It’s holiday shopping season again, and time to explore the trends and new possibilities in portable electronics and associated accessories — devices like MP3 players that now play video, and mobile phones and PDAs that are media players and Web browsers — plus useful accessories, including audio earphones and headsets that go wireless, and portable power to fuel all these electronic goodies on the go.
Each generation of devices continues to improve — smaller and lighter, cheaper (or with more capabilities at a similar price), and with more stylish designs and customizable looks. But the market really continues to be driven by the ever-falling price of storage, as capacities double and then re-double at the same price points. It’s now feasible to think about 8 to 16 GB of solid-state storage in a tiny player — enough for a serious collection of some 2,000 songs in 8 GB, and even some longer videos.
Just be warned that prices continue to change drastically, especially in the holiday season, so the numbers listed here are a snapshot as of late fall. See the Digital Media Galleries on the Manifest Technology site for more on these trends and individual products, with details, links, and related products (www.manifest-tech.com/ce_gallery).
What was originally known as the “MP3 player” market has expanded into what are now called “portable media players” as basic MP3 music playback expanded to include photos and then videos. Even small players with flash memory now have color displays and multi-gigabyte capacities to show least short-form videos.
This portable media player market continues to be defined by the Apple iPod line, which dominates in sales, in style of course, coolness, and the ability to induce lust (www.apple.com/ipod).
The iPods are part of the beautifully integrated Apple ecosystem, with the Apple iTunes software for Mac and PC to manage your media collection, the Apple iTunes music (and video) store to buy new clips, and Apple’s proprietary Digital Rights Management technology to lock down your purchases.
Other players from companies including Microsoft, SanDisk, Creative, Samsung, and Sony use the competing Microsoft Windows Media infrastructure, with a broad choice of players and online stores, including purchased individual downloads and subscription access to entire music collections.
The iPod line received its annual make-over in September of this year, continuing the emphasis on a simple product line, with one product that defines each major price/functionality point in the market, and limited options for capacities or colors.
The simplest design for a music player starts with a USB thumb drive that’s full of music, and adds a headphone jack so you can listen, some controls to choose what to play, and some kind of display to explore the collection.
The Apple iPod shuffle (yes, Apple’s product names are lowercase) is a minimalist music player designed to go anywhere. Last year’s re-design changed from a stick-of-gum look to more of a matchbox, to hide unobtrusively in a pocket, or on your belt with the built-in clip. The shuffle is tiny at 1.62 x 1.07 x 0.41 inches and 0.55 ounce. It’s now available in five colors, with 1 GB of storage, for $79. The battery is rated at 12 hours of playback before recharging.
The shuffle has a control pad, but still no display. While you can step though your tracks searching for a specific song you want to listen to, the idea is that you should want to “shuffle” your music and enjoy the spontaneity of random playback.
This was a reasonable idea for the original 512 MB player, which held only some 120 songs, or even with the current 1 GB capacity and 240 songs, but it breaks down as capacities grow into multiple gigabytes, and you really want to be able to choose the type of music to listen to at any given time.
Other basic MP3 players extend the iPod shuffle with at least a simple display to help you browse albums and songs, and add features like voice recording, FM radio reception and recording, plus memory card expansion slots and removable batteries — at similar or even lower prices. Apple does not believe these additional functions are useful, so you can’t have them in the iPod line.
The steady growth in capacity of flash memory has driven the need for better displays to explore your collections, and the availability of small but full-color displays has allowed MP3 players to expand to other media, adding music album art, photo slideshows, and now motion video.
The Apple iPod nano stepped up in this way to its third generation in September, with a chubbier look for a wider display to support video playback. The new 2-inch LCD display with backlight has the same 320 x 240 resolution as the video iPod, and it picks up the Cover Flow user interface from the iPhone to scroll through your collection by album cover artwork.
The nano is encased in a sleek all-metal design, with an anodized aluminum front and polished stainless steel back. The battery is rated to provide up to 24 hours of music or five hours of video playback. It’s amazingly thin and light at 2.75 x 2.06 x 0.26 inches, and 1.74 ounces. The 4 GB nano is $149 in silver, and the 8 GB is $199 in five colors. That’s some 2,000 songs in the 8 GB player.
