Q: Can you tell me the differences between the Zen, the iPod and Microsoft’s new MP3 player? — Jonathan
A: The portable digital music player category is starting to heat up with some new competition from Microsoft.
Apple has owned this category since it launched its iPod line, and a big part of the success has to do with the iTunes store.
Just playing digital music on a portable device is not enough to capture a substantial portion of the market, as was proven by the forgotten pioneer in this segment; Diamond Multimedia’s Rio PMP300, which was introduced in September 1998.
Often referred to as the first “mass-market” digital music player, it was all the rage during the 1998 holiday season even though it could only hold 10 to 12 songs and cost $200.
This better-than-expected launch was what caught the attention of many (including Apple, obviously), and it spawned an onslaught of similar devices.
Many other companies including Compaq, Creative Labs and iRiver began releasing their versions of the digital music player well before Apple got into the game.
The primary thing that catapulted the iPod to the top was that Apple negotiated a deal with most of the music industry to make it easy for folks to buy songs, one at a time.
Prior to iTunes, most people had to buy standard CDs, convert them to MP3, then transfer them to their music players.
Apple understood that they needed to make it easier for folks to buy and transfer music, and to this day they have what is considered to be the standard for music downloading systems.
Every player released since Apple’s rise to the top has been proclaimed the “iPod Killer” by the competitor, but none have succeeded as of yet.
Creative (www.creative.com) has a solid but distant second position in the market with their Zen line of players, and Microsoft is hoping to capture market share from both Creative and Apple with their new Zune player (www.zune.net).
If you are buying it as a gift, the safe bet is to stick with the iPods, especially for teens who are brand conscious.
Very technical users often prefer the Creative Zen because it is more flexible, and frankly it’s easier to swap (pirate!) music with their friends because they are not restricted by the DRM (Digital Rights Management) in iTunes.
The new player from Microsoft called the Zune is a much closer competitor to the iPod because it also has its associated music store. But it is very early in its development.
The Zune has a couple of interesting features, including a bigger display that plays videos and built-in wireless connectivity. But Microsoft really has not fully developed either of these features.
In the future it may be possible to buy music directly from the Zune through the wireless connection, but for now it can only be used to send non-copyright-protected songs from one Zune player to another.
For those looking for the best deal, Apple offers refurbished units at a substantial discount (typically 40 percent to 60 percent off retail) through their Web site.
But it is a little tricky to find, so just type “refurbished ipod” into Google for the quickest access to the current offers.