Space, The Final Frontier

2015 iPodsuserpic=ipod[Excuse the barrage of posts today — I’m finally catching up after a busy two weeks]

This week, Apple finally announced a refresh to the remaining members of the iPod line. The new refresh brings a faster processor, updated display, and multiple sizes. Commentators are going on and on about its benefits, and the major drawback discussed deals with its place in the new Apple streaming ecosystem.

Color me unimpressed.

Mind you, I seriously would have thought about getting one of these beasts had Apple deigned to increase the memory to 256GB, or at least made the memory a micro-SD card that was capable of taking the largest micro-SD card currently made (2TB).  But 128GB? That’s less memory than my current iPod Classic at 160GB (148.79GB capacity for music). I’d have to delete music just to fit on a 128GB memory. As it is, I’ve only got around 13GB free on my iPod Classic, and that will be going down in a week or so (Amazon order going in on Monday).

Folks, we’re seeing industry trying to push us back to the future. They’ve successfully convinced people that you can do everything in the cloud — computing, storage, etc. Us old timers realize that’s just a move back to time-sharing on a central computer — the way computing was done in the 1970s. Apple and the rest of the music industry is attempting to convince us that we don’t need to own our music, we can listen to whatever we want by streaming; in fact, if we don’t want to pick what we listen to, they’ll do it for us. Us old timers realize that’s just pushing us back to the AM/FM model, where you would hear DJs programming a playlist of tracks out of a station’s vast library. Any music you had wasn’t portable. That’s the model of music we had until cassettes hit the market in the 1970s.

I’m sorry, but I like to have my own computing power that I control. I like to own my music, and I love the freedom to listen to whatever I want, whenever I want, and most importantly, whereever I want without worry for data usage or streaming capabilities. I want a dedicated music player so that it does not consume my phone’s battery, and that tries to do one thing right instead of many things wrong. Most importantly, I want a dedicated music player that has room for all the music I currently own AND all the music I will purchase in my lifetime. Most players cannot handle that. [Oh, and it would be a plus if it worked with the iTunes ecosystem so that I could preserve my play counts and all my smart playlists.]

Currently, there are NO music players currently sold that do this. Sorry, updated iPods, but 128GB doesn’t cut it. I’m sticking with my 160GB iPod and its twin.

Still, with only 13GB left, I keep exploring replacements. Here are the likely contenders:

  • Fiio X5 2nd Generation. Fiio focuses on the sound quality, aiming at the high-def market. Me? I focus on the fact that it has 2 128GB microSD slots, giving a total capacity of 256GB. What I don’t know about the Fiio is whether it views the two cards as unified storage, or you have to pick where to store things. I also don’t know whether it can handle playlists (esp. smart playlists), or work with the iTunes ecosystem. The price is reasonable: $349 for the player; microSD cards extra (~$80 for 128GB).  According to one review, “Fiio is confident that there should be no issues handling larger capacity cards as they are released, so expansion options look good for the future.” However, the internal software usability seems markedly below that of the iPod Classic. [Edited to Add: It looks like there is software to help connect with iTunes for both the PC and MAC; the MAC software looks more polished. You can shuffle all music, but it looks like smart playlists are not supported and support for podcasts is unclear. Here’s the Fiio X5 Manual. Note also that the Fiio X3 2nd Generation is a possibility if they truly comply with the SDXC standard, and update the firmware to handle 256GB-2TB cards (such support would also make the Fiio X1 viable as well). Now, just imagine an X5 with 2x2TB cards. Wow!]
  • Astell and Kern. These are the high-end products from iRiver. The upper end (AK240, AK380) all have 256GB internal and support a 128GB card (the AK Jr is also a possibility if they up the SDXC card supported; however, it is only at 64GB onboard + 64GB Mini-SD). These have gotten good reviews; however, they require the user to determine what music is onboard and what music is on the card. I also don’t know a lot about the interface, but I suspect it is album oriented and not smart playlist oriented.
  • Sony 64GB Walkman. Although 64GB is in the title, it can also support a 128GB microSD card, giving 192GB. However, you have to indicate where music is stored, and I haven’t heard that much good about the user and software interfaces. However, at $299, the 64GB is much better than the $1200 128GB player. The $1200 player is overpriced (plus, once you visit the Sony site, adds for Sony start appearing everywhere).
  • Pono Player. $399 for a 64GB internal plus 128GB microSD. Pono got a lot of buzz when they started as a Kickstarter, but they seem to be being eclipsed by the competition both in form factor (they are Toblerone shaped, not deck-of-cards), and the interface. They have their own iTunes replacement called Ponoworld that appears reasonable; I’ve seen no mention of whether it can import from iTunes. It is also unknown whether Pono can be managed through MusicBee or other managers. Pono has gotten mixed reviews (Ars Technica, C|Net, Stereophile, Stereogum); the conclusion isn’t that the Pono is bad but rather that it isn’t significantly better than the others. I’ve seen some comparisons with the Fiio and AK, and the Pono does not eclipse the competition. The major advantage of the Pono, truthfully, is that the company is headquarted in the US. All the other players are Asian: Fiio is China, Astell and Kern is iRiver from Korea, iBasso is Korea, and Sony is Japan. If that is important to you, Pono may be the choice.
  • iBasso DX50. It looks like this product can support up to a 2TB microSD (i.e., it supports the full SDXC standard). The manual is here. Interface looks a bit rudimentary. Price is reasonable, but you need to add the card (still, having a single card is an advantage). It has gotten some good reviews.

None of these have good software for the computer side of the management interface. However, I’ve done some searching, and it looks like MusicBee is a great alternative (at least if you’re on Windows, as I am).  I’ve read a number of reviews and writeups (Lifehacker, GHacks, Softpedia, Wikipedia), and it looks like it can import from iTunes, build smart playlists, and synchronize to DAP (digital audio player) devices.

I looked at the Cowon X9, but it seems to only take a 64GB memory card, and have a maximum file limit of 12,000 songs — I have triple that. The Sansa Clip+ is also recommended, but doesn’t appear to have sufficient capacity, even when Rockboxed.

My conclusion at this point is… wait, and if I get closer to filling the iPod Classic, move more of the less popular music off the iPod (or only sync playlists). Moving it off does lose playcounts and ratings — I’ve done that for some music already that I hadn’t liked at all, or stand-up comedy I rarely listen to or do not plan to listen to any more (Bill Cosby, I’m looking at you. Thump. Thump.)

I really wish Apple would wise up, and come up with a 256GB iPod Touch. It’s not that I want the touch screen — I want the larger storage in the iTunes ecosystem. Hell, come up with an iPod Touch that takes a microSD card. But I fear Apple will never do this; large capacity devices go against their current market, which is streaming, not stored, music.


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