Other competing flash-based media players offer additional features, larger displays (2.5 inch), and capacities up to 16 GB. But that’s the current end of the line for cost-effective flash memory. More storage requires a jump up to mini hard disks (HD), offering multiple 10s and even over 100 GB of storage at competitive prices.
The Apple iPod classic (the former “video iPod”) was bulked up in September to 80 and 160 GB, at the same prices as the previous 30 and 60 GB. This is the only iPod with hard disk storage, but it can fit some 40,000 songs or 200 hours of video in the 160 GB.
The classic has a larger 2.5 inch display, plus an all-metal enclosure and enhanced user interface like the new nano. The battery is rated to provide up to 30/40 hours of music or 5/7 hours of video playback. It measures 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.41 inches and weighs just about 5 ounces. It’s priced at 80 GB for $249, and 160 GB for $349, in silver and black.
That’s the current price/size trade-off for flash memory vs. hard disk. The 8 GB nano at 1.74 ounces is $200. The 80 GB classic, at three times the weight, is $249 and has 10 times the storage.
Other competing hard disk players add larger screens, more storage, speakers, audio/video connectors and more. Just as mobile phones and PDAs are adding media player features, media players are adding wireless networking and connectivity.
The new Apple iPod touch is a media player that’s actually a hybrid in the other direction — it’s basically the iPhone display and interface extracted as a media player, with the touch screen, plus Wi-Fi wireless networking, and minus the phone and related features. Battery life is rated at up to 22 hours for music and five hours for video. The design shrinks a little from the iPhone, at 4.3 x 2.4 x 0.31 inches, 4.2 ounces. And the price drops to 8 GB for $299 and 16 GB for $399.
Apple’s iPod product line is focused and sparse: three basic player products, no display on the shuffle, a handful of color choices, a limited selection of memory capacities, no removable batteries, no memory card expansion, no support for features such as FM radio reception or voice recording, and no model for sharing with a group. The competing players add many of these features, and offer lower prices (which are more likely to be further discounted), but with arguably less elegant and lust-worthy designs.
If you like choice, then the Creative product line will make you really happy with some 20 models of portable media players, each in a variety of capacities and colors (www.creative.com).
These range from the simple ZEN Stone (like the iPod shuffle), to the MuVo and ZEN Nano MP3 players with simple displays, to ZEN Neeon with color displays for photos, to the ZEN and ZEN V with video (like the iPod nano), to the disk-based ZEN Vision (like the iPod classic).
The Creative ZEN is a video player with up to 16 GB of flash memory. Beyond playback, it has FM radio, voice recording, and an expansion SD card slot. Plus it can sync organizer data with Microsoft Outlook.
The ZEN front is sized like a credit card with a 2.5 inch screen, at 3.3 x 2.2 x 0.44 inches, and 2.3 ounces. It’s available with 4 GB for $149, 8 GB for $199, and 16 GB for $299.
For comparison, the iPod nano has a smaller 2 inch screen, and is noticeably smaller and lighter at 2.75 x 2.06 x 0.26 inches and 1.74 ounces, available with 4 and 8 GBs at the same price.
But what’s the next step? Samsung is pointing the way with a focused line of highly differentiated media players, all featuring Bluetooth connectivity and support for firmware updates to add significant new functionality (www.samsung.com).
The new Samsung YP-P2 (part of an unfortunate set of unmemorable names — P2, T10, S5, U3, K3) starts with a widescreen display at 480 x 272 resolution. Video plays at full width with the player flipped sideways. Plus the display is touch screen, controlled with taps and finger gestures, so the clean design has minimal controls.
The P2 is 3.9 x 2.1 x 0.4 inches, and 3.0 ounces. It’s available with 4 GB for $199, and 8 GB for $279, in black, white, and burgundy.
The major new addition by Samsung in the P2 and other media players is Bluetooth connectivity, to play wirelessly to stereo headsets and to portable speakers so you can share the fun. If your wireless headset supports pairing with multiple devices, you then can be listening to music and switch the headset to answer incoming calls — while both devices remain put away in your briefcase.
And, with a firmware upgrade due in December, the Samsung media players will support direct paring with mobile phones to answer calls, so you can use them to control your music and the phone, without having to switch between two devices.
