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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  • ThePooBurner - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    Since the article is on current gen, we should only compare current gen. So you can't say apple is superior because of it's touch wheel when creative has the same. My Zen, the Vision:M is a few years old and can be had for under 200$. For that you get video playback of more formats (and an included transcoder for formats that aren't natively supported) than the Ipod, an FM tuner, a Microphone for dictigraphing, an 8gig jump drive that is seperate from the 30gig main drive, and jump dive like operation for the 30gig main drive, so you can use it on any computer. As far as i know, the Ipod has non of this without buying extra parts. I like the GUI of the Zen better than the Ipod by a lot, though the zune's GUI is actually pretty nice in places. Plus, Creative practically invented sound. I would wager that the sound quality and output, etc. are superior on the Zen compared to the other players as well. My music sounds good n matter what i have hooked to it to produce the sound, be it headphones, speakers, or even a TV. Even sounds great when using my 20$ FM transmitter for playback in my car. Plus my battery lasts for ever. I've gotten fairly close to 24 hours of operation. Granted time depend on a few things, as I've gotten as little as 14 also, but i know that the capability is there to meet the advertised claims, or better. And the 60gig version has even more features than mine does!

    Actually, other review sites, when my version of the Zen came out, said everything i have said and added "Creative has once again created a superior product to everyone else, but will the market give it the credit it deserves, or will it be like Beta? only time will tell."(that's a paraphrase from memory, so forgive if it isn't 100% exact). In short, the Zen is Better and cheaper than the competition. In every way.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Wednesday, January 23, 2008 - link

    So you want to compare to today, or a few years old?

    Because from the Creative web site, only the flash players are in stock. The Vison M, Vision W, and even the Zen are out of stock.

    But a theoretical comparison of the Zen M vs the iPod classic shows us that the iPod is smaller and more pocketable, has more storage, and longer battery life. A comparison of the Zen W with the iPod Classic shows that the Classic is still smaller and with a better control scheme, more storage, and better battery life.

    Of course what you say about the Vision:M may have been true in 2005 when it was announced... except that even then the iPod was thinner, had greater storage, and similar or better battery life.

    So sure the "lead" may jump back and forth every time a refresh is announced, but Apple has "consistently" lead; first with USB mass storage, first with smaller form factor, first with faster connectivity, and first with easier usability. Eventually (2004 really), Creative caught up with their Zen but by then Apple had a huge lead.

    So your point, while valid, is also outdated. Look today; if your Vision:M broke, what would you buy? The iPod would be a very strong contender.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Well I did not read the whole article, and only read part of the closing thoughts, but from what I have read, you guys have your priorities wrong compared to what most of the people I have talked to, and have seen on the web are saying. At least concerning the audio player aspect.

    A lot of people are wanting a device that is simple as possible concerning putting music on it, and a device that also has good quality sound(read: clean, with no background hissing or hum etc, etc). Anyhow, most of what I have read indicated that people would rather pay less for a Creative Stone, or something similar that was small, played music decently, has decent ear buds, and dead simple drag n drop file transferring. A good portion of these people also seem to want a device that does not cause music to stutter/pause on a device while navigating through menus, or folders while looking for a song, or settings.

    The problem with the two reviewed items in this article is that I have read that the software that comes with each device is garbage. And they are not alone, as many MANY devices suffer from the same affliction from what I have read.

    Anyhow, Creative has DEFINITELY been in this part of the industry much, much longer than Apple, or Microsoft, and so has Sony(Although I must admit I have not had a Sony Walkman in many, many years, but I still have one of the first Creative MP3 players ever with 32MB of memory on it).

    I think now days, and personally, I would rather have something that is small, but not tiny, sounds decent, has a USB chargeable battery onboard(I dont have a problem taking such a device apart and replacing the battery myself; if and when it is needed), and somethin g that has drag and drop file transferring with the ability to play any music format whether DRM or not. IF this device were an all around media device, then it MUST have the ability to read PDF files. More than 2-4GB on such a device would be a waste for me however, so we are talking onboard flash, and probably a 8-10 hour battery play time before recharges.
    Reply
  • TP715 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    You might want to take a look at the Cowon D2 and A3. Both have drag and drop and support many audio codecs. D2 is small, available in 2, 4, and 8GB (can increase via the SDHC slot), has USB chargeable battery with 52 hr life and will display TXT files (but not PDF as yet). A3 is probably bigger than you want, but will display DOC and PDF files (with transcoding).

    Others: AnandTech did mention that this is only the first of reviews on MP3 players, so others will probably be covered. I would suggest they look at Cowon as well as Creative Zen etc. They are available only online, are a bit expensive, and have nonstandard UIs, but they have good audio quality and lots of codec support (incl OGG, FLAC, APE etc.). The also support recording, ie line in.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I think 119m iPods sold disagree with you.

    1) Sound quality (if you read the whole article you will see) on the Classic (and correspondingly Nano and Shuffle) iPods are fine.
    2) Drag and drop works fine for a couple hundred megabytes (IE, a handful of folders or files) up to a couple gigabytes of files, but falls way short when there are several to tens to hundreds of gigabytes of files. iTunes is then simple (plug and go)
    3) The problems described with stuttering/pausing is new, and will probably be fixed. The first 5 generations of iPods did not have this problem.

    Anyway, you're welcome to your device. It sounds like you're describing an iPod Touch, so long as you can stand iTunes.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I think you need to recognized that for some people the included earbuds fit perfectly. Reply
  • Freeseus - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    There's something that I haven't seen mentioned in many of these iPOD reviews that I find very annoying. I'm sure I'm not the only one here. Or perhaps, I simply missed over it as I perused this article (as well as previous ones on other sites).

    The iPOD UI has significant slowdown/pauses/sluggish "stutter" playback while accessing music, particularly when:

    a: attached to a transmitting device (iTRIP, for example)
    b: while accessing a long or high-quality song

    Many a time I find myself waiting to see the data appear and waiting to see the song begin to play. I don't even need to mention the album art in the new Classic, which suffers the same problem as iTUNES does in general with displaying custom artwork as you scroll through your music.

    And in the latest CLASSIC generation of iPODs, the "stutter" is at least twice as bad as it was in the previous generation.

    Why has this not been mentioned? I considered getting a ZUNE simply because I was tired of the lacking capabilities of the iPOD's processing/coding. But, I haven't purchased a ZUNE simply because there is no 160gig model.

    The newest iPOD classic is a step down from the previous generation. It needs a cleaner, less intense UI and/or some more powerful hardware. End of story.
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    It wasn't mentioned because I never experienced it on the 6G hardware. I also own a 5G where I have experienced it, so I see where you're going, but I have never had that issue with the Classic used in this review. Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I find that anandtech has fallen into Apple's traps like so many others. The iPod is hardly the be al end all of players anymore. Hell, the Zune has a FM tuner which Apple expects you to pay for in an accessory. The Zune also bundles earbuds that actually sound good, no Apple's pack in ear buds are nowhere the quality. Plus, I don't have to do the "safely remove hardware" to disconnect my zune, I can just unplug it. Doing that with your iPod can corrupt it completely. The battery life on the Zune I find better than mentioned here. Turn off the WiFi if you don't use it. On the touch if you use the web features it's necessary, but mostly for the Zune you don't need it. It's not ment to do the functions the iPod Touch does via wifi so having it on is unfair in the comparison. The zune has flaws too like the screen not being very high rez for it's size, and inability to put videos into a playlist. The latter of which is easily fixed via software update.

    The Zune also has the bonus of not using a case that is easily scratched.I also find the UI to be more eye pleasing than the iPod classic because of the ability to customize the background.

    I'm honestly just a little sick of people writing off everything else as an option and telling everyone else to just buy an ipod because it's "cool" or "it's an ipod, duh". That's the same as telling everyone to buy a Wii, even when the Wii doesn't have the games people buy an Xbox360 for.
    Reply
  • lefenzy - Wednesday, March 05, 2008 - link

    I agree with you about the ipod not being the best, but I've never had an issue pulling out my ipod nano without safe renewal. Reply

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