be a great portable music player for you.
However, because I am mainly a podcast listener, the Sansa Connect lacked some key features in this regard:
- bookmarks, so that even if I decide to listen to stop listening in the middle of a podcast and listen to some music, I can resume where I left off when I return to the podcast
- treating podcasts differently from the music content, so that if I shuffle all of the music on the Connect, I won’t get podcasts mixed in (unless I want that)
- separating out podcasts in the music library so that I don’t have to wade through a bunch of artists or song titles to get at my podcast content
- no on-the-go playlist creation
- on the PC side, there was no integrated podcatching functionality in the syncing software for the Sansa Connect
If the Connect had bookmarking, on-the-go playlists, and was able to download podcasts directly to the device, it would’ve been a definite keeper for me. The added benefit of streaming online radio and downloading music once in a while to the device would’ve been icing on the cake. I already thought that the external speaker was awesome for listening to podcasts, since the transition from my car to listening to the Connect on my couch was minimal, no need for a speaker dock.
Some other miscellaneous observations:
- The mechanical wheel had little detents (I think that’s what they’re called) — little stops around the circle that meant to coincide with individual items on the Connect’s menus. So if you scroll slowly, each little click around the wheel will bring you to the next menu item. However, if you’re scrolling moderately fast, the wheel becomes less responsive and will sometimes not register movement, so that’s when navigation gets frustrating. Not good if you have lots of albums/songs on your device.
- It seemed like the headphone output was softer than my iPod. I use an audio cable in my car to connect the headphone jack of my iPod to the aux-in jack on my stereo, and when I was using the Sansa Connect, I had to crank up the car stereo volume a lot more.
- A nitpicky thing, perhaps, but while the curvy shape of the Sansa Connect looks nice, it doesn’t make it easier for accessory manufacturers to make cases or other types of accessories for the Connect. I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that the mere lack of accessories for a device — cases, docks, audio/video connectors, etc. — can really turn off a consumer from buying said device. It may be shallow, but I at least want to be able to buy a case for my player (and not just some cheapo neoprene junk that barely accommodates the device), as well as some other things to personalize it. Lack of accessories can put a damper on the consumer’s experience with the device, so manufacturers would do well to appease their buyers in this respect.
- Sandisk would do well to create their own syncing software to interface with Yahoo Music Unlimited (or untether themselves from Yahoo and support all of the music subscription services over the WiFi connection, as well as adding Pandora, last.fm support for streaming radio). Yahoo Music Jukebox software is a total joke.
- The Flickr connectivity was really really cool, especially for someone like me, who likes to check out the Flickr Explore page semi-regularly for photographic inspiration.
- The large screen had very good resolution and color rendition. When I compared pictures from the Flickr Explore set on the Connect to the same picture on my iMac, they looked very close in tone. The pictures looked very sharp on the Connect.
The first-gen Sansa Connect is a pretty good device. Despite its locked-in nature with Yahoo services, the Connect’s WiFi features still kick the Zune’s butt. Perhaps the second-gen device, or even some firmware updates will address some of the issues I mentioned above, maybe it won’t. Either way, I think Sandisk did an admirable job creating a product that can seriously compete against the iPod nano and other flash-based mp3 players.
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Since I have been dragging my feet a bit in posting my review of the Sandisk Sansa Connect, I thought I’d post a straight dump of the mind map I did on bubbl.us, an online mindmapping application. I will probably revisit this and flesh it out a bit more in the next couple days, but I wanted to post something now, since I know some of you are waiting to hear more about it.
**Sorry about the fonts and the weird formatting. I can’t seem to get it to look right from my WYSIWYG editor (ScribeFire extension for Firefox). I already enlarged the fonts overall, but there are still some really small fonts. Mea culpa!
Downloading tracks directly over WiFi
Downloading tracks at the same time as streaming net radio or listening to music did not seem to affect the streams that much
Easy, just log in to YMU service and subscription is taken care of
Very easy to download a song or an album of the current song playing, whether it is on the streaming radio station, or a local track on your player.
Sounds great for a small, mono speaker
A lot more convenient than a speaker dock
Connection to Flickr is really cool
Since Flickr requires Yahoo login, assuming your Flickr and YMU subscription are under the same login, the connection is automatic
Colors seem very close to my iMac monitor
Menus look fairly pleasant
Okay, bright color scheme (Yahoo-ized, as mentioned elsewhere) that sort of looks glassy, like Aero Glass on Vista, or Aqua elements in OS X
Album art is shown in just about every menu, whether it is for local content, or for streaming radio stations, or for Yahoo Music Unlimited content under the “Get More Music” menu
Consistent context menus available for different options during playback
Options menu (left button under screen)
Can rate not only current song, but also the album and artist. This feature is very good for tailoring music recommendations from subscription service.
