I’ve added to this post since I first wrote it. New stuff is in italics.
I bought an Archos Jukebox 20 gigabyte MP3 player a couple of years ago and have been enjoying it without any major problems. I bought it right around the time the iPod came out. Its primary advantage at the time was that you could get 20 GB of storage space for $300 whereas the iPods gave you 10 for $500.
On my birthday my girlfriend gave me a 20 GB iPod. It has some great advantages over the Archos. The best are that it looks much cooler and is smaller (much lighter). Apple did a great job with the iPod, giving it 32 MB of memory so that it could read ahead 20 minutes without having to spin the hard drive back up again (the Archos has 2 MB so it can read ahead about 2 minutes). They also used a tiny little hard drive and internal batteries with a much faster firewire connection to the PC. Also the accessories were much better, including the nice earbud headphones, small AC jack, and remote. The headphones for the Archos were so bad I had to buy replacements right away and even the AC adapter was a cause of concern since it got the unit very hot during recharging influencing me into buying a huge Radioshack adapter with “regulated” voltage.
The nice thing about the Archos was that it was very standardized. It used a conventional notebook computer hard drive (2.5 inch) which represented about a third of its bulk. It also uses 4 conventional NiMH AA batteries which recharge when plugged in but could also be replaced if they ever stopped taking a charge (which they did, and I used the spares, but even those went bad eventually, but that allowed me to get higher capacity batteries). The batteries probably took another third of the bulk and were hard to change in and out without damaging the device. The other good part about the Archos is that it essentially is just an external hard drive. Although USB drivers had to be downloaded for it on most computers, it wasn’t that hard to do and then you could just drag and drop any kind of files and/or MP3 files which it could play. The interface was terrible but a community formed on the internet that wrote a vastly improved operating system that made up for many of the deficiencies (I wasn’t interested in doing WMA files, but that wouldn’t be possible since the MP3 decoder was hard wired and the operating system had to be very compact). The open source operating system is a great advantage of the Archos over the iPod (even though I don’t think Archos ever intended for anyone to reverse engineer its operating system). I’d like to see Apple or anyone else make a real open source MP3 player allowing all kinds of cutomizations and features. Despite the popularity of the iPod there isn’t a lot of iPod shareware. Most of the shareware is written for PC’s or Macs, very little for the iPod itself. Though the iPod has some games installed on it, I don’t guess Apple has released any development tools because you just won’t find anything else.
Navigation and the iTunes Database
With the Archos I could get to songs pretty quickly by building a good directory structure. All my artists were in folders with playlists for each album and the songs thrown in the same folder (which didn’t work when different albums had versions of the same song). By putting a “+” at the beginning of the album playlists and not having subfolders, the album names sorted to the top of the directory. So I could get to an album pretty quickly. For instance, to get to The Pixies’ Trompe le Monde I clicked past two folders on the root to the “Music” folder, entered it, clicked up past the ABC folder to VWXYZ, STU, and entered PQR. Then I clicked past 7 groups and entered the Pixies folder, then past 4 Pixies albums to Trompe Le Monde. Press enter and it starts playing the album. It makes for a lot of clicking. 19 button presses to play that album, which would have to be about as many as it would ever take given I have a lot of their albums and PQR is one of the most crowded folders.
The iPod arranges everything in a database and you navigate through it using clicks and rubbing your finger in a circle. To play the same album I spin down to Browse, click, click Artists, then spin like crazy way down to the P’s and then slow down and find Pixies, click, spin down to Trompe le Monde, and click play. You have to spin your finger about 3 or 4 times to get close to the P’s and then go back and forth until you can zero in on a particular group. I guess I’ll get better at that. It’s very sensitive and you can scroll through a hundred groups awfully fast, but it’s like highlighting a range of cells that goes off the screen in Excel: you can find yourself way past the mark very quickly.
You can find a particular song by scrolling through song names (good luck, I probably have 3,000 songs) or by album (not so bad, only 200 or so of those, but you only see the title, not the group). The database allows for very responsive selecting, but also adds a lot of complications. If you have a lot of individual songs (and I have maybe 200-300) then each of those artists shows up in your list of artists and each album that that song was on shows up in your albums. So if you only have one song by Dusty Springfield she will take up just as much space under Artists as the Pixies for which I have 5 albums of songs. And Dusty Springfield’s Greatest Hits will show up as an album now even though I only have one song from it. That’s annoying. On the Archos I just kept the singles in a folder (which might mean 80 clicks to find the 80th song) so they were out of the way of my folder structure.
There are other issues with navigating the database. Soundtrack albums or other mix albums where different artists are featured will cause problems. “Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye on The Big Chill Soundtrack might cause an entry for Marvin Gaye in my Artists and then it will filter down to The Big Chill Soundtrack for him (or you could go to All, either way there will only be one song there).
