Close to a year ago, I bought a cheeep MP3 player by jWIN. Mine did not include an SD card. It was about $30, which several months ago was a great price in a real-world store. I already had a 128MB SD card I’d been using with a Palm Tungsten E that had recently died of a digital stroke, so the jWIN was a good deal for me. (At the time I write this, another brand of player that has 128MB of flash memory built-in is just $15 in some real-world stores.)
The jWIN has performed very well. I have no real complaints about it for the price.
However, I’ve been very reluctant to invest in a bigger SD card despite the fact several times a week I cycle different songs onto the card. If I got a 1GB SD card, I could stop this song swapping. But I don’t think the result would be a satisfying experience. I’ll explain why at the end of this.
Since many people will be buying MP3 players for holiday gifts, I thought I’d detail my own conclusions about what makes the best MP3 player. I think this could save people some grief and help prevent giving someone an ultimately disappointing gift.
These are the main considerations in choosing an MP3 player:
1) How much will the player be used?
2) How big is the MP3 collection?
3) What is the player’s battery life?
4) How will the player be treated?
5) Is a built-in radio important?
6) Does the player offer optional additional storage?
7) Can the player be used for more than MP3?
8) How does the player navigate files?
How much will the player be used?
Buying the jWIN was mostly an experiment for me. I’d listened to MP3s on the Palm and a previous Pocket PC, but these were not devices dedicated to just playing back MP3s. When I listened to MP3s on them, it was to pass the time or to have some variety of use. How much would I really use an actual MP3 player?
As it turned out, plenty!
When I came across the music of Girls Don’t Cry, it really changed everything for me. This was music I really wanted to hear every day (and I just about have!). Prior to them, I’d listen to The Smiths, Morrissey, some ABBA, a mixture of single songs, and soundtrack music by Barry Gray and others. As compelling as these were, they weren’t every day music. So in considering a player, I think it’s important that it’s something that will be used just about every day, especially if it’s expensive.
How big is the MP3 collection?
Prior to the Girls, though, I ran into another consideration in choosing a player: The size of one’s music collection. Mine is about 8GB right now (although there are duplicates due to different encoding bit rates). But this is just music. I also have another 4GB of non-music MP3s. And this brings up the second point to consider: collections tend to grow to the size of storage capacity.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been cycling songs onto the 128MB SD card several times a week. This gets annoying very fast, even at USB 2.0 speeds (I use a separate card r/w device because the jWIN is just USB 1.0). So an MP3 player should have not just sufficient capacity to hold a large variety of music, but it should also have plenty of room to grow.
Although most MP3 players are bought simply with existing music collections in mind, it’s important to also consider the variety of other MP3-based files that are available. There are thousands of [p]odcasts. There are also speeches (I have several World War II broadcasts by Churchill) and lectures, Old Time Radio dramas (Sherlock Holmes) and comedies (W.C. Fields and Charlie McCarthy), plus instructional programming (despite the terror campaign by the RIAA, there is plenty of legal, free, and public domain material available via P2P). A player should have a depth of storage for both existing and future needs. Why buy a player that can soon be outgrown?
What is the player’s battery life?
My jWIN uses a AAA battery. In the beginning, this was convenient. I wouldn’t have to worry about being near an AC outlet or carrying an AC adapter. This has been a false economy, however. I’ve now easily spent probably double the price of the player in AAA batteries. At times I’ve run through a battery in a single day. How much power is used is mainly determined by the bit rate of an MP3. The higher the bit rate (and hence the larger the file), the more electrons are gobbled. MP3 players that rely on flash memory have better battery life than players that use a hard drive. So an iPod nano will keep going long after a fifth-generation iPod-with-video dies. Although a player that uses off-the-shelf batteries seems appealing, I can’t recommend buying one after my own experience.
How will the player be treated?