Control shuffle and repeat; nice to be able to do this without having to leave the “Now Playing” screen.
Remove song from playlist or from device. I really wish the iPod had this feature! Helps to get rid of listened-to tracks while away from computer.
Zing menu (right button)
My most liked feature: “make a mix like this song”
Main draw for this player — WiFi functionality is accessed through this menu option
Sending recommendations to friends
Yahoo Messenger buddies
Can see what music your buddies are listening to if they are online and have the feature enabled
Nearby Sansa Connect users
Getting recommendations from friends
Sending tracks to other Connect users nearby
Downloading individual songs or albums
Slow sync time
At least 2x slower at syncing playlists than iPod
*Granted, I did sync to a HD-based iPod. I don’t know if syncing to my nano would’ve been closer in syncing time to the Connect. I highly doubt it, though, considering my past experience.
This is likely due to MTP. When I used two other apps to sync a playlist to the Connect, I got similar sync times (both of which were still at least 2x slower than iTunes syncing to an iPod).
Means that you’re limited to programs that handle MTP
Windows Media Player
Preferred, since it seems the least bloated out of all of these apps. Also seems to be more effective at managing ID3 tags and album art.
Yahoo Music Jukebox
Winamp (via plugin)
Can’t use as Flash drive
WiFi is limited to Yahoo services. Cannot specify your own favorite online radio stations. Can still use any PlaysForSure tracks, but not over WiFi.
LAUNCHCast radio stations
Yahoo Music Unlimited To Go subscription service
Yahoo Music Jukebox software sucks*
This and the Yahoo Music Unlimited subscription service will discussed in more detail in a separate blog post.
Crashed several times
Problems with licensing, dupes, no genre ID3 tags on some subscription tracks
Storefront looks blah, hard to navigate, too much drilling down into genre categories
WiFi interface to YMU is not robust enough to completely forgo Jukebox software
Only limited to a certain number of “top tracks” in each genre.
Genre categories are not as intuitive as on other music services; need to drill down too much to get to certain common genres, like “alternative”.
Can’t download tracks from PC over WiFi (i.e. podcast playlists)
No OTG playlist creation
This would’ve helped in “untethering” the player from the PC, which could’ve help the Connect overcome the lousy syncing software it has to use.
No video (would have been a nice bonus with the big screen)
Screen is not that much smaller than 5th-gen iPods, so watching short video podcasts or short TV shows would be a decent experience
No Audible support?
No display customization
No themes or wallpaper choices
Only one view for playback window
No “album art-friendly” display option to show the album art fullscreen
Very Yahoo-ized look, which isn’t that bad
Price is high compared to competitors
While comparable in price to iPod nano, or other 4GB flash players, a user would really need to subscribe to Yahoo Music Unlimited to get the full experience on the Connect. So price is really $250 + $15/mo subscription.
MicroSD slot is too hard to access
The slot on my particular unit seemed deeply inset, so you need to use something like a fingernail to really push the card into the slot properly. And I already have small hands. Someone with larger hands would surely have a problem with this.
Mechanical scroll wheel, while smooth, sometime lags behind, or does not register movement. So navigation can be a bit touchy.
Battery life might be short compared to competitors; didn’t do any scientific tests, though
Power button doesn’t have enough tactile feedback. It is relatively low-profile, so sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not the button press was registered by the device.
No extra features like games, clock, alarm, sleep timer. Would have at least liked a clock display at the top of the screen during playback.
Podcasting support is nonexistent, meaning podcast are just treated as any other audio track
No bookmark feature for playback
Essential for long podcasts/audiobooks
The rew/ff speed of the player isn’t quick enough (IMO) to skip through a long track to get back to where you left off.
No show notes support for podcasts
No easy way to filter out podcasts or audiobooks from music library
During shuffle, would probably get podcasts interspersed with music, since the two types of tracks are not differentiated.
Update: After you read this entry, check out my “mind map” reviews for the Sansa Connect and Yahoo Music Unlimited subscription service, as well as the final thoughts post about the Sansa Connect that I just posted today (4/16/07).
Hey, Kids! I recently purchased a Sandisk Sansa Connect, a portable audio player that’s WiFi-enabled and can stream internet radio stations as well as play mp3s/WMAs and view photos from Flickr or on the device. It’s a pretty interesting device, and I plan on writing up a review for it soon, after I’ve had a few days to play around with it. You can check out my unboxing pictures on Flickr.
A few quick notes:
1. Probably the most important point: the Connect device does not just connect to unprotected, open WiFi spots like all of the literature implies. You can connect to a WEP-protected WiFi access point. This was a concern of mine, since I couldn’t find any mention online anywhere about this. I wasn’t about to leave my WiFi open just to use this device!