Samsung is promising an aggressive upgrade schedule, adding Bluetooth file transfer and support for AAC audio in December, games and more functionality in January, and more user-derived features in March.
The AAC audio support is another new trend (also in the Creative ZEN and Microsoft Zune), that opens up the possibility of sharing music between the Apple/iTunes and the non-iPod universes. You can use the MP3 format for this, but AAC promises better compression — the same quality at half the size.
The Samsung YP-S5 adds another interesting option: integrated 1.5 watt stereo speakers that slide out and tilt for playback. It even can be used directly as a speakerphone when paired with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone.
SanDisk has successfully expanded from its core in solid-state memory to become number two in the flash-based player market, leading the group following after Apple’s iPods (www.sandisk.com). Part of its success is a continued emphasis on fun and design, as well as technology functionality, as it also moves into connected devices.
For example, the SanDisk Sansa Shaker is quite different — a fun and inexpensive music player, designed for kids, with a round hourglass design, built-in speaker, and two headphone jacks for sharing music. You even can shake it to skip randomly to a new song. However, it does not have a display, or any internal memory. Instead store and swap up to 2 GB of music on SD cards. The Shaker is around 2 3/4 inches high and 1 1/2 inch in diameter. It comes with 1 GB for $59, and 2 GB for $79. It is powered by two AA batteries.
The SanDisk Sansa Connect is the company’s first step into connected media players. It is a music and photo (but not video) player, with 2.2 inch screen plus an internal speaker on a 2.05 x 3.58 x 0.63 inch unit, with 4 GB for $129. It also has a microSD expansion slot to add more storage.
The Connect adds Wi-Fi networking support, focused on managing and exchanging entertainment content, from listening to Internet radio, to subscribing to the Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go library, plus community features for recommending music and photos with a Yahoo! ID.
It worked great in public hotspots in New York hotels, but unfortunately not in Bryant Park. It saw the signal but could not connect, apparently because the service requires acknowledging a terms of service screen. In fact, the Connect makes a handy Wi-Fi meter, listing the available networks, signal strength, and whether they are open or locked.
Wi-Fi networking is also a centerpiece of the Microsoft Zune line of portable media players, but in a rather constrained way (www.zune.net). The original 30GB Zune could only use Wi-Fi to share media between Zunes. Even worse, any shared audio clip expired after three plays over three days (even if not copy protected). Microsoft also chose not to support its own Windows Media DRM (Plays For Sure) format for purchased music, about which it had evangelized for years to all the non-iPod players and content providers.
The newest Zune models, just entering the market this month, come with upgraded Wi-Fi sharing, including the ability to listen to received songs up to three times with no time restrictions, and to pass along shared songs to other Zunes. The Zune also now can use Wi-Fi to sync with content on a PC over a home wireless network.
The November models add a Zune 80 GB hard drive model for $249, with a 3.2 inch display, 320 x 240, at 61.1 x 108.2 x 12.9 mm, 4.5 ounces. The original Zune 30 GB model is $149.
And there are now two Zune 4/8 models with flash memory — 4 GB for $149, and 8 GB for $199. These have a 1.8 inch display, and are 41.4 x 91.5 x 8.5 mm, 1.7 ounces.
But Wi-Fi networking does not have to be so limited. With enough screen resolution, a media player can become a full-fledged Internet browser, offering online media playback and downloading.
The ARCHOS line of media players is focused on this kind of more flexible Internet usage, also with bigger screens and built-in speakers to allow a shared viewing experience. The ARCHOS “generation 5” line includes both flash and hard drive players with a similar design approach (www.archos.com). These are great to use as a traveling portfolio — to show slideshows and videos to prospective clients and customers.
These products share the same basic form factor, with the silver case, large screen, integrated speakers, and rectangular rocker controls down the right side. And they support video and TV capture, including scheduled TV recording, with a common DVR Station docking station accessory. They differ in the device size, capacity, and key features such as built-in Wi-Fi and camera.
The top of the line is the ARCHOS 705 WiFi, with a huge 7-inch, 800×480 wide screen and touch screen display. It’s available with 80 GB for $399, and 160 for $499.
