We’re digital, and we’re wired (and wireless) – we’re connected everywhere, and at the same time we’re disconnected as we focus into our headsets and portable devices. With today’s portable devices, we can bring along our digital lives, and enjoy and share our favorite content wherever we go. And while there have never been so many options at amazingly low prices, the choice can seem overwhelming, even when buying something for yourself, much less as a holiday gift.
Here’s how to think through the issues:
Instead of buying the standard wallet or briefcase, get a digital briefcase, a USB flash memory drive for transferring files, whether family photos or business documents. It’s the new floppy disk, easy to always bring along. They are incredibly inexpensive, with a gigabyte of storage down to around $60.
For commuting and short trips, the small MP3 music players like the iPod Shuffle and Creative Zen Nano make great sense, since they slip into any pocket or bag. They hold up to several hundred songs in a gigabyte for under $150, so you’ll need to reload them with different music once you get tired of the selection. You also can get adaptors to play on your car radio.
For music fans who need a wider selection, the slightly larger flash music players with multi-line displays, like the SanDisk Sansa m200 series, make it easier to browse a bigger catalog for the kind of music you’re in the mood to hear. They’re not much bigger, and still incredibly light, and hold more than 1,000 songs in up to 4 GB for under $200. For a premium, you can step up to a full-color display with the iPod Nano and add photo viewing with 4 GB under $250.
For longer trips and serious music collections, you’ll need to step up to a hard disk-based player like the video iPod. With 30 to 60 GB capacity, these store over 10,000 songs for under $400, with the bonus of photo viewing and video playback. The video iPod is still for personal playback with the small screen, and does slip in a pocket, although you feel the weight.
For a more shared experience, for fun with friends or for portable business presentations, upgrade to a full portable media player with a larger screen and speakers, and even A/V out to a larger display. The Creative Zen Vision adds FM radio and recording, with 30 GB for $399. And check out the Archos line for widescreen displays and integrated video recording.
Otherwise, if you already have a game machine like the Sony PlayStation Portable, then just add Memory Stick storage for a great media playback experience.
Of course, you may not need a separate device at all. The new generation of mobile phones, and especially PDA smart phones, supportflash cards and media playback, so you can use them as your all-in-one phone, PDA, portable storage, and media player.
Some like this answer, but a fully-integrated device also can get clumsy as you try to simultaneously combine multiple uses, or drain your phone battery playing fun videos, or clog up your phone memory trying to store both business data and music clips – so it also can make sense to use dedicated portable storage and player devices.
Which device to choose? Each category offers trade-offs between cost and capacity, size and weight, simplicity and features.
The answer is that nobody knows – consumers really don’t have enough experience with these kinds of devices to settle on their preferred configurations, especially since the possibilities are changing so fast with technology improvements. As a result, we’re still in an exploratory period in which companies are pouring tremendous varieties of products into the market to help consumers figure out what they want.
So let’s look at the different categories of portable digital devices, and the technology trends driving the market, to see what makes sense for holiday gifts – for family, friends, or for ourselves.
Portable Storage from $60
The fundamental need for bringing along our digital lives is to have some kind of portable digital storage. And the simplest form of storage is a memory card – solid-state ("flash") digital memory in a tiny package, with an interface connector. We’re familiar with these memory cards from their use in devices like digital cameras and now mobile phones to store images, and short video clips, and music.
Memory cards are available in an amazing profusion of shapes and sizes, shrinking from "mini" to "micro" – postage stamp size to smaller than a dime. Sony uses its Memory Stick formats, many other companies use Secure Digital, (SD) and CompactFlash is still around. Check the SanDisk website for a full list of all the major flash card formats (www.sandisk.com).
SD and memory cards have dropped to around $60 for 1 GB of storage and 2 GB for $170, and Compact Flash cards are available with 4 GB for around $275, and 8 GB for around $700. (All prices are ballpark mainstream retail quotes as of this writing. Expect further discounts and deals throughout the holiday selling season.)
More interestingly, you can use these cards as general portable digital storage. They work with "plug and play" ease with computers – just connect to your camera with a USB cable, and the memory card is mounted on your desktop as a removable drive, so you can transfer any digital files with drag and drop ease.
Digital Jewelry: USB Flash Drives from $25
However, memory cards are inconvenient for general computer-to-computer storage transfer, since you need another device or a dedicated reader to access them. A better solution is to add a standard computer interface to the memory. The result is the USB "thumb" drive, also known as flash pocket memory drives, typically designed as a thumb-sized stick with a USB interface on the end.
USB flash drives use the same solid-state storage as memory cards, and are available in the same range of capacities, although at slightly lower prices since they are not quite as miniaturized. They come in a profusion of styles and colors, with translucent cases and blinking lights. Drives are available with 256 and 512 MB for ridiculously low prices ($25 and $50), and more interestingly up to 1 to 2 GB ($80 and $160), with 4 GB coming into the market.