2. The player gets its net content from Yahoo Music Unlimited. So if you have a subscription to this service you can fill the Connect player with songs from YMU. What’s cool is that you can download YMU songs directly to the player over WiFi, without needing to sync with your PC. The internet radio stations that Connect streams are also from the Yahoo music service. As far as I can tell so far, you can’t input your own online radio station links.
3. Connecting to Flickr is pretty cool. You can view the public photos chosen for the Explore page, or view pictures from your own photostream, if you have a Flickr account. You can view slideshows from either the Explore gallery or your photostream, and play music in the background. I compared the colors of the display on the Connect to my iMac monitor for the Explore gallery, and they are very close, which is impressive. Very cool if you’re a Flickr junkie.
4. Yahoo Music Jukebox is the software used to sync music to the Connect. As far as I know at the moment, you can’t just drag and drop music to the device, but I’m going to explore that further. So far the Yahoo Music Jukebox software has been rather sluggish. Syncing the subscription music (or even podcasts from my laptop) is a slow process. I think part of this has to do with my unfamiliarity with how the subscription service works (I eventually figured out to change the settings so that when I mark an album from Yahoo Music Unlimited to add to “My Music”, it automatically downloads the songs instead of just bookmarking them), so I will play around with it more. But so far, even just copying a playlist of podcasts to the Connect seems a lot slower than syncing my iPod with iTunes. And there’s no integrated podcatching feature in the Yahoo Music Jukebox software.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth review, along with menu walkthroughs (and perhaps some videos), coming soon.
I don’t know why, but in the recent week I’ve been overcome with a strong compulsion to buy a new mp3 player… Well, I kind of know why — partially because my experience with syncing and playing podcasts on my MDA has recently been less than ideal for various reasons. I’m not going to go into all the details right now, but that’s a partial reason. Also, hearing about a bunch of cool new mp3 players around the time of CES and Macworld kind of got me impatient to see these new players, like the iPhone (or the rumored iPod with touchscreen and similar features as the iPhone), the second-gen iRiver Clix, and various other interesting portable media devices.
Yes, I have some “dormant” mp3 players that I can use for my podcasts, but I just want something new to play around with, something different from the iPods and the Gigabeat/Zune. My top contender was the black 4GB iRiver Clix, since it has an interface and features that are quite different from the popular mp3 players. But iRiver just announced some successors in the Clix line, so I figure I should wait. And I’m still really hanging on to the idea that Apple will announce a 6th-gen, touchscreen iPod in the coming months, so it’s ridiculous to get a current 5.5-gen iPod, even though I’ve seriously been considering one for my podcasts, mobile video watching, and portable hard drive usage.
Anyway, enough whining. *smirk* What I ended up doing was to install an alternate firmware for my 1st-gen iPod nano from the open-source project called Rockbox. Rockbox has been around for a long while, creating alternate firmware for all sorts of players, like the Archos Jukebox (I had one a long time ago), various iPod models, various iRiver players, and even a Sandisk Sansa player. I’ve known about the Rockbox project, but this is the first time I’ve tried installing it.
I think it’s great! I was wary of it at first, because I didn’t want a bare-bones-looking player interface that just offered a few interesting features like OGG or FLAC playback, or simple graphics demos and whatnot. But this is quite a full-featured player, complete with different fonts and themes to customize your menus and “While Playing Screen”, gapless playback and crossfading, lots of games, picture and text viewing, and other miscellaneous utilies and demos. Additionally, when you install Rockbox, you’re not losing the original iPod firmware. You can easily choose the original firmware when you start up the nano, so if you get tired of playing with Rockbox, you can switch back, and vice versa. Installation and backup of the original boot partition was quite simple. Even lazy, hardly-any-tolerance-for-complex-installations me could get through the installation process in a few minutes. Just pay close attention to the installation instructions and the online documentation, and things will likely go smoothly.
Music playback is great, and I love the crossfading feature, which is highly configurable. Playback controls are as you would expect on a nano, except that the center select button brings you back to the main File Browser menu instead of toggling track info and rating. Pressing the Menu button brings up the Main Menu to access settings, recent bookmarks, recording options, playlist options, and plugins. Holding down the Menu button brings up a shortcut menu to choose whether to shuffle tracks, configure the repeat mode, and configure file display for the File Browser menus. With Rockbox, you can drag and drop tracks and folders directly onto the nano (into the root Music folder created during install, subfolders are allowed). You don’t have to use any kind of syncing software. However, the nano will still show up in iTunes, so you can sync it like normal for when you want to use the original nano firmware. And, after dragging files to the nano, you can either navigate the folder structure you created, or you can use Rockbox’s database view that mirrors how the iPod uses ID3 tag info to display music by Album, Title, Track Name, etc. So far I have just transferred podcasts to a “Netcasts” subdirectory, and I created a playlist on my PC with Windows Media Player (m3u format) and copied that into the Playlists directory on the nano. Rockbox recognizes m3u files, and it works perfectly that way. You can create “on-the-go” playlists directly on the nano, if you wish. I do the playlists on my PC for ease of setup.
