Hard-core music buffs won't be thrilled with this media player's lack of access to iTunes—no matter how many bells and whistles are attached
Makers of handheld music players have been emboldened by an unlikely source: Apple (AAPL) itself. They're studying the success of newer, smaller versions of the iPod, such as the nano, and figuring if consumers want iPod alternatives—be they tinier, cheaper, or just plain different—then maybe those people can be lured away from the iPod altogether.
No one device, or brand, is ideal for all consumers of digital audio—or so hope the likes of Samsung, SanDisk (SNDK) and iRiver, owned by Reigncom Ltd. in Seoul.
iRiver released the 2GB Clix Flash-based music and video player in May. The Clix is an almost completely revamped version of iRiver's earlier U10. It adopts the same compact design as its predecessor, but features twice as much storage, a smoother interface and better overall performance for about $200, smack in the middle of the nano's $150-to-$250 range. And like the nano, Clix is not designed for hard-core MP3 collectors who want to carry whole libraries, but rather the casual listener who wants a cool way to enjoy a smaller collection of, say, 500 songs.
Upon taking the Clix from its package, I was struck by the player's size and simple design. It's smaller than a business card (2.7 by 1.8 inches) and I was able to drop it into a pocket and forget it was there. Yet it is more than twice as thick as the nano (0.6 inches compared to 0.26 inches) and noticeably heavier (2.5 oz. vs. 1.4 oz.). Think of it as the George Costanza to the nano's Jerry Seinfeld.
The most striking difference between the Clix and its Apple counterpart—or any digital audio player, for that matter—lies in its very basic interface. The sleek black faceplate houses a humongous 2.2-inch LCD screen but also serves as a four-way rocker button for navigating menus. It took me a few minutes to adjust from my scroll-wheel tendencies, but once I got the hang of this so-called D-Click screen I found myself delighted by the satisfying, faint popping noise with each click.
The four-button screen is innovative and fun, but it has some immediately noticeable flaws. For one, you will need to get used to constantly toggling the hold switch on and off, because the buttons are sensitive to every accidental nudge or tap. Also, your fingerprints will unavoidably end up all over the screen—so don't leave your Clix at the scene of a crime.
The Clix gives you the option to display the menu horizontally or vertically—roughly the difference between a two-hand video-game controller and a one-hand TV remote control. But the latter option is considerably less ergonomic.
In addition to the four-button pad, Clix has four minuscule side buttons: volume up and down, power, and a "smart key" that can be set for a variety of functions, such as play/pause, start/stop recording, and my favorite: shuffle all songs.
When it comes to function, the iPod's idiot-proof menu interface is hard to beat. But the Clix comes closer than any device in the category. Main menu options are visually appealing, becoming bolder and larger when you select through them; transitions are fast; and arrows provide a visual orientation from one menu to the next. Holding down buttons to scroll through a long list of tracks is more frustrating than using Apple's accelerating scroll wheel, but with room for only 500 tracks or so, this isn't a major concern.
Clix comes equipped with many features, such as an FM tuner and a record button, that are available on the nano only through add-ons. It also has a few that you can't get on the nano at all; these include video, text-file viewing, and storage of other small data files. I especially enjoyed using the FM tuner—which allows up to eight preset stations and picked up good reception even in some parts of the New York City subway. The tuner is one way to extend the Clix's limited content capacity. If you like a song on the radio, you can also record and save it as a fairly good-quality MP3 file.
VIDEO VS. AUDIO.
Clix's video capabilities, on the other hand, are lacking. For one, it will only read MPEG-4 format, so you will have to download extra software to convert your video files, then import them to the device using Windows Media Player. Video playback generally looks bright and lifelike on the 320 by 240 resolution screen, but the slower than normal transfer rate of 15 frames per second makes it appear choppy. And video buffs beware: The device can store 2GB, so you'll only have room for a couple of music videos or short clips to complement your MP3 collection.
What the Clix lacks in video playback it makes up for in audio quality and function. The "now playing" screen provides standard fare: album art (when available), track, artist, and album. But it also tells you which song is coming up next. Hold the right D-Click button down and you'll be taken to a song-settings menu, where you can rate a song, add it to your "quick list," or even earmark a track for future purchase, among other things.
Sound is great on the Clix, even at the highest volume setting. And you can easily adjust sound quality with the equalizer. The device performs particularly well with low-end sound—so feel free to crank up the bass and kick hard-hitters like Kanye's Drive Slow or Gnarls Barkley's Boogie Monster.
One of the main handicaps facing the Clix user—like users of all non-Apple players—is the denial of access to iTunes. iRiver has partnered with MTV to provide Clix users access to the Urge downloading service. However suited MTV may be for selecting music, Urge's library cannot come close to rivaling that of the exhaustive iTunes.
With a new generation of iPod nanos just hitting the market at a reduced price ($149.99 list for the 2GB model), the casual music listener will have to weigh the importance of Clix' added features (video, voice recording, FM tuner, and a built-in Sudoku game) against the nano's lower price and access to iTunes.
To me, content is king, so I'll stick with my iPod until iTunes or a similarly expansive music library is available on Clix.