I like Apple's iPod as much as the next person. But face it, not everyone is thrilled with that touch-sensitive scroll wheel, and its battery life is almost worst-in-class. Why carry 10,000 songs in your pocket if you have to plug the player in every night to recharge it?
With last month's launch of a scaled-down iPod mini, I took a look at the mini and its competition. These are players that can hold hundreds -- not thousands -- of songs on built-in, micro-hard-disk drives that store 1.5 or 4 gigabytes of compressed music files. They fill the gap between tiny, solid-state flash memory players that hold just a few albums and the more expensive 10-to-40-GB players, such as the original iPods, designed to store your entire music library. They sell at about $150 to $220; the iPod mini costs $250.
My favorites? The 4-GB iPod mini was right up there. But I would rank almost as highly Rio's 1.5-GB Nitrus (it has a 4-GB version in the works), with its sophisticated software for transferring songs and playlists on your computer to the player. I also loved iRiver's very customizable iGP-100, with its FM radio and myriad of extras -- but only after I mastered the owner's manual. I also played around with Creative Technology's (CREAF) Nomad MuVo2 and RCA's (TOC) Lyra Micro Jukebox RD2760.
A lot of the iPod's cachet derives from its design, even better now on the mini with its anodized aluminum case that comes in a rainbow of colors. But while the iPod is a rectangular tube with slightly-rounded sides and sharp silhouette top and bottom -- think of a Rolls-Royce -- the Rio is jet black (not green or pink) and curvaceous, more like a sports car. And what's not to like about the iRiver player, a perfect circle with a chunky, chrome bar that makes it easy to hook onto a backpack or belt loop with a carabiner? Its beefy looks and ample adjustability make it the SUV of MP3 players.
I'd recommend one of those three. The biggest difference? The iPod mini holds 4 GB of music, which Apple claims is about 1,000 songs; the other two, at 1.5 GB, are good for from 375 to 750 tunes, depending on song length and audio quality.
The iPod is easiest to use. Apple has moved the four buttons on the original iPod onto the scroll pad and given them a "click" feel, a bit of reassurance that you've pressed the button. With Apple's powerful iTunes software on your computer, you can build playlists on the fly, based on what you've listened to most recently or most often, or what you like the best (if you've gone to the trouble of rating your tunes). You also can create playlists on the player itself, something that's not possible with most players. Windows (MSFT) users: iPod requires that you have Windows 2000 or XP and a USB 2.0 or FireWire port on your computer.
Battery life is what gives Rio's Nitrus ($150 to $200) its biggest edge over the iPod. It's good for 16 hours of continuous play, twice iPod's stamina. It's also considerably lighter, and the curvy shape is more pocket-friendly. The music management software, which you install on your PC (it won't work on Macs), is nearly as flexible as iTunes. Instead of a touch pad, navigation through menus and play functions is controlled by a jog dial -- a thumb wheel -- on the side and a red joystick on the front.
The iRiver IGP-100 ($200 to $220) is much more difficult to figure out, but once you decipher it you'll discover it's loaded with extras. There's no software: You connect it to your PC or Mac and drag-and-drop your music files onto the player's hard disk. It has a built-in FM radio, and it will autoscan and preset the 20 strongest frequencies. All the controls are on the circumference, including a button for equalizer and surround-sound modes. You can customize most settings, such as how fast titles scroll past on the display.
I looked at two other players but, because of some design gaffes, you need to thoroughly try them out before you buy. RCA's Lyra RD2760 ($170-$200) can't really be used with one hand because the headphone jack is on the side rather than top. It's slow, too, taking an intolerable seven seconds of silence to skip to the next song. While I liked Creative's MuVo2 ($200), the only 4-GB player other than the iPod mini in the bunch, I found it difficult to navigate. The skimpy two-line display uses tiny characters to show title and artist, and there are only two controls, a menu button and a four-way toggle wheel that are too small and too close together to be operated with your thumb. It's the only one without an external hold switch to avoid pressing buttons when the player's in your pocket or bag.
If you don't want to part with $500 for the top-of-the-line iPod yet still want several hundred songs to get you through a business trip or workouts at the gym, the mini or one of these stand-ins is ideal. Besides, who over 25 years old has 10,000 songs on their computer anyway? By Larry Armstrong