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Why I Stopped Using My iPod

Monday 16 August, 2004, 02:30 PM

If you've read my previous entry on why I don't like my iPod all that much, this probably won't come as a great surprise, but I've stopped using my iPod.

A few weeks ago I got myself an iRiver MP3 player - an iHP-20. They've changed the name slightly recently, so these are now called the H120, but mine still has the old name on it.

The one line review:

My iRiver iHP-120 plays music better than my iPod

I would think if you're buying a portable music player, that would be the main thing, but I can go into a little more detail.

To be fair, each device has its strengths, and judging by what I can tell from everyone else who owns an iPod, mine was a marginally duff unit - not quite obviously broken enough to get a straightforward exchange for a working unit, but broken enough to be a pain in the backside. (And now, some months out of warranty, it is fast becoming unusable.) So bear in mind that my account might not be typical of the iPod ownership experience.

Where the iRiver Wins

So, what does the iRiver device do better than the iPod? Well, so far it hasn't done any of the incredibly annoying things that my year-and-a-half-old iPod does about once an hour, like crashing, or stopping either a few songs into an album, or half way through a long track. But to be fair, my iPod didn't do that when it was new, and for most iPods, crashing is relatively rare. But even taking into account the fact that I'm comparing a brand new device with an 18 month old one, the iRiver has worked flawlessly so far, unlike the iPod, where I placed the first technical support call within the first couple of weeks of ownership.

There are other areas beyond being less flaky where the iRiver is an improvement over the iPod.

The iRiver feels like it is lighter. I've not actually weighed them, but the iPod feels bigger and heavier.

The battery life is much better in the iRiver. (It seems to last about one and a half times as long.)

I like the remote control unit. One of the biggest practical hassles with the iPod was choosing what to listen to next when walking around. I'd get to the end of an album, and in order to select the next one I'd have to retrieve the device from the depths of my pocket, where it had invariably chosen to sink beneath the other contents of my pocket, having wrapped the headphone cables around all of them. The iPod remote control unit was of no use here - it just provides volume control, pause, play, and skip for what you're listening to at the moment. The iRiver remote on the other hand has a miniature display, so you can navigate through your music and find whatever you want to listen to next without having to get the player where you can see it and deal with the cabling. It may sound like a trivial thing, but the remote control has unexpectedly turned out to be a much more useful feature than I imagined it would.

I'd like to tell you at this point that the iRiver supports gapless playback. Apparently that's due in the next firmware release... So while I'm still suffering with the same gaps between tracks that afflicted the iPod, at least that'll be fixed in the next month or so.

The iRiver supports loads of formats, so I'm not obliged to use Apple's music store. This was actually the biggest deciding feature for me. Having had a somewhat negative experience with the iPod, the idea of buying my music online in a format that would only play on Apple hardware was deeply unattractive. I've never bought anything from iTunes for this very reason - I felt that one day I might want a different brand of player. Now I have a brand of player that supports music formats that will also play on other makes of player. I still can't buy stuff from iTunes of course, unless Apple perform a u-turn and start licensing their format to others. But that's OK - there are other music stores out there.

Even though the bulk of my music collection is on CD rather than hard disk only, this is still a big deal. I have configured iTunes to encode for AAC, because on one of the calls to tech support, they suggested I do this to work around some crashing problems I was having. And they were right - when I reripped the relevant albums with AAC, the crashes I was seeing at the time stopped. (A later firmware update replaced these with other crashes though.) But a side effect of this was the total non-portability of my music. I had to rerip everything to use it on my new player. But at least I won't have to do that again now, since all of the formats supported by my player are supported by other players too.

Where the iPod Wins

The iPod looks nicer. When I first got the iPod, I really didn't see what all the fuss was with the visual design - it looks pretty plain and uninteresting to me. But the iRiver's visual design looks very fussy by comparison, and I prefer the iPod's simplicity even if it is a bit dull.

The integration between the computer and the player is streets ahead with the iPod. The key difference being that there is some integration between the computer and the player... The iRiver just shows up as a hard disk. When I plug my iPod into my Mac, it fires up iTunes, works out if I've ripped any new music since I last plugged it in, and transfers it across automatically. No such luck with the iRiver. Neither Windows Media Player nor WinAmp seem to be aware that it's a music device. I've yet to find a way of getting them to sync the music on the player automatically with the music collection on my hard disk. So I have to copy new things across manually. This sucks.

Such software as was supplied with the iRiver wasn't very useful. There was something for building a song database - since there's no integrated transfer of music from computer to device, the player doesn't get its song database automatically updated when you copy stuff across. (This is only an issue if you want to browse by genre - it's quite happy to let you navigate through the music without needing a song database. Luckily for me, I never browse by genre.) One of the programs they supply to build the database only works with MP3s. (A shame, given the wide range of formats they support.) And the other supported lots of formats, but didn't actually seem to work properly... So they may as well not have bothered supplying any software.

The iPod's circular control thing made it easy to scroll through lots of items quickly. If you know that the artist you want is towards the bottom of the list, you can scroll through very fast. With the iRiver, it's all basically on/off pushbuttons, so scrolling through a big list is rather tedious.

Where It's a Bit of a Wash

In my previous entry, I complained about the iPod's rather picky attitude to browsing by artist. If you locate an album by artist, and the album in question happens to feature a mixture of artists, it will only play you those tracks from the album relevant to the artist you used to locate the album. I find this to be a pain - I have never thought to myself "I'd like to listen to just those tracks on The Blues Brothers soundtrack that actually feature the eponymous artists, and I'd like to skip tracks by the guest artists". But if you scroll to The Blues Brothers on the artist list and then play the album of the same name, it will carefully leave out the tracks performed by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and so on... This irritates me - I want to be able to use an artist to locate a particular album becase the list of artists is much shorter than the complete list of albums. Having locate the album, I then want it to play the whole thing, whether it features other artists or not.

So how does the iRiver deal with this? Well since I found the software that builds the song index to be more or less useless, I wouldn't know because I don't use its database-based navigation feature... I use folder browsing mode instead. I've chosen to organize my music into a folder for each artist. So if, like me, you only ever browse by artist (and not, say, by genre), then in practice there's no obvious difference between this and the iPod's database-based browsing. Except of course, it means that a given album can only appear under one artist. In some ways this is good - when you find the album, you get to listen to all of it. But it does mean that if you have any multi-artist albums you have to find some other way of categorising it. (E.g. a 'various' section.) Since I only have a very few such albums, I find the net result to be a slight improvement over the iPod, but still a bit unsatisfactory.

Conclusion

I'm happier with my new iRiver than I was with my iPod. I'll be even happier when the next firmware update provides gapless playback. The iRiver suffers from none of the problems that afflicted the iPod. The lack of automated copying of newly ripped music is a pain, but that's not enough to outweigh the fact that the iRiver does a far better job of playing my music. And since that's the main job it has to do, I'm pleased with my new purchase.

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