When the iPod games for the 5/5.5-gen iPods came out, I was mildly annoyed that the firmware update to enable usage of these games did not extend to my nano. Rockbox to the rescue! Among the many games they offer are clones of Bejeweled, Bust-a-Move, Pac-Man, and Asteroids, the first two games being my favorites (the pictures are those of my nano, not stock screenshots):
As I mentioned earlier, you can also skin your menus and “While Playing Screen”. Funnily my current favorite theme/skin is a version of the Windows Media Player 11 skin with the Vista desktop picture of grass blades. But there are many others that people have contributed to Rockbox’s site, and this other site.
iPodVision nano (looks like Creative Zen:Vision M screens)
It’s a shallow point, but one thing that did irk me about the original nano Now Playing screen was the inability to customize it in any way. Sure you could change the display to look at the album art, but that’s not exactly the same… The Zune’s customizable backgrounds is a step in the right direction. Rockbox’s skinning feature is way cool.
Another cool feature of the Rockbox firmware is the availability of various plug-ins. Besides the many games that they offer, there are also graphics demos that show off the graphics capabilities of the nano’s video hardware, picture and text viewers, and even a text editor. It would be pretty tedious to scroll around the letters, numbers, and symbols in the makeshift “keyboard” — it’s more like entering your name for high score in a video game — but it’s nice to have the option to “jot” a quick thing down if you wanted to.
Rockbox is constantly being developed for many platforms, so it’s likely that there’s a version of firmware you can try out. Sadly there isn’t one for the Toshiba Gigabeat S series, but there is one for the older F series. The newer 2nd-gen nano isn’t yet supported. But since it’s open source, you’re welcome to code up your own tweaks, if you desire. This is a pretty cool project, and I wish I’d started playing around with the Rockbox firmware earlier. There’s a bit of a learning curve for controls and stuff, but it’s not that bad. And now’s a good a time as any to get started with it, especially so I can distract myself a little longer to hold off buying a new mp3 player until Apple has announced 6th-gen iPods, or other manufacturers come out with the new devices that they announced at CES. I’m going to play around with my Rockbox nano for a while, and even install Rockbox onto my older 4th-gen, grayscale iPod, too. I’ll try to blog updates or tips whenever the occasion arises. Or maybe I’ll get tired of Rockbox after a few days and go back to pining for a new mp3 player….heh.
Earlier over my lunch break I stopped at Target to pick up some antacids and while I was browsing around, I happened upon an employee putting together a Zune display. He was still getting things hooked up to speakers and such, so I decided to come back later after work to check it out more. Insert obligatory bad cameraphone picture here:
Impressions of the hardware design, menus, and media playback
The Zunes were pretty locked down, unfortunately, so you couldn’t see the “double shot” effect of the main color of the case and the secondary color showing through the translucent plastic. There was no way to judge the size or weight of the player, either.
I played around with the menus and for all intents and purposes, the menus are pretty much the same as the Gigabeat S’s menus. The fonts, progress/volume bars, and menu animations have been upgraded, but essentially I was able to easily navigate the device because of my familiarity with the Gigabeat S menus. This isn’t to say the Zune menus aren’t intuitive; they are intuitive. I’m just saying they’re even more familiar to me because of my experience with the Gigabeat S. The fonts and animations are pretty slick. Very smooth and modern looking. The 3″ screen looks very big and provides a nice canvas for the album art displayed during playback. Pretty flashy compared to the iPod’s menus. Oh yeah, instead of a small square of album art as on the Gigabeat S, the album art fills the screen, and the progress bar and song information are overlaid in white text. Can’t remember if there were any readability issues of light text over light album art.
One very big improvement the Zune has over the Gigabeat S (besides WiFi) is the consolidation of the playback controls to the front of the device. The d-pad circle controls volume (up/down) rew/ff or prev/next track (left/right), and select (center button). A separate button to the right of the d-pad is for play/pause, and the button to the left of the d-pad is for navigating back to a previous menu. Having all of the controls on the front of the device is a lot more user-friendly than having a d-pad on the front and playback/volume controls on the side, as the Gigabeat S did.
The main difference from the Gigabeat S was during music playback. On the Gigabeat, you could press the left and right directional buttons to switch among different playback display modes — album art; playlist view; a minimalist view with just the progress bar and song info without album art; and then a playback options screen to rate the song, set the playlist to shuffle, repeat the current song, or mark the current song for purchase (if you have a music subscription and want to purchase a track). On the Zune, since left/right was for rew/ff or prev/next track, you would have to hit the center button to bring up the options screen for shuffle, repeat, song rating, or flagging a song. There were no other playback screen modes on the Zune, which is fine, because the current implementation of the album art as background looks really nice.