This is the new digital jewelry, with lanyards to carry around your neck wherever you go. Or get the Swissbit / Vitorinox Swiss army knife version (www.swissarmy.com), with scissors, screwdriver, and USB drive (just don’t try to carry it on an airplane).
Companies like Verbatim then offer several lines of flash drives (www.verbatim.com), moving upscale with added capacity, enhanced transfer speed, and security features such as encryption (it’s bad enough to lose your digital self on a tiny drive, but it’s even worse when someone else can read all your data). Today’s drives include security manager software to define open and encrypted partitions, with password access or even built-in fingerprint readers.
New U3 USB smart drives add the ability to run applications directly from the drive, so you can bring your entire desktop along with you, and be at home running from any computer (www.u3.com). This does require special versions of the applications, and works only with Windows.
Pocket Hard Drives from $99
Solid-state memory is convenient and rugged, but is currently only cost-effective for capacities past megabytes up to gigabyte or two. Yet, while 1 GB provides more storage than a data CD (650-700 MB), we just need more storage to allow us to bring along our growing archives of digital data and particularly digital media – photos, music, and now even videos. The numbers get more interesting at 4 GB, close to the capacity of a DVD (4.7 GB), or even better at 8 GB, in the ballpark of the new double-layer DVDs (8.5 GB).
The answer for these kinds of capacities is to use tiny 1 inch hard drives. These devices take over where flash starts getting too expensive, currently around 4 to 8 GB. They provide this additional capacity in a more square form factor only slightly larger than a thumb drive, and still with convenient USB plug-and-play access.
For example, the Imation Micro Hard Drive has a cool padlock design (with the USB cable) and is available with 2 and 4 GB for around $140 and $170 (www.imation.com). The rectangular Memorex Mega TravelDrive offers 4 to 8 GB for $140 and $190 (www.memorex.com). And the new LaCie Carte Orange is aggressively priced with 4 and 8 GB for $99 and $149, squeezed into the size of a credit card (www.lacie.com).
This line between flash memory and tiny hard drives will remain as an ongoing battle in the consumer electronics industry, as solid-state memory continues to drop in price and hard disk manufacturers move up to higher capacities. For example, Apple killed the very popular hard-disk based iPod Mini (4 GB for $199, 6 GB for $249), and replaced it with the smaller and sexier flash-based iPod Nano, offering less capacity for the money (2 GB for $199, 4 GB for $249). Solid state memory does have a size and weight advantage, and is more rugged (USB drives have been known to survive a trip though a washing machine, though I wouldn’t recommend it) – and yet there’s significant room for technology improvements in magnetic disk.
Portable Hard Drives from $140
The trade-off for the convenience of these tiny pocketable devices is the limited capacity to single-digit gigabytes, as well as relativelyslow transfer rates (up to 9 MB/sec.). By stepping up to larger, but still palm-sized designs, you can still have quite portable storage, but with more bountiful 40 to 80 GB capacities. These devices are more like carrying a paperback, measuring around 5 x 3 x 1 inch, and weighing around 7 or 8 ounces. For the trade-off in size and weight, they offer not only 10 times the storage, but use more robust 2.5" hard drives and support multi-megabyte caches to offer higher
throughput (around 25 MB/sec.).
For example, the Western Digital Passport Portable is available with 40 GB for $149, 60 GB for $179, and 80 GB for $199 (www.wdc.com). Similarly, the Buffalo MiniStation HD Portable offers 40 GB for $136, and 80 GB $183, in a shock-resistant mounting (buffalotech.com). And the slightly larger LaCie SAFE Mobile Hard Drive includes fingerprint access security at 40 GB for $149, and 80 GB for $199 (www.lacie.com).
MP3 Players: iPod from $99
So now we can have our digital files wherever we go, but these storage-only devices still require a computer to access and display their contents. And since lots of the content can be digital media that we’d like to share – music and photos — it would be even better if we could access our stuff even on the go.
So what’s the minimum you need to add to a simple USB flash drive to make it into a music player? The answer, in the iPod Shuffle, is just a headphone jack and basic play controls (www.apple.com/ipod). The result is still around the size of just a USB flash drive (.78 ounces), and is available with 512 MB for $99, or 1 GB for $129 (to hold some 240 songs).
The Shuffle is beautiful in its simplicity. However, you do need to keep close to a computer to charge it, since the 12-hour battery is not replaceable (an Apple theme, since a battery cover would destroy the esthetics of the smooth line of the case). And there’s no display, so you can’t really see or choose what you’re playing – hence the focus on shuffling your music to play it randomly.
