Sunday, March 19, 2006

Peter Griffin: iPod dominance challenged

As the digital audio revolution takes hold, people are increasingly asking me what's the best music player to buy and it's a question that gives me a surprisingly great deal of trouble. You see, I'd like to suggest something other than the plain old iPod but always find myself coming back to the little white box.

It's just such an easy gadget to explain - the integration with the iTunes software is seamless, its menu system is quick to navigate and there's a plethora of add-ons and accessories available for the iPod family. Given 60 seconds to cover the music player market I usually start with the iPod and rarely get past it.

That's because most people have already made up their minds before asking me - they're going to buy an iPod anyway. Their attention starts to drift when I move on to the less well-known Windows-centric range of players from Creative, Cowon, iRiver and Toshiba.

There are, however, really good alternatives to the admittedly near-perfect full-sized video iPod and I can say that with much more confidence than ever before. Toshiba's revamped family of music players is a good example.

The Japanese manufacturer has gone into flash-memory based music players for the first time with the Gigabeat Flash, which is a decent rival to the iPod Shuffle. It's dubbed as being no bigger than a Tim Tam biscuit and as a glutton for that brand of biscuit I can confirm the measurements.

It comes in 512MB (megabyte) and 1GB (gigabyte) which are on the small size capacity wise but are lightweight and can well handle the knocks and vibration walking or jogging generate.

The little Tim Tam fits in an FM radio tuner, colour screen for viewing pictures and accessing the menu and a voice recorder.

A large black plus-shaped control gives you access to the music players menu. I don't think it's as stylish as the iPod Shuffle, but the Gigabeat Flash is certainly more functional.

Toshiba's new full-sized Gigabeat X, which comes in two sizes, 30GB or 60GB is about the same dimensions as the full-sized iPod. The Gigabeats lightweight, aluminium case remains from the previous version, but the bright colour screen has been bumped up in size to 2.4 inches.

It matches the iPod for storage, has an intuitive if less-simplistic menu than the iPod and gives you good options for displaying photos and album covers. Again, the Toshiba comes with more functions FM radio tuner and voice recorder are standard features, the latter good enough to record reasonable quality audio without an external microphone.

The Gigabeat players support wma, mp3 and wav audio files which are the main formats.

A feature of the supplied software called CD RipRec lets you rip the entire contents of a CD to the Gigabeat with the push of one button. Via USB 2.0 cable, the transfers are fast. You can also drag and drop files in and out of Windows Media 10 effortlessly.

While Apple works solely with the iTunes download store which shows no promising signs of opening here any time soon, the Gigabeat supports existing download services such as Digirama, CokeTunes and Amplifier.

Like the iPod, it can also be plugged into the Xbox 360 console for the music to be played through your home theatre system and photos to be viewed on your TV.

If the Gigabeat players have one major advantage over the iPod it's their greater flexibility for those happy using Windows and Windows Media Player. To sum up, you may have one or two reasons to think twice about before automatically choosing the iPod.


Gigabeat Flash: $259 (1GB) $199 (512MB)

Gigabeat X30: $479 (30GB) X60: $629 (60GB)


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