What I wound up doing was rewriting all the tags for the various singles I have (their tags were a mess anyway). I gave them a title of Artist – Song Title and made the artist tag “Single”, leaving the album tag blank (Ephpod, and I guess iTunes, make you have at least title and artist tags). That greatly simplified navigation when I wanted to play a particular album, but it was a lot of work (found a great piece of freeware from Sourceforge called “MP3 Tag Tools” that made it pretty easy). Ephpod apparently doesn’t let you mess with tags much, though iTunes might. I wound up setting up a boot configuration on my PC just for the iPod with Windows 2000 and iTunes. iTunes does let you highlight a bunch of songs and change all of their tags at one time.
Then there’s the big issue with the database which is you can’t just drag and drop songs. The Archos had such a bad reliability record that I kept a complete backup on my PC’s hard drive (in case I had to reformat the Archos or replace its hard drive, even though the hard drive represented about 75% of the cost of the new unit) and then found some synchronization software (“No Hands Backup”) that could synchronize with what was on the Archos. That was neat because I used the same software at work to synchronize with a “Work” folder on the Archos and do backups which I could then sync back to my home computer where the full backup of the Archos lived. On the iPod you don’t even know where the mp3 files are located (but it can be used as a simple external hard drive just like the Archos only much faster with firewire which really comes in handy when I’m backing up my work e-mail archive which is about a gigabyte). I appreciate Apple’s effort to do all this filing for you, but they also took away some flexibility and power.
The iTunes software has some way of syncing up with the iPod as soon as it is docked. Since you can have a library of mp3’s on your computer I’m not sure how iTunes knows what belongs on the iPod and what doesn’t. I can’t do iTunes, so I’ll just have to wait for that. Syncing up is made easy in iTunes because it can only synchronize with one PC and you can’t change the songs on the iPod without using iTunes. With the Archos you could install songs from any computer with the drivers on it. Again the Archos is more flexible but the iPod easier to use.
Life with 3,000 songs
Carrying around thousands of songs is never going to be as easy as sticking a CD in your Walkman and skipping back and forth between 12 songs. The time you spent looking for that CD and taking it out of the case is replaced by the clicking and spinning of finding that album in the MP3 player’s interface. But it can still be cumbersome; not something to do while walking or driving. If you just want to listen to one song and then pick the next song, you will spend more time finding the songs than listening, and it will be fatal if you do it while driving. That’s true with any player. The iPod has several lines of text versus the Archos which had two rows of about 8 letters. Those extra rows and letters help out a lot.
Working the iPod
The biggest problem with the iPod is the “buttons”. They aren’t even really buttons, it is essentially a digitizer that recognizes the presence of your finger (or I think anything else). You can lock the device to stop recognizing touches but if you don’t then just holding it will turn it on and start it playing stuff and going through menus and folders. So you always wind up locking it down meaning that if you want to skip a song or adjust the volume you have to unlock it, skip the song, then re-lock it. With the Archos you really had to click stuff. And just turning it on required you holding down the power button for a couple of seconds so it wouldn’t accidentally come on if that button was clicked. The Archos, however, also had to boot up, which took several seconds while the iPod starts playing almost instantly (it turns on paused, so you have to press play again for the song to go). The iPod doesn’t really ever turn off, it is just asleep. When you reset it, it has to boot up all over again. I guess as long as the battery doesn’t die completely you wouldn’t have to worry about booting again, which is about how a Palm works. The problem with always being asleep was the iPod would lose a lot of power while it was turned off. In a software update this was revised so that it would only sleep for about a day before shutting itself off. But that means you have to wait for it to boot up the next time you want to use it, just like the Archos But the overly sensitive buttons are probably the biggest negative.
The sensitivity of the buttons is why they include the remote control. This is neat. It hooks up to the headphone port (and the little remote control port next door) and then you hook your headphones to the remote. That means your ears can be seven feet away from the iPod. Or it can mean you have about 4 feet of extra wires to tangle (I have no doubt there are white ear buds with a short cord for just this thing Sennheiser makes a version of its most popular earbud the MX400 with a short cord, the model MX400C). The remote only has forward, back, play, and volume control which is all you should need once you get an album or playlist going. The remote consists mostly of a clip so it can clip separately from the iPod (which comes with a nice case that obscures all of the iPod’s buttons). It turns out I never use the remote. The iPod fits easily in a coat pocket in the winter or a pants pocket in the summer.
Walking around with the iPod, remote, and listening to the headphones is really easy. The Archos was just too heavy to hang well from a belt or fit in a pocket. And the Archos would skip if you were walking a lot because it was accessing its hard drive so much more often than the iPod.
I don’t like the earbuds. They seem too large to really fit in my ears and they are harder to put on than regular headphones. When walking around with them I always feel like they might fall out. However they are great if you need to wear a hat. The other big advantage of the ear buds: the unmistakable white ear buds show to everyone that you have a way cool iPod in your pocket. It’s the next best thing to having a star on your belly to show you are the elite. Still I went back to some yellow Sony portable headphones that I had bought to replace the lousy Archos ear clip headphones. They go well with the purple Podsleevz, but make me look like a regular Sneetch.