Like all the iPods, the Shuffle is accessed using Apple’s iTunes software on Macs and PCs. Besides the common MP3 format, Apple prefers the improved AAC audio format for music files. For purchased downloaded music, the iPods use Apple’s FairPlay Digital Rights Management (DRM) content protection technology (which Apple is not licensing to others).
In general, iPods work only with iTunes, and iTunes only works with iPods. All the other media player devices are therefore focused on the Windows platform, and work with a variety of software.
PC-based Creative Zen Nano for $139
The next step up for music players is to add a basic display so you can choose the music you want to play, especially when the growing memory capacity allows you to store collections of hundreds to thousands of songs. For example, the Creative Zen Nano Plus has a three-line display to show information including the currently playing song and battery life (www.creative.com). With the display, and a removable AAA battery for 18-hour play time, the Windows-based Zen Nano is .8 ounces and slightly larger than the Shuffle (1.3 x 2.6 x .5 inches). Shown on the cover, it is priced similarly at 512 MB for $109 and 1 GB for $139. For fashion purposes, it’s also available in 10 bright colors.
Once you have a music chip and display in these devices, it’s also possible to add significant additional capabilities. The Zen Nano includes a FM tuner to listen to radio, plus works as a audio recorder, for voice from a built-in microphone, from FM radio, and even using a line input jack. The display provides a menu interface for selecting playback and recording options, tuning the radio, and managing recorded files.
More Music: SanDisk from $79
Once your music collection grows beyond the 250 to 500 songs you can squeeze into a 1 GB player, however, you’ll want more capacity. With 2 to 4 GB, for example, you’re talking up to 1,000 songs, so it’s also helpful to have a larger display and more sophisticated navigation – so you can access your music by categories including artist, album, song title, genre, year, and playlist.
For example, the SanDisk Sansa m200 series sports an indigo backlit multi-line LCD display, supports FM radio and recording, and runs up to 19 hours on a removable AAA battery (www.sandisk.com). It’s larger, but still very pocketable and light at 1.3 ounces (and 3.1 x 1.7 inches). The m200 series is available with 512 MB for $79, 1 GB for $119, 2 GB for $159, and 4 GB for $199.
Most of these non-Apple products play MP3 audio plus the Microsoft Windows Media Audio (WMA) audio format, which offers comparable quality and compressed file sizes similar to AAC (www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia). For purchased music, they support Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM copy protection (known by its code name, Janus). Microsoft uses the "Plays For Sure" logo to identify products that support Windows Media audio and video formats.
You can play these Windows Media files under Windows with the built-in Windows Media Player (of course), as well as a wide range of other media player and editing software. The Microsoft DRM is used for purchased downloads from many Internet music stores (similar to iTunes), including MSN Music, Musicmatch, MusicNow, Napster, and Wal-Mart. You also can have the option of accesses to unlimited selection through Music subscription services that offer all-you-can-eat music for a monthly fee, including Rhapsody To Go, Yahoo! Music Unlimited, and Napster to Go.
All these music players have been based on flash memory, but with capacities growing up to 4 GB it’s a shame to limit them to playing music. The next step is to bulk up the display to full-color, suitable for viewing photos, albeit on a rather small screen.
Hence the Apple iPod Nano, an unbelievable sleek and sexy device available in your choice of white or black (www.apple.com/ipod). It has a small but clear 1.5" color LCD (176 x 132 resolution), and is very thin (3.5 x 1.6 x .27 inches and 1.5 ounces). It’s available in two capacities: 2 GB for $199, or 4 GB for $249, to store up to 1,000 songs or 25,000 photos. The Nano uses the iPod click wheel interface, and includes PDA-like features including games, calendar, contacts, and notes. It runs up to 14 hours on the built-in battery.
Flash Video Players
So we’ve stepped from portable storage to audio playback, and then bulked up capacity and added photo viewing. With more space and a full-color screen, the next step is clear: adding video playback. Video does require lots of space, which means you really will need a hard disk-based player with tens of GB of capacity for significant video playback.
But these video clips are relatively low resolution to fit the tiny screen sizes, and can be compressed aggressively and even played at a lower than normal frame rate, so it’s possible to still use solid-state flash memory to store at least a small amount of video. This helps reduce the size and cost, but does limit the capacity to only up to a gigabyte or so.
For example, the ZVUE personal media player minimizes cost (down to $99) by not including built-in memory at all, and using larger AA batteries (www.zvue.com). It has a relatively large screen at 2.5" and 160 x 240, and is chunky in your hand at 4.33 x 2.91 x 1.1 inches, weighing 5 ounces without batteries. The idea is that it’s an inexpensive playback engine for kids or school – just add memory as needed. And parents will appreciate the absence of a speaker, and the addition of a second headphone jack so two kids can share the fun, but quietly.
