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Thinking Outside the Pod

Apple’s iPod music players are wildly popular, and they’re paired with a very good online music service, the iTunes Store. But not everyone loves the famous gadget. Here’s a guide to doing digital music outside the Apple hegemony.

Music services

The iTunes Store is the digital equivalent of a music shop. You buy individual songs or albums and own them thereafter, with some restrictions on their use. But several other services, such as RealNetworks’ Rhapsody, Napster and Yahoo Music Unlimited, take a different approach. They charge a monthly fee that entitles you to stream or download an unlimited number of songs. In effect, you’re renting these songs, typically for $10 or $15 a month. Some music lovers prefer this system, since it makes it easier to experiment with new artists and genres, and cheaper to fill a portable player, even though the songs can’t be used on an iPod.

Now Microsoft has joined the battle against iTunes with Zune Marketplace, its own online music service that offers both subscription plans and iTunes-style individual song purchases. Music from the Zune Marketplace will work only on Microsoft’s new iPod competitor, the Zune player.

There is another notable online music service: eMusic. It’s a sort of hybrid. You get to download and own tracks, as with iTunes, but you’re charged a monthly fee instead of paying by the song. The upside of eMusic is that its music is in the plain, unprotected MP3 format, meaning it will play on any portable music player including the iPod, and on every music-playing software program on Windows and Macintosh computers. The downside: eMusic offers songs only from independent record labels. It has none of the catalogs of the majors and tends to be nichey, not mainstream.

Music players

Companies like Creative, Samsung and iRiver offer many models that match up well in price and features against the various versions of the iPod. At one time their hardware and software designs were much clumsier than Apple’s, but they have improved a lot. They still trail the iPod in overall elegance. But many have features Apple gadgets lack, such as built-in FM radio, microphones, longer battery life and even transmitters for beaming music through car radios.

These non-iPod players have suffered because they use a Microsoft-developed system called “PlaysForSure” that supposedly allows smooth, iPod-like synchronization between players and Windows PCs. Unfortunately, PlaysForSure often behaves more like “PlaysMaybe,” with sync problems being common.

SanDisk, a company best known for its flash-memory chips, has roared into a distant second behind Apple, with a series of handsome flash-based players under the Sansa brand. These devices, roughly comparable to iPod’s Nano and Shuffle models, mostly use the PlaysForSure system. But recently, SanDisk debuted the Sansa Rhapsody, which uses RealNetworks technology and is tied closely to Real’s Rhapsody subscription service.

Certainly, the biggest news for iPod haters is the introduction of Microsoft’s Zune music player, an iPod competitor with plenty of marketing muscle behind it. The Zune holds 30 gigabytes of music, the same as the smallest full-size iPod, and costs the same $250.

But the Zune abandons PlaysForSure in favor of an Apple-style, tightly controlled, integrated approach. It works exclusively with Zune software, and the only encrypted songs it will play are those bought at Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace.

As for design, the Zune is bigger and somewhat clunkier than the iPod. But it has three things the iPod lacks: a bigger screen, an FM radio and built-in wireless capability. The latter can be used to send songs to nearby Zune players, where they can be played three times before expiring.

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