The buttons seemed responsive and had decent tactile feedback. Yes, it’s a circle that seems like it should work like the scroll wheel on an iPod, but in my opinion it isn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be. It’s probably just as easy to scroll through thousands of songs with this d-pad as it would be with an iPod scroll wheel, especially with the feature that pops up the first letter of titles/albums that you’re currently scrolling through. Helps you keep track of where you are when you’re scrolling very quickly through a song list.
Videos, pictures, etc.
Video and picture playback are as you’d expect. The large 3″ screen is very nice for viewing slideshows and videos. The videos playback in landscape, so it was a bit difficult to watch through a video with my head tilted. Overall I like the polish to the menus and playback. The options to change themes and customize your “wallpaper” is a nice feature that most users will appreciate. I expect that soon we’ll see plenty of Zune themes and wallpaper floating around Zune fan sites. If it isn’t already part of the Zune marketplace, there should be a section where you can buy different themes and wallpaper (and get some freebies, of course). Sure, lots of users will probably just make their own themes and wallpaper whenever people have figured out how, but just as many, if not more users would be willing to drop a little money on customizations, similar to the ringtone business. There are lots of ways to make your own for free, but the ringtone business is still stong, if I’m not mistaken.
Lastly, I couldn’t find the way to share songs or pictures with another Zune over WiFi. I couldn’t find any settings to configure to enable the feature. I may have just missed it, or perhaps the option doesn’t become available until you turn on the wireless capability with a hardware switch that was hidden by the Zune’s “cage”. No matter, since there wasn’t another working Zune to beam content to.
Lessons to be learned from the Gigabeat S
I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again: the Gigabeat S is a really good piece of hardware that was severly limited by lack of firmware updates and mediocre media management software (Windows Media Player). If the Gigabeat S had an iTunes equivalent, it would be a lot bigger contender in the media player arena than it is now. Yes, Toshiba also had some quality control issues with battery life, but I think the Gigabeat’s biggest crutch was Windows Media Player, version 10 or 11.
Windows Media Player and other woes
Syncing was not foolproof. A lot of people had issues getting all of their album art and ID3 tag information to sync properly onto the Gigabeat S, which made it hard to keep the media organized on the device. Even though WMP11 was improved over WMP10, it still was not as simple as the iTunes/iPod combination. There are always exceptions to the generalization, but many people sought other programs to sync their media onto the Gigabeat S, like MediaMonkey and Winamp. The lack of an iTunes equivalent, lack of an accessory “ecosystem”, quality control issues, and lack of real customer support from Toshiba hurt the Gigabeat S’s adoption rate very badly. The Zune is going to have to overcome these issues if it is to really compete against the iPod. The Zune is going to have to “just work”.
No netcast management features at launch? Bah.
I know that netcasts (podcasts for the uninitiated) aren’t mainstream, but they are a great source of audio and video media, well-suited for consumption for mobile devices. So besides offering a well-stocked Zune Marketplace, the Zune should also be updated to have netcast support as the iPod does.
Video conversion nightmares?
The Zune should also have drop-dead simple video conversion. It was such a chore to get videos to play back correctly on the Gigabeat S. It claimed to support DivX and MPEG-2/4 (I think?), but really it was a case of, “if WMP can convert it to WMV, the Gigabeat S supports it.” Most people who buy the Zune aren’t going to have the patience to go through all the trouble to convert videos into WMV, so if Microsoft or a third party doesn’t develop a simple conversion/syncing solution, a la PSPWare (PSP video conversion freeware) or Podtube (software to capture and convert YouTube videos to iPod format) or similar, a lot of people are going to be very vocal about their troubles getting content onto the Zune.
The Gigabeat S wasn’t all bad…
Even though I have had many complaints about the Gigabeat S, I still admire its hardware and design. It is smaller overall than a current 5th-gen iPod, and it feels pretty good when you’re holding it, fairly ergonomic, slightly slippery on the back. The portrait-oriented screen and the cross-shaped d-pad made the Gigabeat a more interesting-looking device than most of the cookie-cutter mp3 players out there. I did not like the playback buttons on the side of the Gigabeat S.
For listening to music, it was pretty decent. The easy access to repeat and shuffle functions without having to exit all the way back to the main menu was very useful. On-the-go playlist creation wasn’t quite as simple as on the iPod, but it was alright. The menus and animations were a lot more interesting than the tried-and-true iPod menus. However, since I am primarily listening to netcasts right now, the Gigabeat S didn’t work out for me, since it took more work to get netcasts synced to the device. Not so much more work than iTunes+iPod, but enough that it was frustrating that there wasn’t a simpler solution. And the absolute lack of accessories, save for a few cases, was pretty irritating.