The ARCHOS players provide real Internet access. You can connect the device to your home network to transfer files or play content directly from your home devices, or reach out over the Internet to surf the Web with the included browser (although Flash and Java are not supported), and send and receive E-mail.
You may like the idea of having separate dedicated devices — a phone, a media player, maybe even a PDA/organizer. But why carry multiple devices, when you can combine them into a single integrated device, and add Internet access as well? It makes sense, but the bulk and cost and interface issues with smartphones have caused them to lag far behind the huge popularity of mobile phones. Companies like Apple, with the iPhone, and Palm, still plugging away, and now Google, are out to change all that.
In addition, Internet access through Wi-Fi networking is great when you’re at home or settled in a free public hotspot. But depending on Wi-Fi for constant communications can be a problem, as you search around a new town for a hot spot, and find yourself paying stiff fees for hourly access. Meanwhile, your phone is always on and always connected, and now provides both voice and data service — so you get DSL-like mobile broadband rates to your phone, PDA, or even your notebook computer.
Then last year saw the widespread deployment of third-generation service (“3G”), with Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) service (www.verizonwireless.com). Further upgraded this year, it offers typical download rates of 450 to 800 kbps to 1.4 mbps, with bursts to 3.1 mbps, and typical upload rates of 300 to 400 kbps to 800 kbps, with bursts to 1.8 mbps.
The Apple iPhone has been a tremendous success in revitalizing the smartphone concept. It combines phone, PDA, and Web usage, with the full iPod player experience (syncing content with iTunes), mobile phone, plus Wi-Fi wireless networking. As a media player, it has an impressive 3.5 inch widescreen touch display, at 480×320 resolution, with battery life rated at up to 24 hours for audio and up to seven hours for video.
The front of the iPhone is filled with the display, at 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.46 inches, and 4.8 ounces. The price has dropped to $399 with 8 GB, from the original $599.
The iPhone aims for the best of both communications worlds — fast Wi-Fi connectivity when available, or otherwise falling back on the mobile network. But the current iPhone uses the relatively slow AT&T (Cingular) EDGE mobile data network, with average data speeds between 75 to 135 kbps (www.wireless.att.com).
Meanwhile, Palm has developed the new Palm Centro to try to drive the smartphone market. It’s basically a slimmed-down (but fully functional) Treo, available from Sprint for only $99 with a two-year service agreement and mail-in rebate.
The Centro is significantly smaller and lighter than the Treo (down from 6.3 to 4.2 oz.), but with the full Palm keyboard, interface, applications, and functionality (www.palm.com/centro).
Then there’s Google, seeking to extend its search and advertising businesses into the mobile market, though not (yet) in the form of the rumored Gphone or Google phone. Instead, Google and some 34 partners have just announced the formation of the Open Handset Alliance, developing a smartphone software platform under “open source” licensing terms (www.openhandsetalliance.com). The resulting Android platform for mobile devices is being built on the open Linux kernel, and will include its operating system, middleware, and key mobile applications.
The Alliance seems to have all the right players, starting with leading chip manufacturers, including Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments. Products are due in the second half of 2008, to be manufactured by handset companies including HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung. T-Mobile and Sprint are signed on as carriers in the U.S., along with leading carriers in China, Japan, and Europe. (Notable absences from the list include Apple, Microsoft, Palm, Nokia, RIM, Verizon, and AT&T.)
The early demonstrations show features and design similar to the iPhone, but the idea is that manufacturers, carriers, and independent developers will be free to modify and customize the software, from new applications to basic functionality.
With a wireless PDA like the iPhone or Palm Treo, it’s now not only reasonable to send and receive E-mail, with attachments, but also to browse the Web, play streaming media, and upload photos and videos. With these fast wireless connections, you also can use services like Sprint TV or Verizon V CAST to browse and play libraries of video and music clips. Or run MobiTV to watch live TV channels on your mobile phone or PDA, and now also on your computer (www.mobitv.com).
But these approaches do not scale into the future. Continuous streaming of different content to each individual mobile subscriber would swamp the cellular network. Instead, the industry is moving to a broadcast model for mass-market content, developing a parallel network that can broadcast a core group of popular channels to all mobile subscribers at the same time. The rest of us then can use the standard data service for more niche content.