The backlight comes on any time you touch a button and stays on for up to 20 seconds (or always) depending on what preference you choose. But I would rather see some kind of “night mode” that would do that when turned on, but wouldn’t turn on the backlight in broad daylight when you don’t need it. Although Apple says the battery life is “up to 8 hours” the real answer is closer to 6 hours (about what the Archos with its bigger batteries could do). You could certainly get an extra hour if the backlight wasn’t always coming on.
On the second day I had it I got a pretty decent size scratch on the display screen. I’ve heard that it scratches easily. It would have helped to have the screen a little bit recessed. Also the screen seems discolored at the edges sometimes. To avoid scratch and fix the buttons being overly sensitive I got a Radtech Podsleevz cover for the iPod. I also found some BlueMagic plexiglass polish at AutoZone that took most of the scratch out. Apparently Brasso can be used on the back or aluminum polish because it gets scratches too.
One other issue I have with Apple and the iPod is the accessories. They used a standard firewire connection which Apple invented, but the cord plugs into the iPod through some kind of proprietary mini SCSI hookup in the bottom (I found out that on older models they used to use a standard firewire connection in the top but it put stress on connection and could cause the connections to degrade preventing the iPod from charging; something similar has caused two Powerbooks of mine to stop taking a charge and while many companies put a 90 degree bend in headphone jacks to give more range of freedom and reduce stress, Apple stuck with a straight jack that has zero degrees of freedom). It would be nice to buy an extra cable, but they’re very expensive. Even the power adapter is listed on buy.com for about $50 (and you’d still need another firewire cable to hook the iPod to the adapter; I got an adapter for the Archos for half of that). The Archos was weird in this way but not on purpose: the connection to the Archos was the same wide flat port as on the computer, but no other USB device I know of uses this kind of A port, instead they use the square B port, so all USB cables are A-B, not A-A though I found a place that sold A-A cables (cheap). I wound up buying a Griffin Powerpod for the iPod for $22 that includes an extra sync cable. While it is an advantage to be able to recharge the iPod through the firewire port, you only get the one cable so you have to unplug the firewire cable from the back of the PC to use the AC adapter or take the cable to work. So it’s a great convenience to have an extra cable. And now I have the car adapter too which is key because the battery life of the iPod is so short it might well be dead by the time I drove to Tybee. For further flexibility in charging I copied a guy who had built a charging station with 8 AA batteries and a car lighter jack. Now I can hook the Powerpod up to that device and can get a couple of charges (and listen while it is charging). Being able to swap in 4 charged AA batteries into the Archos gave it an advantage. Plus there seems to be some concern (possibly unwarranted) that the iPod battery goes out after a year or two (some say it could last 10 years if you keep it topped off). The internal iPod battery really isn’t user replaceable, but Palm batteries aren’t either. Apple has a service that replaces the battery for $100 and others offer the service for less or let you do it yourself for as little as $50.
Conclusions: The iPod is really nifty but I’ll still miss the Archos.
More added stuff:
- Standardized parts (hard drive, AA batteries)
- Significantly less expensive
- More compatible with Windows operating systems
- More flexibility in organizing and sharing files
- Open source operating system available
- Has real buttons
- Doesn’t show wear and tear as much
- Looks and feels pretty cool
- Very small and portable
- Firewire is very quick; recharges while hooked up to computer
- There is a good selection of Apple and 3rd party accessories
- iTunes + iPod = a very complete package
- Some neat, but largely useless, PIM functionality
- You end up needing to buy a lot of accessories
- Helpful and informative user communities online
- Battery life is fairly short at about 5 hours each
- Both have funky and unique connecting cables
- Neither has recording ability
- Neither has radio reception
- Neither broadcasts to FM making some car hookups tricky
So there is plenty of room for a “perfect” MP3 player. Other models deal with some of these issues, for instance, newer Archos models have faster USB2 connections that are as fast as Firewire, allow you to record MP3 via a line in, and have better displays (and are still $100 cheaper than a similar iPod). But some things are self-cancelling: you can’t use AA batteries and maintain a small form factor. There are advantages to each.
To me a perfect MP3 player will be a Palm with 20-40 GB of storage. Then you get a bigger color display, customizable software, and you don’t have to carry both a Palm and an iPod. But it is doubtful that that will ever be as small as the current iPod. It could become like laptop computers: they kept getting smaller and smaller until people realized they liked having a big screen. Then they got bigger and bigger. IBM’s expanding full-size butterfly keyboard was made obsolete because the large screens gave you the real estate for a full-size keyboard anyway. Wristwatches haven’t gotten much smaller in 50 years of dramatic technological developments because you still want something big enough to easily read.