Zune already on better footing than Gigabeat S at launch
I don’t think Zune will suffer exactly the same fate as the Gigabeat S. For one thing, there is already a healthy set of accessories slated for the Zune from big companies like Griffin, Belkin, and Microsoft. Roll your eyes all you want; the availability of accessories is important to a lot of consumers, including myself. Not only is it nice to have ways to customize and/or protect your media player, but the availability of accessories is a good indicator of how successful and well-supported the media player could be.
Microsoft seems to be putting a lot of resources into making the Zune as successful as possible, so I’m going to watch its progress with interest. However, until the Zune gets some netcast support features similar to the iPod, and until the WiFi sharing feature has been expanded to WiFi syncing or direct downloading of content (especially netcasts), I’m not really going to consider buying one. I’m pretty happy with my MDA as my mobile media device for now, despite its Flash memory limitations (direct downloading is awesome). Some of the DRM restrictions on the Zune are something to be concerned about. And the deal Microsoft made with Universal Music Group to give them royalties for every Zune sold is a pretty awful precedent to set.
I’m quite interested to see how Apple’s going to answer the Zune. You know Steve Jobs isn’t going to let the Zune hog the stage for very long. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple announces a new iPod before the end of the year, just to hit back at the Zune hard, not to sound Apple fangirlish (because I’m not!). The persistent rumors about the 6th-gen iPods — touchscreen, wireless capabilities, iPhones (??) — are beginning to take on a more realistic form, it seems. The upcoming announcements at MacWorld will be pretty interesting, I’ll bet.
All in all, it seems that the next phase of portable media player competition is upon us. Hopefully this results in better choices for consumers, and hopefully the draconian DRM restrictions are kept to a minimum (yeah, right). Is a Zune on your holiday wishlist? Are you going to buy a Zune on launch day (today)?
As we were driving home from Starved Rock State Park tonight, I spotted a Zune billboard out in Aurora, off of 30 West. Unfortunately we went by so quickly that I didn’t get a picture of it, nor do I remember exactly what it said, besides the phrase “coming Zune”. I’m quite surprised that I saw this billboard in the aforementioned location, because although it’s probably a well-traveled road, it doesn’t seem to be as high-profile as the billboard would be off of a more major highway like 90, heading in or out of Chicago, or some highway near Midway or O’Hare. Perhaps there are billboards off of those highways and I just don’t know it, since I don’t have a commute around those areas anymore. *shrug*
Without the picture, this blog post is totally useless, but I just figured I’d post anyway, to say that at least Zune marketing is branching out. Perhaps sometime I’ll try to drive back out there and snap a pic.
Today I got to see a couple devices that I’d been really eager to see in person — the Samsung YP-K5 mp3 player, and the Sony Mylo. Somehow I stumbled upon info that indicated the K5 was in stores today. So I hunted around, trying to figure out where I might be able to check the K5 out in person. Unfortunately I had to go into a Best Buy to see a display model (long story short — I don’t like Best Buy’s policies on how they treat customers, so I decided a while ago that I never wanted to buy anything from them ever again, a la putting my money where my mouth is).
(picture from Samsung)
K5 First Impressions
Anyway, I got to play around with the K5, and I am ever so close to feeling like it’s the mp3 player best suited for my podcast-listening activities. The build is solid, and the sliding mechanism for the built-in speakers is rather smooth. I really don’t mind the extra bulk that the built-in speakers add. The extra bulk kind of makes the player feel more solid and seemingly more robust than a small, thinner player like the iPod nano. I think in reality, though, it might be a bit more fragile than a nano if it was dropped. Irritatingly, the K5 was practically glued/clamped down to its little pedestal, so when I slid out the speakers, I couldn’t even rotate the device to look at the screen the right way in landscape mode.
Speakers and Menus
When you slide out the speakers while a track is playing, the sound fades in, which is a nice touch, a rather Mac-like detail that I was impressed by. I also enjoyed the cute bouncing ball on the menu that indicates your menu selection. It also reminded me of the bouncing icons on the OS X dock. The morphing animations displayed when you switch between main menu choices are also really eye-catching. All in all, I really like the menu interface, combined with the touchscreen controls. It’s a nice change from the tried-and-true iPod click wheel, or the d-pad and side buttons of the Gigabeat S. The look of the K5 is very modern and minimalist, definitely different from the other mp3 players out there. I wish I could’ve taken it home with me tonight!
(picture from Samsung)
The external speakers would be perfect for listening to podcasts around the house, without lugging around a bulky speaker dock, or some lame-o, tiny, tinny speakers. The K5′s speakers were surprisingly loud and seemed to have relatively good stereo separation, in spite of their small size. I’m not an audiophile, and the mp3s I’m mainly going to listen to don’t require super high-quality speakers, so YMMV.