Verizon Wireless has introduced this service with the LG VX9400 V CAST Mobile TV phone, with swing bar design — a large color LCD screen that swivels for landscape TV viewing. It supports the QUALCOMM MediaFLO technology, with TV service launched in major U.S. markets this year — New York City, but not yet Mercer Country (www.qualcomm.com/mediaflo). The service includes scheduled live content and other programming for mass audiences (CBS, Comedy Central, Fox, MTV, NBC News, NBC Entertainment, Nickelodeon).
It’s really not clear how popular mobile video will become in the U.S. Not many people regularly watch full-length movies or even TV shows on their iPods, and mobile TV services have not been breakout successes. Yet it’s clear we love TV, and we love online videos like YouTube. Mobile video can provide instant gratification, especially for “snacking” on the shorter-form (and lower-res) video snippets found online.
However, the more we rely on the instant and always-on connectivity of our mobile phones, the more frustrating it is to be caught somewhere with a weak signal, and have to rush to another side of the building or hang out with the smokers at the back entrance in order to check in.
If you’re in one of those dead zones around Princeton, check out the Wi-Ex zBoost cell phone signal boosters (www.wi-ex.com). These grab the cellular signal from a window and extend it into the building, improving signal strength for better voice and data.
The zBoost zPersonal ($99) works for a single user at a time, in a zone of 4 to 6 feet, for both the cellular bands: 800 MHz Cellular (typically Verizon and Cingular) and 1900 MHz PCS (Sprint, T-Mobile) bands — but not Nextel.
The zBoost Home/Office ($299) provides simultaneous coverage for multiple phones up to 2500 square feet, with models for the 800 MHz and 1900 MHz bands.
There’s also a zBoost Dual Band ($399) and a dual-band zBoost for the Car ($299).
Head or Earphones
The most important accessory for a portable media player is, of course, some kind of earphone or headphone so you can listen to the music. But it’s clumsy dealing with the wires — running them over and under your jacket, snagging on the subway turnstile, and packing them away so they won’t tangle. Even worse, mobile phones use a different earpiece, mono and not stereo, typically wireless with a Bluetooth connection, and with a smaller audio connector, so now you have two separate devices and two different earphones to juggle between listening to music and taking calls.
The answer, obviously, is to move to dual-use earphones and headphones — phone and player, mono and stereo, and, of course, wireless. And as Bluetooth becomes more accepted and built in to more devices, it opens up interesting opportunities for sharing between a broader range of devices.
A second major trend in audio accessories is the trickle down of noise suppression technology from high-end headsets to small earbuds and earpieces. Snug-fitting earbuds and full-ear headphone flaps offer a first level of passive sound isolation to block ambient noise. Then active noise cancellation performs signal processing to cancel out background noise.
Even wireless phone headsets are going stereo and adding noise suppression, as with the Plantronics Voyager 855 Bluetooth Headset ($149, www.plantronics.com). This starts with an in-ear headset design. The buds fit snugly to hold them in place and to block out noise.
The Voyager 855 also performs two-way noise reduction. It can pair two devices, so you can switch between listening to music and taking incoming calls. And you don’t need to get out your devices to operate them. The headset supports the Bluetooth remote control protocol.
But listening to stereo music though one mono earphone is still not a great music experience. So the Voyager 855 adds a second earbud connected with a detachable cable (not wireless) for that full stereo sound. The battery provides up to six hours of stereo listening time, seven hours talk time, and 160 hours of standby.
Beyond earphones, JVC has developed several models of noise canceling headphones with earpieces to block sound and power active noise cancellation. They are lightweight and even easy to fold up flat for travel (www.jvc.com).
The new JVC HA-NC250 noise canceling headphones have a double housing structure in the earpiece to block outside sounds with an extra sound insulation layer. The noise cancellation circuitry then includes feedback technology that constantly monitors the noise cancellation process to eliminate up to 85 percent of extraneous background noise.
The headphones also function as a pair of normal headphones when turned off. They are powered by a single AAA battery that lasts up to 50 hours, weigh 5.3 ounces, and are available for $135.
