On casual technology

Posted: April 21, 2011 in crotchety ranting, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

After 4.5 years, my MP3 player finally died on me. It wasn’t a huge shock – it had a tendency to freeze up on me if I clicked “next” too often in shuffle mode – but apparently that was not enough warning for me to back up the last year’s worth of playlists.

Playlists: Those things we used to call “mixes,” which I’ve used to track time since I was 14 and trying to cram an extra song onto the end of a 45-minute cassette side…god, 14-year-old me would never take any of this stuff for granted. Technology is a new and consistent amazement every day, 17 years in the future.

He may, however, be baffled by the fact that you can only buy one kind of player. My player managed to cack it the same week Microsoft told everyone what was already pretty clear: the Zune was officially a dead technology. Leaving the iPod as essentially the only game in town without having to do much but advertise better. 

This wasn’t always the case, which is actually part of the problem for me. When heavy-storage MP3 players (20G was the big daddy in 2004) became readily available, there were options. I know this for a fact, because I ended up going with something called an iRiver, which was “off-brand,” yes, but was also a clear superior to the iPod.

The iRiver offered a full-color screen, voice recorder, radio, video and photo storage capabilities, nearly a year before Apple caught up. It used arrow buttons rather than the frankly infuriating clickwheel (something I never got the hang of). Most important to me, it accepted the WMA file format, which meant I could fit more music on than if I’d uploaded all my CDs as MP3 files. Not only did the iPod NOT accept WMA, its M4A format was actually pretty massive, meaning as far as storage went, the iRiver had it all over the iPod.

All for about a hundred bucks less. So how was it NOBODY (outside of my then-girlfriend’s dad) had ever heard of the damn thing?

My only guess is the company had absolutely no advertising budget.

When that one went bust after a few years, I went back to the Best Buy to swap it for the next model. By that time, the store stopped carrying the brand, but by then I was kind of stuck – I had HUNDREDS of albums stored in WMA format, and I wasn’t about to transfer them all just to get a fricking iPod (as per the idiot sales girl’s suggestion).

So I dug around (iRiver got out of the large-storage machine arena shortly thereafter, so it was a wise move), and found another “off-brand” model – the Creative Zen – which was, again, a comparable-to-superior machine that nobody ever heard of.

Not too long after, the Zune made its debut, my mom bought one, and I was stunned by how intuitive the controls were – no clickwheel, huge, easily readable screen, and backing of a major tech company to boot! Finally, I thought, maybe this will open up the playing field a little and I won’t have to work so hard to not buy an Apple product.

It got mocked so hard I thought people were trying to see if a machine could cry.

So – a few years later than anyone would’ve liked, apparently – the Zune closes up shop, Best Buy only traffics in iPods (or Archos, if you are masochistic enough to want to pay even more than the cost of an iPod), and off I went to the Creative website to see if they’re even still in business.

Fortunately, they are – offering again, a comparable-to-iPod-Touch product for a hundred less – but you wouldn’t know it from an Amazon search (for some reason, only typing in the exact name and model brings it up for purchase – weird).

Which is fine for me NOW, but these things don’t last forever. So in another 4 years or so, when this one dies on me…will there be any options beyond than the great monolith iPod? Or – maybe more disconcerting – will the iPod itself be swallowed up as storage capacity on the iPhone finally makes it redundant?



I’ll bet this is how Skynet got started.

  1. Moff says:

    I have said it before and say it again now: Microsoft’s advertising and marketing strategies are so pathetic that they must all be traceable back to a single, very stupid individual.

    I mean, I know it’s hard to beat Apple at that game. But MS should be able to at least stay in the game. Their ads, though, range from the pandering but inconsequential “kittens with jetpacks” bullshit that sometimes takes over the front page of The Onion to those actively angrifying “search overload” ads for Bing. And then there were the weird ones with the laptops, where there was like a normal version of the spokesperson and a better-looking-ish version played by another actors! Those just made no goddamn sense.

    Anyway, I remember hearing well after the fact that the Zune was pretty good. If only a company will billions of dollars at its disposal had been able to let me know about that in a non-stupid, resonant way.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    I have absolutely nothing to add to that. You said all the things.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh, except to say I know this’ll be a moot point by the next time I have to shop around.

    By that point, having an mp3 player that’s not also a phone and web device will probably be a little archaic (my already outmoded LG touch stores music fine but doesn’t give continuous play). So, hopefully there’s an Android-based smartphone with at least 32G of music storage and a 12 mega-pixel camera available in a couple years.

  4. Smeagol92055 says:

    I’ve owned the same iPod for about five years now (after receiving it as a Christmas gift) and I’ve got to say, it’s consistently proven itself to be one of the buggiest pieces of technology I’ve ever used; it constantly resets itself should I try to scroll through the menus too fast, click a button in a threatening manner, or approach the iPod without first ritually washing my entire body and donning a robe with bells attached to the hem (I could be mixing the iPod up with traditional Jewish Temple rituals, but I’m pretty sure I’m not.)

    I mean don’t get me wrong; I listen to it every single night as I drift off to sleep (so I can’t hear the monster under the bed threatening to eat my toes in the night) and I’ve rolled over on it, stuck my elbow in its screen, and knocked it off the bed onto the floor countless times, and it still runs fine. (Thank the Maker for protective cases.)

    My experience with the machine has been mixed, but overall I find myself missing my old cassette player; I actually still have my old cassette player and a couple of old cassettes that I drag out occasionally, and I’d love to start a movement away from digital and back to analogue technology (I was never particularly impressed with portable CD players either, outside of one sand/water/shock-proof model I picked up in Iraq and which still works to this day AND has speakers built into it) but I know that technology only flows in one direction, and that direction is straight up Steve Jobs’ ass.

    …Wait, what was I talking about again? Where the hell am I?

  5. Kelly Gallagher says:

    Jeff, I have both an iPod and an Android phone. Prior to getting my phone, I used my iPod regularly…I took it on my runs and I listened to it at night to fall asleep. Now that I have my phone…I rarely use it. My phone came with 8MB of memory, but it can also read from MicroSD cards, so the memory can be increased. I have hundreds of songs on it (I have an app that lets me sync it with my iTunes, including my playlists) and it is a GREAT mp3 player. I do think stand alone mp3 players are losing popularity. Why get a new iPod when you can get the latest and greatest phone that has all of this other cool stuff with it?

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    As a byproduct of my Apple apprehension (Applehension? Shut up, no time!), I also managed to completely avoid using iTunes in any way, shape or form. Whenever I download an album, it comes from Amazon’s digital service. And like a crazy person, I save it to my hard drive, upload it onto a player, and store a backup on a DVD.

    And now Amazon’s asking if I want to use their Cloud Player to store all my stuff. (Naturally, they don’t recognize WMA either – oh, Zune, where art thou?!)

    So it goes.

    Meanwhile, my brother – a musician who records his own stuff – has just come to realize how much sound quality is lost through digitizing. So now there’s the possibility that in 5 years there’ll be a mighty sub-culture of people rebelling against iPhones by sitting in comfy chairs, wearing giant headphones and listening to records.

    Which actually doesn’t sound terrible to me.

  7. Yes, compressing to mp3, wma or AAC (standard m4a) lose a lot of quality. They’re compression. Same is true of video compression. The only reason DVD is watchable compared to film is because out TVs are nowhere near the optical quality of a filmstrip. Some of the BluRay transfers are absolutely horrible, some are brilliant. I don’t know how you made wma listenable, but back when I used it, comparing that to ogg vorbis or VBR mp3 or AAC was ridiculously bad quality. And yes, proprietary codecs don’t work in every machine, every music player that allows wma has to pay microsoft a bit of money to license its codec. I don’t believe that is the case for m4a, because the MPEG-4 codec is open source, but there are DRM issues when buying them online.

    I’ve always liked Creative Zen players, I’ll be sad to see them go, but I’ve only ever bought iPods–they’ve never not worked for me. You can convert your music to lossless digital formats such as FLAC or Apple Lossless (OSX/iPods can’t play FLAC). Listening to records on headphones is pretty much what most audiophiles do, though vinyl creates its own lossy static background noise.

    A lack of competition is sad to see, but it’s not like Apple has been going around and buying up all the competitors. They just make it far too simple to stay within the family of software and hardware. Something Windows used to be awesome at, which might explain why you encoded into wma in the first place. As for mp3 taking up more space, sure if you don’t use VBR and expect decent quality.

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    “I’ve always liked Creative Zen players, I’ll be sad to see them go, but I’ve only ever bought iPods–they’ve never not worked for me.”

    Curious, did you use both at some point? What made you choose iPod over Creative?

    (And, because this is The Internet, I should be clear – I’m genuinely curious, not trying to be a dick. It was an interestingly specific statement you made and I’d like to follow up on that.)

  9. When I bought my first laptop in university I got a free outdated iPod mini with it. It lasted me two years before the battery gave out, and two more years before it stopped working while plugged in. Then I survived on an iPod Shuffle for another two years, until I had just enough income to waste on something more up to date and useful. I’ve never used a Zen, but Creative has always been a solid sound company. I’ve more liked the idea of them, than practically.

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