The K5 has an OLED screen that was alright. It seemed a bit dim or washed out, but I was in a Best Buy with a lot of “school gym” kind of high-wattage lighting. I would have to carry it around my normal environment to see how it fares during daily use. I’d be surprised if the screen was readable outdoors in the normal sunlight, especially with the slick, shiny face on the player, but I am not often outside listening to music and needing to read the screen a lot, so again, YMMV. The screen is also kind of small, though I think it is probably on par with the iPod nano’s screen.
No video playback, but after my recent experimentation with trying to get vidcasts onto my Gigabeat S, I think it’s probably better to watch these vidcasts streamed to my TV in the family room. I don’t actually find many opportunities to watch these half-hour+ vidcasts besides when I’m home and don’t have any TV shows to catch up on. If I do feel like I want to watch a vidcast over a lunch break or something, I could always fire up my PSP, especially now that it can handle m4v files (the iPod-friendly video format adopted by a lot of vidcasters) without conversion, and can download them straight to a Memory Stick over WiFi without even needing a PC connection.
The K5 can display pictures, and I think you can configure a slideshow of the pictures on the device to be a screen saver, but this feature is pretty much fluff, considering the screen size. Nevertheless, scrolling through the sample set of pictures on the K5 was pretty fast. No problem with buffering or anything. The pictures themselves looked okay. The OLED screen sort of lacks sharpness.
There is an alarm function, but I wasn’t able to play around with it in detail at the store. I wasn’t even sure how to make the K5 display a clock when it was in alarm mode (if that’s even an option; one review implied that even though you could set the time, you can’t actually see the time anywhere, like on the playback screen). There is also an FM radio feature that uses the headphones as the antenna, but since I don’t listen to FM radio anymore, I am indifferent about it.
Should I Buy It or Not?
To tell the truth, the K5 is kind of expensive for its feature set and storage capacity. I think that the Sandisk Sansa e280, Sandisk’s latest 8GB flash player is similarly priced, if not cheaper than the Samsung YP-K5, which is only a 4GB player. It also has an expanded feature set that includes voice recording and video playback. I believe it has a larger screen as well. And an SD slot so you can expand its already huge 8GB storage capacity.
(picture from Sandisk, Sansa e280)
So why would I choose the K5 over the Sansa e280? Well, that’s a tough question, and I’m actually still kind of wrestling with it. The built-in, decent-sounding, slide-out speakers and the touchscreen are the two main features that draw me to the K5. I love the slide-out speakers and the menus so much that I feel like I need to buy this mp3 player to reward Samsung for coming up with this neato design (again, putting my money where my mouth is). I want Samsung and other manufacturers to keep pushing the design envelope and come up with different and interesting stuff. So that’s sort of the emotional, idealistic, less rational side of my internal argument.
The more logical side of my internal argument is that the Sansa e280 clearly has more features and better bang for the buck. It can even give me the ability to play short vidcasts if I wanted to squint at them on the Sansa’s tiny screen. It also can do both MTP and USB protocols for transferring files, so if I wanted, I could just forgo all of this syncing crapola and just drag and drop files onto the player to simplify things even more.
OT: Podcatching and Syncing
Actually, this is sort of a big issue with me, because I have not enjoyed dealing with two different applications — one to download the podcasts, and another to sync tracks and make playlists — to get podcasts onto my Gigabeat S. Windows Media Player, version 11 or older, is totally ridiculous if you are mainly interested in downloading, managing, and listening to podcasts as I am (if you’re just interested in music files, it’s alright, but still has flaws and unnecessary complexities compared to iTunes). Perhaps I’ll elaborate on my WMP annoyances in a future blog post. I went back to using my iPod nano because “it just works” for podcatching and syncing all in one program.
Anyway, by using the Sansa in USB, drag-and-drop mode, I might be able to use iTunes to sync podcasts to it, since iTunes does support some non-Apple mp3 players that use a regular USB connection for file transfer, rather that Windows’ proprietary Media Transfer Protocol (MTP). However, it might even be simpler just to drag and drop files onto the Sansa directly, and bypass all syncing completely (if I’m able to create “on-the-go” playlists on the Sansa).
The K5, unfortunately, only supports MTP, so I would have to use Windows Media Player, or a 3rd party app that can take the place of WMP. The only problem is that even now I have not found a good enough alternative to iTunes for an integration solution for podcatching and syncing the files to the player. I did use Happyfish as a podcatcher for the Gigabeat S for a while, and I do like it, even though it’s still buggy. Its major flaw is not being able to sync the tracks to my Gigabeat directly. It can sync files to mp3 players, but for some reason it wouldn’t recognize my Gigabeat S. I don’t know if it would recognize the K5, but even if it did, it doesn’t have playlist creation capabilities, and I don’t think the K5 has the capability to create playlists on the fly, which makes syncing from Happyfish kind of useless.
