Assault On The iPod

Apple's music players remain the top of the class, but some wannabes are hitting the right notes

In just three years, the Apple iPod has gone from music player to cultural icon. It has spawned a slew of would-be iPod killers, none of which has lived up to its billing. But among this year's new crop of wannabes are a few that are winning fans. "I wanted something more substantial. The iPod felt more like a toy," says Thomas Schorn, who raises snakes in Queen Creek, Ariz., and bought a Zen Touch from Creative. The iPod and the iPod mini rule, but rivals are getting better.

It takes just two words to explain iPod's success: look and feel. The circular gray click-wheel on its front lets you zip though thousands of songs, create playlists on the fly, and control the volume. You pay a lot for cool, though. Apple sells a version with 40 gigabytes of storage, enough for 10,000 songs, for about $399. The 20-gigabyte version sells for $299. The mini iPod, at 4-gigabytes, costs $249. On Oct. 26, Apple leapfrogged ahead of the competition by announcing iPod Photo, for storing and displaying photos in addition to songs.

You'd think if any company could displace Apple (AAPL ) and the iPod, it would be Sony (SNE ). After all, Sony pioneered the portable music business with its Walkman 25 years ago. But the more expensive Network Walkman hits a sour note when it comes to software. The biggest problem: Sony requires users to play songs only in its ATRAC format, a proprietary method for storing and listening to music. That means users have to convert any music already stored on their PC in the common MP3 format to ATRAC so it can play on the Network Walkman. In contrast, iPod and other portables play MP3s without modification. And even with a $50 price cut on Oct. 31, to $349, the Network Walkman is still $50 more than the comparable 20-gigabyte iPod.

Trumping the Mini

Creative has been chasing the iPod since its debut, but the new, 20-gigabyte Zen Touch, capable of storing 5,000 songs, isn't likely to help Creative gain ground. The player uses a new touch pad to navigate, and it feels more substantial -- which appeals to fans like Schorn. Problem is, the Zen Touch is cluttered with an astonishing 11 buttons. Even with a battery that lasts more than 20 hours and a price tag that's less than the comparable iPod model, it's still not as attractive as Apple's player.

It turns out Apple's toughest competition is targeting the iPod mini. A bevy of pint-sized hard-drive music players are hitting the market. They all boast 5-gigabyte capacity, and one gets pretty close to the mini in coolness. That's Creative's $249 Zen Micro. Like the iPod, Zen Micro has a touch pad to navigate through the system and has additional spots on its face that users simply touch to pause a song, fast forward to a new track, or jump to the main menu. The Micro trumps the mini with an FM radio and a removable battery, so you don't have to toss the entire device or pay a fortune to have Apple replace the battery when it eventually gives out. And 5 gigabytes means 25% more hard drive space than the iPod mini. It may not look quite as elegant, but, feature for feature, the Micro stacks up very well.

The iPod mini rival that's been getting the most attention is the Rio Carbon. But the praise isn't entirely deserved. Like the Zen Micro, the $249 Carbon holds some 1,250 songs. But it doesn't include a hold switch to prevent users from inadvertently bumping a button that might stop a song or jump ahead to the next tune. The Carbon has a wheel, placed near the typical user's thumb position, to scroll through menus. Unfortunately, the most important button -- the one that gets users back to the home screen -- is awkwardly placed on the side of the device, rather than on its face.

Dell is also pushing hard in the mini market. It's selling a product that does the job at a lower price ($199). But the Pocket DJ doesn't deliver nearly as well as its PCs. The 5-gigabyte DJ relies on a small, barrel-shaped wheel that juts out from the case to scroll through songs. This approach is too slow for traversing through long song libraries.

Most of Apple's competitors still have a long way to go. The large iPods remain the best gizmos for stockpiling all of your music, hands down. But if you're looking for a slimmer device to carry just 1,000 tunes or so, the iPod mini has some solid competition from Creative's Zen Micro. The Zen Micro may not become a cultural icon, but it gives you more for your money.

By Jay Greene

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