Just a quick observation or two before heading off into the realm of present opening and too much food. Plus, we’re about due for a departure from politics and where better to go than consumer advice at this time of the year.
The big excitement for everyone this holiday season and certainly the hottest gift is the Apple iPod. And being a slave of popular culture, my 12 year old daughter just has to have one – in specific, the iPod mini. (iPod Mini on Amazon)
I’m not convinced that the iPod is really the miracle it’s cracked up to be, especially not the mini. There are other companies making similar devices with all sorts of extra bells and whistles at substantially lower prices, both to compete with the regular iPod and the iPod mini. When you get right down to it, the standard iPod is just a notebook hard drive which you can plug headphones into and a cute little user interface, and the iPod mini is basically the same thing with a CF minidrive instead of the notebook hard drive. They’re overpriced for what they are. You’re basically paying for the name, the look and the packaging. Not that they aren’t great little music players, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
Before buying an iPod for my daughter I did a LOT of research. I actually bought and tried (and mostly returned) half-a-dozen different MP3 players and really got to know the technology. My conclusion was that the iPod may be sexy and seems to have a good interface, but it’s not really the leading edge of the technology. The really intriguing MP3 players are the ones which take removable memory in some form or other – mostly SD memory cards. This expandable format allows for a lower base price with the ability to expand capacity virtually without limit. The catch is that these players seem to have certain consistent technical problems. Of the ones I tried none of them had entirely reliable MacOS interfaces and they all had strange quirky in how they handled their removable memory. The best of the lot was the TDK Mojo which takes SD memory and is half the size of an iPod Mini. At $89 for the base 256mb device plus around $50 for each 512mb card you want to add to it, you can start out with a good bit of memory (each 256mb is about 65 mp3 files) at a nice low price – about half of an iPod mini – and add more later. The problem with the Mojo – also with the RCA Lyra which was the next best one I tried – is that it doesn’t access all of the memory on the SD card reliably. Once you go beyond 256mb on the SD card it starts to generate memory errors. The most I was able to get onto an SD card was about 330mb. That sort of defeats the purpose of expandability. I did end up keeping a Mojo for myself, because even the 150 songs I was able to fit on it was more than enough for my needs.(Mojo on Amazon)
I can see a new generation of MP3 players coming just around the corner. Something like the Mojo, but using CompactFlash memory or compatible micro hard drives instead of SD cards. These have a much higher capacity and aren’t any more expensive and you’d basically end up with an iPod mini which could be expanded with additional removable memory units. It would also be nice to see them incorporating AM as well as FM radio in the designs. You’ll see these by next Christmas, and by then the firmware kinks the current players have ought to be sorted out as well. So, if you don’t have a 12 year old clammoring for an iPod right now, you should probably hold out and see what the next year brings.
One thing I did find while shopping around was a really exceptional set of ear plugs. The ear plugs which are supplied with the various MP3 players, including the iPod are barely adequate. The sound quality is usually fair, but suffers from the fact that they are relatively hard and rigid in shape and therefore don’t really fit your ear very well, and a poor fit means the sound doesn’t resonate well. They’re also quite uncomfortable. The obvious alternative is to go with real headphones that cover the ears, but they’re bulky and inconvenient. In my manic shopping around I found something even better. Koss makes a set of ear plugs called “The Plug” which are truly exceptional. They enhance the standard design with large foam adapters which are provided in half-a-dozen different shapes to fit any ear. The adapters fit over a sound transmitting tube which carries the sound into the inner ear, and once you find the adapter that’s right for your ear there’s no loss of sound around the edges like you have with standard ear plugs. The result is far superior comfort and sound quality, and they’re a great purchase at around $10. If you’re looking for a stocking stuffer to go with your daughter’s iPod, look no further.(The Plug on Amazon)
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