Durability can be a requirement for some people. I’ve had no complaints about the jWIN in this area. I carry it around in a jacket pocket with several other items (such as its USB cable! — the jWIN can also function as a card r/w). The only consequence of this has been its serial number (which is on a sticker) getting worn away. Other than that, it hasn’t been prone to scratching. Durability is a factor if an MP3 player is going to be used during a physical activity, like jogging. Players that use flash memory are best in this respect. A player with a hard drive is too fragile to place in an active environment.
Is a built-in radio important?
Sometimes, even with a very large collection of music, a change is desired. Listening to a built-in FM radio can offer some variety. Until I saw the way an FM radio is done on the Zune, I didn’t think I’d want one. I would now if it was possible to have the same FM radio features the Zune offers (station ID, song title and artist, etc). The quality of a built-in radio will depend upon the tuner components used, the use of wired earphones (the wiring acts as the radio’s antenna), and the location of the player itself (midtown Manhattan offers a lot of radio interference!). Aside from a built-in radio, another possible feature to consider is the ability to record from the radio on the player itself. Not every player with a built-in radio has this ability.
Does the player offer optional additional storage?
This feature allows the possibility of initially buying the least expensive player in a model line. Several players now offer microSD card slots to supplement their on-board storage. This makes it possible to, say, buy a 2GB player now and then add another 1, 2, or 4GB later on as card prices continue to plummet. Overall, this is a good deal that can prolong the usefulness of the player.
Can the player be used for more than MP3?
The jWIN, basically really being a card r/w device that can also play MP3s, will allow me to put any file that can be put on an SD: text, photo, etc. But the jWIN can’t do anything with those files. Players have evolved to the point where they offer more than just MP3 (and, when offered, FM radio) playback. A player such as the iPod (all models) can now act as a repository for contacts, appointments, ebooks, and photos. The large 5G iPods also play video. The Sandisk Sansa e200 series, that company’s iPod nano competitor, can play video on its tiny screen. It might seem ridiculous, the idea of video on such a small screen, but owners love the fact they can drop episodes of The Simpsons on it (cartoons, with their bold colors and large images, look particularly good on a small screen). The drawback to video is that it uses much more power than MP3 playback. A player rated with a 12-hour battery life for playing MP3s can need recharging after just 2 hours of playing video. At the very least, I think having contacts on a player is important as a backup to the contact list on one’s cellphone.
How does the player navigate files?
Although this question comes last, it’s actually the most important consideration and explains why I don’t think I’ll be getting a larger SD card for my jWIN. To move from song to song on the jWIN, I have to move its center microjoystick either left or right (like the Zune, what looks like a wheel isn’t). Even with 25 songs on a card, this gets irritating fairly quickly. I then imagined what it would be like if I sprung for a 1GB SD card and had several hundred songs: a nightmare! If I was at song 50 and wanted to listen to song 142 next, I’d have to form a blister on my thumb to do so! Being able to go through a directory of several hundred — if not several thousand — files has to be the most important consideration when choosing a player. There is just no substitute for a wheel like that offered on the iPod or the Sansa e200 series. Second best is a pushbutton combined with software that’s designed to zip through directories quickly (such as on the Zune). Look for an interface that allows files to be arranged under a variety of categories, such as by Artist, Album, Genre, etc. The jWIN puts all files in one long list with no possibility of arranging them in catgeroies.
Summing up all of my thinking:
An MP3 player should be looked on as an investment and how much it will be used should be a factor in how much to pay for it. But stay away from cheap players that use disposable batteries; they’re really no bargain. A player’s storage capacity should at least match that of an MP3 collection; ideally, it should be larger than the collection and offer additional storage capability. Avoid players that have a hard drive if it’s expected to see rough handling. A built-in radio is a good feature to have but its true value will depend on several factors, not all of which can guarantee a worthwhile experience. Players that can do more than just play MP3s are better buys. But most of all, start out by looking at players that will allow moving through a large collection of files quickly; having to put too much effort into playing a song will quickly lead to the player being put up for sale on ebay or away in a drawer — and that’s not the kind of present someone wants to give or get!
Have fun shopping!