And for something very different in headphones, there’s the Turtle Beach Ear Force AK-R8 — surround-sound headphones for gamers and DVD movie fans ($149, www.turtlebeach.com). Each earpiece has four individual speakers, for the front, center, rear, and subwoofer channels, providing a surround experience without having to crank up your speakers and irritate the neighbors.
Sometimes you want to share your music with others, or just want to play it in your room (or hotel room) without being tethered to earphones. The answer, of course, is to use a portable speaker system preferably not much bigger than your media player.
For highly portable sound, the new Samsung Bluetooth Portable Stereo Speakers (YA-BS300) are under 4 inches long, and only 2.19 ounces ($129, www.samsung.com). Use them for music to play audio from Bluetooth-enabled portable media players, with a Bluetooth wireless range of up to 32.8 feet. They also have a line-in jack for wired audio devices.
The Sony Travel Speakers provide a clever solution for travel. They are passive speakers, with no batteries or AC adaptor required (www.sonystyle.com). Just plug in the stereo mini plug and enjoy your music. They also fold out so the speaker is across the entire front surface, and the protective speaker lid folds under as the speaker stand. They are 5.2 x 0.8 x 2.8 inches, and 7 ounces — model SRS-TP1 for $24.99.
Bluetooth is being built in more and different kinds of devices, and you also can use standard peripherals to add wireless capability to existing components.
There’s music packed up in your phone and MP3 player, so now you can share from your phone though Bluetooth — and play through your PC speakers or even your hi-fi system.
To interchange between a variety of devices, see the dual-use Sony HWS-BTA2W Bluetooth transmitter/receiver ($79, www.sonystyle.com). As a transmitter, it streams wireless stereo audio from devices with standard stereo mini plugs, such as MP3 players, PCs, and home stereo systems to play to a cell phone, wireless headset, PC, or home or car audio system.
And to connect your computer into this wireless world, use a small connector like the Kensington Bluetooth USB Adaptor 2.0 ($29.99, www.kensington.com). Plug in to a USB port on a Windows or Mac, and link your computer up to Bluetooth-compatible devices including cell phones, PDAs, printers, mice, and keyboards — up to 7 devices within a 65 foot range.
Whether for cell phones, digital cameras, or laptops, you can now find a variety of universal chargers with swappable device-specific adaptors that allow you to charge multiple devices from a single unit. Even better, many devices now use USB as a standard interface for both data connectivity (syncing) and power, reducing the need to carry a collection of different cords and connectors.
To charge small devices like cell phones, just connect a AA battery to the right adapter tips to recharge your particular model. The Energizer Energi To Go Instant Cell Phone Charger takes two AA batteries ($19 with batteries, www.energizer.com), and the Turbo Charge portable chargers are available with single and two-battery units ($19, $29, www.turbocellcharge.com) — each in models with different collections of tips.
Even better, USB cabling and connectors can serve as a common basis for sharing your collection of devices. For iPods and other media players that recharge though USB, the Belkin Dual USB Power Adapter plugs in to the wall and charges up to two USB devices at a time, without requiring they be plugged in to your computer ($29, www.belkin.com).
The MDI kwikSynCh line extends this idea with wall and car chargers, a dual-USB wall adapter, dual-charger cables (connect one device to your computer while charging a second at the same time), and USB adapters to charge a variety of devices (www.syncharger.com).
And for plane travel, the Inflight Power adapter plugs into the audio jack on and airplane seat, and converts the feed to USB power ($34, www.inflightpower.com).
For camping, or longer trips away from wall outlets, the Solio Hybrid/Solar Chargers from Better Energy Systems can power you up from the sun (www.solio.com), and you don’t need to leave your phone plugged into the solar panel all day to charge. The products have a built-in battery so you can charge them up from the sun, and then boost your devices in the evening. The products include interchangeable tips for mobile phones, PDAs, music players, and digital cameras with standard USB and mini-USB tips.
Yes, you can take it all with you. All of the latest, greatest new electronic toys and tools can go on the road. Not only that, but most of them are selling for sums that barely covered the cost of a Sony Walkman not long ago. Almost all these items will fit neatly into a kid’s — or a grown-up’s — stocking hung by the chimney with care. So just one big question remains: How to choose among all of the cool new products?