The 8GB capacity of the Sansa is also a huge factor to consider. For a while I wanted to put both music and podcasts onto my iPod nano, and found that 4GB just wasn’t enough to have a good balance of music and podcasts, as well as a little extra storage space for general USB flash drive usage. Having 8GB of storage would go quite a long way towards solving the issue of having enough music and podcasts and generic data storage capabilities. Double the storage capacity of the K5 at a similar price point is hard to ignore.
One last thing: I looked at the Sansa again today, and while its controls and menus were fine, they didn’t have the flash and “gadgety-ness” that the K5 does. The K5′s funky, modern design and touchscreen really appeals to my neophilia and design taste. The Sansa just looks too plain or pedestrian compared to the K5, too much like the iPod nano in form factor. The menus aren’t that flashy, and the album art display during playback looks kind of yuck. The buttons and scroll wheel are functional and matter-of-fact, not luminescent like the K5′s controls. The Sansa is definitely a case of functionality trumping fashion (though it is generally a good looking player), while the K5 is kind of the opposite — very fashionable, almost to the point that the fashion gets in the way of the functionality. I worry about the touchscreen controls losing sensitivity over time, leaving me with a useless device. And the lack of tactile feedback from the K5′s touchscreen might annoy me after a while, especially while trying to control it in the car during my commute.
So, that’s my first impression of seeing the Samsung K5 in person, finally. I really really want to snap it up, but my budget and knowledge of the Sandisk Sansa e280′s features are preventing me from just impulse buying the K5. And yes, I’m considering selling my Gigabeat S, but that’s another blog post. Stay tuned (or don’t) to see what I end up buying… My fickleness could cause me to end up with some device other than the K5 or the Sansa e280. *smirk*
*Neophilia is a love of new things, if you translate the word literally. In the tech blogging context, it’s a fancier name for gadget lust, I guess. Recently I read some articles from JKOnTheRun and elsewhere about neophilia possibly being caused by abundance of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A in certain people. So hey, if you love acquiring gadgets and keep getting flack from people about it, tell them it’s a medical condition.
I know, it’s rather bulky, and it’s kind of expensive for a 4GB mp3 player, and it’s likely that the syncing software for it is still crap compared to iTunes, but I still want it, dammit! Behold the Samsung YP-K5:
It’s a new mp3 player from Samsung that has built-in speakers that slide out from the back. I personally think it’s a great idea because there are many times when I’m listening to a podcast while driving home and want to continue listening to it after I’ve gotten out of the car. Yeah, it’s not a big hassle to put my earbuds in, but that blocks the “outside world” and is rather isolationist. At least if I had a little speaker on my Gigabeat S, it’s like having a radio play in the background, rather than me being in my own little world. I know I appreciated the speakers on my PSP whenever I played audio or video content on it. Anyway, sometimes I get tired of using my earbuds, and the speaker option is just a nice feature. No more waiting around for some manufacturer to make a dock for it (although a nicer dock with better speakers is always a welcome option).
The write-up at Gizmodo has a bunch of pictures and a nice quick Youtube video showing off its features. It’s so shiny and cool looking! From what I saw in the video, the touch controls look like they work pretty well. We’ll see how they hold up in regular use… I LOVE the cute menus on the OLED screen. The animations when you’re switching between modes are simple, but cool nonetheless. It can display pictures, but there’s no video support. I think that’s fine, considering the screen is so small. I wouldn’t watch video on an iPod nano or any similarly-sized device. I don’t even really look at pictures on my Gigabeat S. The Gigabeat S’s screen is the minimum size I’d consider for a decent, mobile video-watching experience.
Gizmodo also reported that Belkin already has a lineup of accessories for the YP-K5, and a couple other Samsung mp3 players. This bodes well for Samsung competing against the iPod juggernaut.
<rant> I wish Toshiba had lined up Belkin accessories specifically for the Gigabeat. There are some generic mp3 player accessories listed on Toshiba’s awful Gigabeat site, like the headphone jack splitter. OOOOHHH, that’s awesome…not. I keep harping on Toshiba, but I’m sorry, their lack of accessories, support, and software is killing any chance the Gigabeat S has of being a true contender to the iPod/iTunes combo. I hope Microsoft puts a lot more support behind the Zune than Toshiba’s support for the Gigabeat S. I’m going to keep saying it over and over again even if I sound like a broken record, because no product reviews out there are touting this information. And if Toshiba keeps getting props for having an awesome player (which the Gigabeat S is) and no dings for their lack of good syncing software, podcast support, or tech support, then Toshiba won’t change. They’re already listed as one of the PC manufacturers with the worst customer support (I hope my M200 doesn’t break down before I get an upgrade). </rant>
Anyway, if you’re interested in a mini-boombox mp3 player, this Samsung YP-K5 looks like a very interesting prospect. I know I’ll be checking this one out in the store once it’s available.