iPod Killers for Christmas 2006

By Richard Menta 10/14/06

FYI: we just posted our Summer 2007 list of 38 players - editor, 5 /12/07

We have run the iPod Killers for Christmas/Summer series since 2004. In that time we reported on 149 portable players and NOT one iPod killer from the bunch. That said, we may actually have a couple of genuine challengers to Apple. This holiday season will see Microsoft pump tens-of-millions of dollars to hawk their new Zune portable and SanDisk's 8GB e280 flash unit is compelling high-end users. Both can realistically grab double-digit market share from the iPod, particularly because the iPod only got a modest facelift this season. Whether they do or not waits to be seen.

The struggle of all brands is to find that secret sauce of features, look and that highly elusive "cool factor". Disney is showing success with kiddies thanks to strong product branding (a touch wheel with mouse ears). If you can argue that part of the "iPod Aura" is really a fashion thing, then we should factor in the fact that fashion changes and some consumers will shift to new players simply because they are not an iPod. But Apple is not playing Versace, which would require the iPod to morph dramatically every year. Instead Apple takes the role of Anne Klein or Polo, a classic look that evolves within the context of popular consumer taste.

But seriously, is there really a player out there to challenge the iPod? In truth, one manufacturer has already found a secret sauce that makes it the second best selling portable digital player today. This player sells one unit for every 2.3 iPod's and is the the best portable media player on the market in our opinion. That player is the Sony PSP, excluded from the top digital player lists because it is primarily a game player. So what? The PSP's widescreen offers superior video to the iPod and Sony has sold more UMD movies than Apple has digital movie downloads. True, UMD movies were on the way out after a promising start, but price drops in Japan have led to a huge ten-fold jump in sales, resurecting the format in Asia. Lower prices would probably do the same in the US, potentially giving Sony a portable movie distribution model to challenge iTunes.

Sony's PSP example gives all other makers hope. In reality they have more than hope to work with. Many of these portables, including those from Archos, Creative, SanDisk, iRiver, Toshiba, Cowon and Samsung make damn good players. Maybe they don't have a huge peripheral market surrounding them, but most have features unavailable in the iPod. If an FM tuner or Bluetooth is compelling to you they may be the better buy.

The digital portable player market is young and expanding rapidly. Only 10% of households have a digital music portable presently. In a few years it will be close to 100%. A few years after that half of all households will have multiple players. The iPod will maintain its market lead, but it will do so with a much lower share - and sell many many more units anyway. More important, market expansion also means there is considerable opportunity for profit for even the marginal participants in this space, which is why we keep seeing more new players than ever, including some of the oddest novelty portables yet.

Sony NW-S205F and NW-S203F Sports Player

If you like the idea of the Apple/Nike device that allows you to track your workouts on your iPod, but are not ready to invest over $100 in special Nikes to go with Apple's $30 device, Sony is introducing another option. The new Sony sport players comes in 2GB (NW-S205F) and 1GB (NW-S203F) capacities and will have a built-in pedometer to measure calories, distance, and the number of steps taken. The player also comes with a stopwatch to time your runs (or walks) and like the Nike + iPod you will be able to upload the information on a website and chart your progress.

The Parker pen shape of the Sony NW-S205F is reminicent of that company's first digital music player, the Sony Music Clip. The player comes with an FM tuner, a single line OLED display, and an armband. Price of the 2GB unit is $150 while the 1GB will run you $120. The unit is due in stores in the October, in time for fall birthdays and Christmas trees.

Sony NW-S205F is available on Amazon

The 8GB Sansa e200 series is available on Amazon

SanDisk Sansa e280 8GB

The Sansa e280 is the first 8GB flash unit and even though Apple matched it recently with the 8GB nano, you will see more from SanDisk in the coming months. As a manufacturer of flash memory SanDisk has a significant advantage over any other MP3 maker (with the exception of Samsung who also make flash chips). Not only does the company get the latest greatest for itself, but it cuts out the middleman meaning its costs are lower. Of course, Apple is able to leverage the iPod's sales volume to land pretty cheap memory pricing. Apple is also able to negotiate these savings on the rest of the parts that make up the iPod, an area SanDisk may has less leverage. This allows Apple to meet SanDisk's agressive pricing if the need to, though the street price on the e280 is already about $30 less than the nano. NPD Group claims that SanDisk already has 10% of the market, but NPD's research is suspect. Still, SanDisk is one of the leaders in the market.

Microsoft Zune

Maybe the most important thing about Microsoft's upcoming Zune player is that MS has already committed to spend a zillion dollars in advertising on it. That means the device could fail relative to the money spent on it and still capture second place in the market. Zune is really a collection of features that have already appeared in other DAPs - and failed to launch those players into any sizeable market share. Of course, the whole point of the big ad bucks is to give Zune that "cool" factor that is a heavy element of the iPod's success. Among the features Zune has Wifi, an FM tuner, and support for a number of codecs including H.264, MP3, WMA, WMV, MPEG4, .JPG and AAC.