In comparison, the new iriver U10 really compacts the design of a flash-based player with built-in memory (www.iriveramerica.com). It has a slightly smaller but higher-resolution screen (2.22", 320 x 240) that takes up most of the front of the unit, all squeezed to 2.7 x 1.8 x .6 in., and 2.50 ounces. The U10 even dispenses with the controls – you navigate just by pressing around the edges of the screen. And it includes an FM tuner and voice recorder. It includes 512 MB for $199, and 1 GB for $249.
Portable Media from $299
At this point it’s time to stop focusing on shrinking and give in to the need for much more storage. We’ll have to give up on using flash memory, and accept the additional size and weight of using hard-disk storage – still using tiny drives, but offering tens of gigabytes of capacity. For example with the new 60 GB video iPod, we’re talking about storing up to 15,000 songs, 25,000 photos, or 150 hours of video (at higher 320 x 240 resolution).
This new Apple video iPod is still a highly portable personal player that fits in your pocket (although you can feel the weight more than a flash-based device). It’s a personal device for listening with headphones (no speakers). It’s available with 30 GB disk for $299, and 60 GB for $399. With a 2.5", 320 x 240 screen, it uses a taller 4.1 x 2.4 x .43/.55 inch design, and weighs 4.8 or 5.5 ounces for the two capacities. It plays great-quality MPEG-4 / H.264 video, up to 150 hours in 60 GB, and supports the Apple DRM for clips purchased from
the iTunes store.
For a larger display to share with a group, the Creative Zen Vision has speakers, and offers a significantly better 3.7 inch, 640 x 480 screen, in a larger but still highly portable unit at 4.9 x 2.9 x .8 inches, and 8.4 ounces (www.creative.com). It includes FM radio, voice recording, speakers, A/V out for displaying on a TV, and a removable battery. The Vision plays MPEG-4, DivX, and Windows Media Video (WMV) formats, including Windows Media DRM for purchased content. It’s available with 30 GB for $399.
But why stop at just playback, and why require that TV shows be re-purchased in portable formats in order to view them on the go? With DVR (Digital Video Recorder) software on your computer, you can record TV shows and then download them to your portable player for time-shifted and place-shifted viewing. Even better, since many of these devices can record audio, why not just support directly recording video as well?
For example, Archos has a broad line of portable video recorders (PVRs) – handheld players that also can record video (www.archos.com).
The small Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder has a 2.2 inch screen, and includes a 1.2 Mpixel camera for MPEG-4 capture, all in 5.64 oz, with 20 GB storage for $399.
But for a wide-screen shared experience, the Archos AV700 Widescreen Mobile DVR sports a big 7", 480 x 234 widescreen display, in a larger 4.2 x 8.2 x .8 in., 20.8 ounces design. Even better, it has A/V input to record directly, and even can schedule recordings though the included hub. The AV700 is available with 40 GB for $599, and 100 GB for $799, for storing up to a million photos, 55,000 songs, or 400 hours of full-screen video.
Multi-Function Devices from $250
So now you can have portable storage, audio playback and recording, photo viewing, and even video playback and recording, all in one relatively portable device. You can trade off price and size, screen size and features, for pocket-sized personal playback or widescreen shared portable fun.
On the other hand, why use a separate media player device? If you’re already carrying a mobile phone, why not also use it for personal entertainment – as one unified, all-purpose, converged device? Or if you have some other kind of entertainment device like a portable game machine, you can load it up with your media as well.
For example, you may have thought the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) was a game machine (www.us.playstation.com/psp.aspx). Yes, but it’s also a movie player for watching feature films released on the new UMD (Universal Media Disc) small optical disc format. But the PSP also serves as a nice media player for music and photos and videos, with its bright 4.3 inch widescreen LCD, at 480 x 272 pixels, and priced around $250. Just insert a Memory Stick card to download your own content and data files.
Today’s camera phones also can shoot and play MPEG-4 video clips, and share them over the cellular network though multimedia messaging and e-mail. Multimedia phones also can play streaming wireless video and audio, including live TV, using services like Verizon Wireless V CAST (www.getvcast.com) and MobiTV (www.mobitv.com). Plus, the addition of flash memory cards to more phones means that you can download your own content to bring along, using your phone as a portable player.
Then there are full-fledged PDA phones, including the Palm Treo 650 with optional camera at around $400 (www.palm.com), and Microsoft Pocket PC and Windows Mobile smartphone devices with built-in Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player (www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile), like the Samsung SCH-i730 at around $600 (www.samsungusa.com/wireless). These are the best of both worlds – an open PDA platform with local storage, connected to the Internet though wireless cellular service. You then can run a variety of applications to store and play your music and videos from storage cards, plus access, download, and stream content from subscription services, or from any website or Internet host (U.S. 1, August 17, 2005). The holiday shopping season is in full swing, so get digital, and portable!