Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lord iPod, Zune Approacheth. Launch the X5!

It's been fun watching the iPod versus Zune fight from the outside. I don't own a digital audio player (DAP) -- sorry, a digital media player (DMP). I am vaguely interested in getting one, though, because my car doesn't have a CD player, and the CD player in the motorcycle is on the fritz and I don't want to fix it. Easier by far to get a DMP player, a cassette adapter, and voila, huge mobile song collection on the (relative) cheap. (As a bonus, I can then have the CD changer ripped out of the motorcycle and gain luggage space. w00t!)

What's entertaining about all this is the flame wars that all the fanboi's are engaging in. Not having a dog in this race, I have a few observations.

First, the iPod pretty much (but not entirely) created the market, but when it first came out there were lots of cries of, "Oh how this or that sucks!" It's easy now to look at an established empire and go, "Oooh, pretty!" but it wasn't always so. For example, when first released the iPod was a Mac-only product; there was no Windows-compatible software. (A reversal of the current Zune situation, where there is no official Mac-compatible software.)

Second, I doubt if Microsoft actually thought its first generation Zune would be an iPod killer. When the Allies landed at Normandy, they didn't anticipate Germany's immediate surrender. Same here. This is the shelling of the beaches and a first landing. If you think of this in any other way, you are deluding yourself. Look at pretty much any product in Microsoft history (e.g., Windows, Internet Explorer, Media Player, XBox) and you will see this pattern again and again.

Third, every single DMP on the market has some degree of suckage. You love your iPod? Great. I don't. It's a functional toy that does a great job playing music and other audio content. It is less than spectacular playing anything else, especially video. (Who wants to squint while watching TV?) The exact same thing can be said for every DMP out there, including the Zune. And on the personal opinion front, I think the Zune is much nicer looking than any iPod.

The Zune fails almost precisely where the iPod (and others) fail: It bolts you to proprietary desktop software for adding content, especially purchased content; the Zune to whatever the heck Microsoft calls their service and the iPod to Apple iTunes. In a world infested with Digital Rights Management (DRM), if you purchase content from iTunes you are trapped playing that content on an iTunes-compatible device (i.e., the iPod). Why this is surprising to "reviewers" is a mystery to me. Why they mug the Zune for its inability to hack Apple's DRM is an even greater mystery, especially given the existence of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The purpose of DRM is to restrict when, where, and how you can play paid-for content. One of the purposes of the DMCA is to prevent development of software that can circumvent DRM. Any reviewer who slams Microsoft for not violating the DMCA in order to violate Apple's DRM is ludicrously ill informed. The Zune review at Ars Technica said it best: The Zune software's inability to import protected files from iTunes demonstrates how odious DRM is, not how lame the Zune software is.

Now, that doesn't mean there aren't legitimate problems with the Zune desktop software, but when I updated my copy of iTunes to version 7, woo boy, let's talk issues. I'm at v7.0.2 and the issues persist.

But, you might ask, why in the heck am I running iTunes if I don't own an iPod? Good question. The bad answer is that I was considering the purchase of an iPod. Then I looked at the Zune. Now I must look elsewhere because for me, the suckage of both the iPod and the Zune exceeds the joy of owning either.

Quite frankly, I do not plan on ever buying from the iTunes store or the Zune Marketplace, because I won't buy DRM'd music. Period. I think DRM violates fair use in so many different ways it boggles the mind. There are places to buy DRM-less content. Better still, you don't buy reduced-quality 128-bitrate files, a la the iTunes Store. eMusic offers 192K variable bitrate (VBR) mp3's; other places offer lossless downloads, or even FLAC (free lossless audio codec).

I have happily ripped my CD existing collection using CDex (currently using LAME 3.96 to create 192K VBR mp3's), and will continue to do so as I acquire newer CD's. I have and will rip CD's that my family and friends bring over, because fair use says that I can, no matter what the RIAA fantasizes to the contrary.

Thus, iTunes shall soon be but a memory. For ripping, I have the aforementioned CDex. For playback on my PC, I have my long-standing #1 choice, Winamp (with the ClearOne skin), and I've got Windows Media Player 11 as a fallback. And I'll soon be experimenting with Democracy.

As for what DMP to get, in my perfect world, I would hook up the player via a USB port, my computer would awaken and see it as a mass storage device, and I would simply drag and drop files onto it. Then the player's software would go, "Zoot alours, new things!", scan the new files, and present the playlists. Voila, simple.

But my perfect world seldom exists, and it's never that simple. You can use many of these things as mass storage devices and you can just drag files onto them, but then the internal software goes, "Huh?" rather than "Zoot alours!" and it's all downhill from there.

Which means that neither an iPod nor a Zune will satisfy me, while a Cowon iAudio X5 just might. It installs as a mass storage device, so I can just drag and drop files. It not only plays MP3's, but also FLAC and even Vorbis Ogg. There are some issues with the user interface, but there are also ways around the limitations. (E.g., use Winamp to build a playlist within the player, which is easy to do since Winamp "sees" the player as an external HDD.) The 30GB iAudio is even priced less than the equivalent iPod or Zune, and all the reviews say it kicks major ass in terms of playback quality.

Now I just need to scrape together the money. Should be able to buy one by Christmas!

(Of 2007.)

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