The features that standout for Zune are Zune-to-Zune that will allow users to use WiFi to share audio and photo images (no video) with other owners. Another more dubious feature is a new DRM system that will be exclusive to Zune and an updated MSM Music, mimicking Apple's proprietary system that locks users to the iPod/iTunes pairing. Will it all sell? We will see Nov 17th when Zune hits store shelves.

Microsoft Zune is available on Amazon

Sony NW-S706

Sony NW-S706

This new Sony player is dubbed the NW-S706, and it comes with 4GB of memory. It offers a color screen to go with the player's FM Tuner, line-in recording, noise cancellation technology and 50 hour battery lifespan. The unit comes in three colors Black, Pink, and Purple and has generated some buzz on the Net that a Bluetooth version of this player may also be in the works. The price in the UK is quoted as £180 ($336), but look for it to run under $200 here in the states.

Samsung YP-K5 MP3 Player has Built-in Speaker

Samsung released four new players this summer and now as we venture into fall the Korean electronic make announced yet another new unit. The Samsung YP-K5 is most notable for its integrated speaker, a feature we have found most convenient in the past. The quality may not be as good as the various portable speaker systems offered for the iPod, but lying on that picinic or beach blanket they usually work well enough, and without having also lug a speaker/dock system that cost an additional $100-$200 to boot. The YP-K5 is otherwise a straight-forward flash player that comes in 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB flavors.

With touch screen controls (another plus) the Samsung YP-K5 handles the usual MP3/WMA pairing as well as OGG for you non-conformists. Of course, since you are not buying the iPod instead, that alone makes your acquisition of this player a stand for individuality. Samsung is yet to release a price or ship date for the YP-K5

Samsung YP-K5 is available on Amazon

OSIM iGoGo MP3 and...Massage?

We heve seen MP3 portables that can fit in your Nikes, work underwater, and are even incased in gold plating. But to give you a massage? Say hello to the OSIM iGoGo. This little unit comes to us courtesy of CNET who describe it as "that hottie MP3 player". When Marshall McLuhan said the Media is the Massage that was just a sly take off of his own catch phrase the Medium is the Message. Who knew someone would take him literally?

The iGoGo is a simple 128MB flash unit that can perform acts that are not so...simple. It comes with two hydro-gel pads that talk to the player via an RF connection. The pads vibrate to the thump, thump, thump of whatever trance tune you are listening too. It gets better as the user can purchase additional gel pads so others can...er...vibrate to your tunes. For the innocent that means a relaxing shoulder massage with your best friend while tunes jam to whatever you have plugged the iGoGo into. For those not so innocent, well, god bless you.

Otherwise, the iGoGo is a basic unit, offering and MMC slot to upgrade the skimpy memory by today's standards. The unit is priced at a very expensive $400.


Archos 504 is available on Amazon

Archos 504

Those who have been following digital media players for years know that Archos is the brand of choice for early adopters. Features that are just a pipe dream for the iPod already exist in Archos players and the company's roadmap to investors shows it will lead the way for years to come.

The 504 is Archos' new flasgship unit. The unit has a whopping 160GB of storage, capable of holding 450 movies. The unit is a PVR meaning you don't have to buy that episode of Lost from iTunes, you just record it with the help of an optional dock available for the X-04 line. The 4.3" 16:9 TFT screen handles 16 million colors. Video compatibility includes H.264 and AVI. Audio playback include MP3, WMA, PlaysForSure, and AAC codecs. The 504 can read PDF files and has a voice recorder. The Li-ion battery offers 17 hours of audio and 5 1/2 hours video playback. The 504 is a big unit, though. weighing in at 3/4 of a pound. Dimensions are 5.1" x 3" x 0.9". List prices are $600 for the 160GB, $400 for the 80GB and $350 for the 40GB.

StormBlue A9+ Bluetooth

StormBlue A9+ Bluetooth

The StormBlue A9+ is an updated version of that company's A9 Bluetooth portable, ready for a holiday season that will plunge us into an iPod/Zune advertising war. The new StormBlue is available in 2GB and 4GB flavors with an SD slot for added expansion. This makes the unit quite a bit more competitive than the 256MB - 2GB range offered on the original A9. Battery life has also been increased from 23 hours of audio time (9 hours video) to 39 hours of audio (11 video).

The A9+ plays MP3, WMA, OGG audio files and a proprietary MPEG-4 format that plays video at an impressive 20 frames per second. You will need to convert your movie files, but an app is provided that handles AVI, WMV, DAT, ASF, and MPEG. A voice recorder, alarm, FM tuner, text and photo file reader round out the options. Cost is $207 for the 2GB and $283 for the 4GB.

