Rich Warren: Very few alternatives to iPods
The battery of my first-generation Apple iPod Nano charged for its final time. I also bought the next generation of Nano but left it in a drawer, so the battery completely died after five years of disuse. Apple makes replacing the battery nearly as expensive as buying a new player.
While Apple makes a desirable piece of hardware, I've never been comfortable locked into iTunes. So I decided to buy a different brand of MP3 player.
I stopped into a big box store and discovered my choices were exactly one: A low-budget RCA player for about $35. Its most desirable attribute is a built-in USB connector that folds out to connect it to a computer.
So I went online. The Sony website now only officially offers a single model, although Amazon continues to offer a previous model. The current Sony model builds the MP3 player into the earbuds — which rules out using high-quality or noise-reduction headphones. The previous Sony model looks more like a conventional iPod and costs about $60, half the price of a Nano.
Further burrowing into the Amazon store revealed SanDisk, a reputable brand known for its thumb and flash drives, still marketed a couple of models for about $35 and $55. There also were two or three off-brands that I skipped. I ordered the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ 8-gigabyte player for $55 including free shipping.
I'll let you know how it works out. I hope loading music will be easier than using iTunes — and that it sounds as good as an iPod.
Most people now use smartphones and tablets that incorporate MP3 players, which explains the limited number of stand-alone models. But even after the first iPod appeared a little more than a decade ago, Apple faced minimal competition. By comparison, within a year after the first Sony Walkman about 20 companies offered competing models. At the height of Walkman/Discman mania in 1990, at least 100 models flooded the market, with a vast array of sizes and features.
By the mid-1990s Sony became obsessed with its expensive, flawed and backward MiniDisc technology — to the neglect of everything else portable. Other companies toyed with flash memory MP3 players with modest success.
So Apple swept the market not merely because of its exquisitely designed iPod, which used a miniature hard drive for capacious storage, but because its iTunes store fostered legal music downloads to the iPod. Trying to use iTunes to load music onto competing brands required some computer smarts. Thus, Apple walked away with the market.
Some of us still desire a cheap, small, easy-to-use MP3 player that easily loads from any source, rather than using a smartphone, but that option soon will be gone. Even better would be a player that comes without cheap, flimsy earbud headphones.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.