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Digital Santa: Stalking The MP3s

All this week, tech guru Larry Magid looks at the latest in high-tech gifts for the holiday season.

The Apple iPod isn't just a success. It's a runaway bestseller, accounting for as many as nine out of ten portable digital music players, depending on what numbers you believe. But just because the iPod is extremely popular doesn't necessarily mean that it's the best choice for everyone.

To its credit, Apple has built a very effective infrastructure around its portable devices. Not only does it sell elegantly designed and easy to use hardware, it also gives away its iTunes music player software that makes it very easy to buy songs and transfer them to the iPod.

Apple continues to innovate. In the last three months the company has introduced two popular new models: the incredibly thin iPod nano, which stores up to 1,000 songs in a device thinner than a No. 2 pencil, and the new iPod, which stores up to 60 gigabytes (15,000 songs) and plays video clips.

Apple has even cut deals with two major TV networks to allow iPod users to purchase and watch popular TV shows. What's more, Apple has jumped on the podcasting bandwagon, making it easy to download and play Internet-based radio programs from thousands of sources including CBS News.

Great features aside, Apple's most important asset is its marketing. Between its commercials, billboards, word of mouth and inviting Apple stores, the company has turned its little music player into a must-have cultural icon. For many people, especially younger customers, the iPod literally synonymous with digital music.

Yet, despite having to settle for their share of what's left after Apple takes its enormous bite out of the market, the competition offers some pretty compelling alternatives. Anyone thinking about buying an iPod for the holidays would be wise to take a few minutes to consider what else is out there.


Click here to check out Larry Magid's interview with Phil O'Shaughnessy of Creative Labs, with more tips on shopping for MP3 players.

One thing that distinguishes the Apple products from of the competitors is the format of the music you download and where you get it from.

While all portables will play the industry standard MP3 files that you can get from your own CDs or illegally download from the non-sanctioned music service, the music that you download from paid services isn't encoded in MP3 because MP3 lacks the ability to embed digital rights management (DRM) that enables the recording labels to limit what you can do with the songs.

Apple encodes its downloaded music as AAC, which is only compatible with the iPod, while most other services encode in WMA, which works with most other players. Whether AAC or WMA is a better format is debatable and largely irrelevant (the differences in quality are slight and vary depending on the type of music) but the bottom line is that music you download from a service can only be played on a compatible player.

While the iPod only works with files you copy (rip) from CDs and music you download from iTunes, the rest of the players on the market work with music you can purchase from any of several online music stores including Yahoo Music, Rhapsody.com, Napster,com and Walmart.com.

With a few exceptions, the different services offer pretty much the same music, but they do vary in terms of their pricing strategy. For example, while iTunes charges 99 cents per song, Walmart's music store lets you download songs for 88 cents apiece. The different services also offer deals on albums as well.

One trick that some people use for music they purchase online is to burn a CD and then copy the files from the CD back to their PC as unprotected MP3 files that they can use with any player.

Napster, Yahoo and Rhapsody allow you to purchase songs a la cart or as albums but they also have something that iTunes doesn't offer: the option to listen to as much music as you want for one monthly fee.

Yahoo Music Unlimited, for example, costs $4.99 a month (if paid in one annual installment) to listen to more than a million songs on a Windows PC, but, if you're willing to pay $9.99 a month you can also listen to that music on one of the compatible portable music players including specific models from Audiovox, Dell, iRiver, Creative, RCA, Samsung.

Napster and Rhapsody offer similar services are also compatible with these devices. Rhapsody recent started allowing people to listen to music from its website without having to download special software and the company lets people listen to (but not download) up to 25 songs a month for free. The devices that work with these "all you can listen to" services are equipped to check to see that your subscription is up-to-date. If not, the music won't play.

The easiest ways to find out if a device is compatible with a service is to check the service's website or visit PlaysForSure.com. That website, operated by Microsoft, lists services and devices that work with the Microsoft Windows Media format. While all PlaysForSure devices will work with music downloaded from compatible stores, only certain devices will allow you to play music you download from subscription services.

I've tested out a number of digital music players from Creative, Dell, Rio and iRiver as well as Apple and I've been quite impressed with some of them. The Dell DJ 20, for example, is a relatively sleek (4.0 x 2.5 x .74 inches, weighing 6.8 ounces) device that can store up to 9,900 songs.

You get up to 12 hours battery life and a user interface which, in some ways, makes it easier to use than the iPod for those of us with lots of music. I say this because the DJ, along with devices from Creative and some other companies) has a find feature that lets you select the first letter in an artist's or song's name to quick scroll to the selection.

With the iPod you have to scroll through every listing, which can be cumbersome if you have thousands of songs. I also like the feel of the Dell's scroll wheel, which has a nice solid clicking, unlike the touch-sensitive controls on the iPod, Creative and some other players which, I find, can sometimes be a bit oversensitive.

Creative offers a full line of digital music players ranging from flash memory-based products that start at under $50 to its new Zen Vision M that stores up to 15,000 songs and, like the newest iPod, displays photos and plays videos. Trouble is, you can't play videos you download from iTunes but you can watch TV shows that you transfer from a Tivo personal video recorder.

While all this choice is great, if you're buying a gift, do consider what the person really wants. Many people have their heart set on an Apple iPod and they just won't be happy if they get anything else. Right or wrong, brand preference can be a strong factor, which is certainly something to consider when shopping for others.



A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid