With the Christmas tree chopped up and the New Year's resolutions made (and probably broken) the holidays are officially over and the new year has begun. But if you're on the receiving end of a gift from one of the 60% of Americans who purchased a gift card as a present this year, the Christmas season may not be quite over. Now you need to decide what to do with those gift cards and they probably won't be to a place like Newegg where you can geek-out on exotic hardware; instead you're shopping retail.

So what do you do with those gift cards before they begin to self-deduct? If you're thinking of an MP3 player, then you're in the right place. We're re-launching our coverage of MP3 players here at AnandTech, and to start things off we have a roundup of high-end MP3 players from juggernauts Apple and Microsoft, who between the two control the vast majority of the high-end high-margin market for MP3 players in the United States.

Apple of course needs no introduction in the MP3 player market, as while they were originally a couple of years late to the game they have managed to become the unlikely 800lb gorilla in the MP3 player market. iPod has very nearly become synonymous with "MP3 player" in common vernacular, a short-but-succinct summary of Apple's dominance (and a possible trademark nightmare for the company in the future). They're the company to beat, they have no desire to hide this, and they have no intention of letting it happen.

Meanwhile we also have Microsoft, a far newer competitor that has done surprisingly well or surprisingly poor in the market so far, depending on who you ask. Their first Zune was panned by critics for various perceived inadequacies and the Zune did not dislodge Apple from being the king of the hill as Microsoft had hoped. Yet on the other hand, the first Zune was enough to catapult Microsoft to the #2 supplier of hard drive based MP3 players in the United States, shooting past entrenched players like Creative practically overnight. They came nowhere close to beating Apple in the MP3 player market, but they got closer than anyone else in recent years and are willing to throw the money and leverage that is Microsoft to try again and again.

It has been no accident that Microsoft has chosen the past year to break in to the MP3 player market. Issues of company diversification aside, as an established market the MP3 player market has in the past year finally matured. For Apple this is a troubling news, as they must now compete with themselves to sell new iPods since they can no longer bank on market growth to keep their sales high. Meanwhile for Microsoft this is great news, as Microsoft's is often at its best when it's time to compete in a mature market where breakthroughs are slow and the risk of competitors blind sighting them is low.

The MP3 players we will be looking at today represent the shifts in product styles that come with that maturation. From Apple we have the old guard and the new guard; the iPods Classic and Touch respectively. From Microsoft we have the Zune 80, a product that is both the old and new guards at the same time, striving to fix what ailed the first Zune in the process. How do these MP3 players stack up? Let's find out.

iPod Classic
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  • cmdrdredd - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    The Zune skips and pops? when? prove that to me? hell even the iPod doesn't skip or pop...that's in your recording and your piss poor 128kbps limewire bootleg downloads. Reply
  • Odeen - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I am referring to Zune and iPod's inability to seamlessly transition from one song to the next (such as for a live concert recording, classical music, or a techno mix album).

    Since MP3's are composed of a fixed number of "frames" of approximately 418 bytes, any song has some amount of silence at the last frame. The Karma detects this silence and begins to decode the next track in the playlist before the previous track ends. As a result, the seamless transition from the CD (or live) source is preserved.

    On the other hand, the iPod and Zune dumbly play the ENTIRE mp3 file. The sudden transition to silence, and beginning to play again sounds like a "pop". It has nothing to do with the bitrate or source of mp3 files.

    Other file formats, like OGG and FLAC have metadata that tell the player the exact length of the recording. As a result, the player doesn't have to analyze the file for trailing silence, and this works even better in eliminating gaps. However, without 3rd party hacks, the iPod and Zune can't play those file formats either.

    http://www.pretentiousname.com/mp3players/">http://www.pretentiousname.com/mp3players/
    Reply
  • Tegeril - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    Perhaps you haven't used an iPod in a while, but the gapless playback feature works perfectly. Please try again. Reply
  • Odeen - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    It works for recent MP3's with proper song length metadata.

    It doesn't work for older MP3's without that information. The Karma can still play the older MP3's gaplessly by actually analyzing the audio data, whereas the iPod needs to have the song length tags spoon-fed to it.
    Reply
  • Roffles - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I currently own a Zune80. Although I watched an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" at lunch today, I use it 90% for listening to music.

    All these gimmicky features with new mp3 players are nice, but this review (and the designers of Zune and Ipod) lost focus of what an MP3 player is all about. It's about listening to mp3's right?

    The main factors that should decide which player is best are:

    1. GUI responsiveness, GUI design and GUI navigation.
    2. Audio fidelity and customization.
    3. Battery life
    4. A higher level of customization

    Everything else should be a distant second as they are the features more akin to PMP (personal media players). If it were not for the 80GB drive size, I would have stayed with a tried and true Korean mp3 player from Iriver or Cowon.

    I would rather compare the Zune to my Cowon i7 and a2 as far as features are concerned. The Zune is a major firmware update away from being the ultimate mp3 player.

    1. Cowon gives me a graphic equalizer (custom and several presets)
    and lots of audio tweaking options such as jeteffect, BBE, Mach3Bass, MP Enhance, 3D surround, Pan and Play speed.
    2. Cowon gives me more shuffle options
    3. Cowon gives me a sleep timer and a wakeup timer so I can lullabye myself into an afternoon nap if I choose.
    4. Cowon lets me customize text scroll speeds and other gui enhancements.
    5. Cowon also gives me an FM player, and then lets me record FM radio with custom bit rates.
    6. Cowon gives me a voice recorder with custom bit rates
    7. Cowon gives me a text viewer
    8. Cowon lets me adjust scan speed (good for very long recorded talk shows or joined albums and mixes that can be hours long)
    9. Cowon gives me the option to use id3 tag browsing or filename browsing

    All these options with exception to a few of the obvious ones on the list make listening to mp3's easier and more enjoyable...hence making it a better mp3 player.

    There are DOZENS of other smaller tweaks and customization that I won't bother getting into, but I hope I'm making a good point here. Also, the audio output (power and fidelity at normal equalization) is amazing compared to anything I've heard from an Ipod or Zune.



    Reply
  • VashHT - Thursday, January 31, 2008 - link

    I have thought about replacing my Cowon X5 for a while, the mainr eason I won't buy an Ipod is because I don't want to use itunes or reformat all of my music into itunes format. One thing that I hate about all of these mainstream playes is they won't support .wav files. I back up all of my CD's in .wav format on my PC, and with my X5 I can just put them on there and not worry about converting anything. Sure the extra fidelity is pretty much lost when using most earbuds or headphones, but if I use the AUX output to hook them up to speakers or use decent headphones with it then the wav files obviously sound a lot better. Also with 80Gb of space or more the much larger file size of wav files becomes practically a non-point. Also, besides wav it supports a lot of other open formats, and for compressed format I would much rather use OGG than mp3. Reply
  • Ripvanwinkle - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    Cowon all the way! My only complaint with my D2 is that it
    refuses to make my coffee in the morning.
    Reply
  • ThePooBurner - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    How can you do a High End MP3 player round up and not include the Creative Zen series? A Player that is technologically superior to both the Icrap and the Zripoff? That is all. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I actually agree with you on the matter. We wanted to include a Zen and a couple other players, but we weren't able to acquire anything more than what we have today. As is the case when you're relaunching some kind of product coverage, we hope we'll be able to get players from additional vendors for future articles. Reply
  • michael2k - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    How do you define "technologically superior"? The UI of the iPod (with the scrollwheel) can be seen as technologically superior (at least since it's introduction in 2001), though you can argue that since 2004 with the introduction of the Zen that Creative caught up. The hard drive of the iPod (which has been 1.8" since 2001) can also be noted as technologically superior, though again Creative caught up with their 2004 Zen Micro and Zen 1" and 1.8" products.

    Then there is battery life and size... If you want to claim Creative Zen is technologically superior, fine, but there are multiple facets to superiority here.
    Reply

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