Creative Zen V Plus 8GB

Hey, if Apple can perform minor updates on the iPod and feel confident that's enough for now, so can Creative. The company has updated the Zen V Plus to reflect a bump in capacity to 8GB, keeping it in competition with SanDisk and Apple for the largest capacity flash player.

The Zen V still has a 1.5 inch display to show flicks and navigate through the tunes. It also has the standard Creative fare of FM tuner, voice recorder, in-line connection and PlaysForSure support. If any of those features are important to you then the Creative players are always a better buy than their equivalent iPod brethren. Of course, being the oldest surviving MP3 player brand (RIP American Eiger Labs, Rio, Sensory Science, and iJam) hasn't helped this player in the cool factor the iPod enjoys so the term better buy is clearly subjective. The Zen V will be available late fall for $279, slightly more than the iPod and Microsoft's upcoming Zune, which announced price cuts before it was even released.

Creative Zen V Plus 8GB



The off-kilter shape of the latest LG DAP announcement can't help but remind us of a smoother lined version of the Siren Edge, a digital music portable released this summer by Rio alumns (or is it refugees?) Gil Miller and Kevin Brannagan.

Outside of its shape the LG MFFM20 is a fairly basic player. The unit comes in 1GB and 512MB capacities so figure a sub $125 unit. The player offers an FM tuner and PlaysforSure DRM support, the latter which may eventually become the stepchild of Microsoft's upcoming Zune rights management scheme. There is an OLED screen and a promise of 20 hours battery life. Give LG credit for trying to establish an visually interesting line of portables in its first summer in this iPod-dominated market.

Maxfield MAX-SIN Touch

When you see the words "Max", "Sin" and "Touch" together what are you supposed to think? An MP3 player? Yeah...sure, that's what I was thinking about, what else?. Maybe Maxfield's newest MP3 player, the MAX-SIN Touch, is supposed to sound like Mac-in-tosh when said fast and that probably sounded clever to whatever Asian company assembled this thing.

Whatever the name source, the nano-inspired Maxfield does look striking in its simplicity. Maybe it is the blood red navigation keys that should prove popular with grooving satanists and Catholic priests the world over. The MAX-SIN Touch's dimensions at 3.17" x 1.3" x 0.29" dimensions actually better the iPod Nano's sleek 3.5" x 1.6" x 0.27" shell. The unit only "maxes" out at 1GB of memory (there is a 512MB version also) and there are few features to speak of, but the MAX-SIN Touch does have a voice recorder and a two color OLED display. The unit plays OGG too, along with the standard MP3/WMA support. No price has been released yet, but figure somewhere in the $100 range when it ships early this fall.

Maxfield MAX-SIN Touch

Zen Neeon 2

Creative Zen Neeon 2

Now that Apple has effectively stolen the nano name for its iPod (the Creative Zen nano appeared over a year before the iPod) Creative is reduced to mis-spelling other words. Enter the second version of the Neeon, aimed squarely at the iPod nano.

The Zen Neeon 2 comes in 1GB ($125), 2GB ($170), and 4GB ($190) flavors, a small color display and a footprint roughly the same as the iPod nano. The Neeon 2 also offers the FM Tuner, audio-in record and voice recorder most iPod competitors offer. As is the case, Creative usually excellent players are often the better buy over the iPod line unless you have been building that collection of iTunes tracks.

NafNaf Hyp resembles Keg-o-beer

The beer barreled shaped NafNaf Hyp MP3 player is certainly interesting to look at, but in this case that is not the most unusual feature of the unit. The NafNaf also combines old technology with the new, namely it is an MP3/CD/Cassette player. Yup cassettes. Now as someone who still has a sizeable collection of music on that rattling technology this is actually a useful feature for us folk over 30. This would be especially true if the Hyp could allow users to conventiently transfer that precious mix tape to digital technology. Unfortunately, there is nothing that says the Hyp uses flash memory or a drive, let alone has recording capabilities. Street price will be about $150.

At 10 inches in diameter the Hyp seems designed for the side table next to the bed, thanks to the inclusion on an alarm clock. The unit plays both standard and MP3-laden CDs and has a remote.

NafNaf Keg

Sirius Stiletto 100

Sirius Stiletto 100

Back in June Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin flashed what looked like a tiny portable. That portable is the Sirius Stiletto 100, that company's first live satellite MP3 player.

Priced at $349 the Stilletto will be able to store 100 hours of programming, which has pundits figuring it has 2GB of memory. The unit handles MP3 and PlaysForSure WMA tracks (the latter format possibly on its last legs now that Microsoft is shifting to the closed architecture and format its Zune offering will bring). The Stiletto is also WiFi enabled and runs on two rechargeable batteries. Those batteries will give the user 22 hours of recorded playback listening, though live satellite listening requires more power and limits the unit to only 4 hours of air time. The Stiletto has a timer that can schedule 100 shows in advance. The available dock kit for the home will power the unit for recording up to 6 hour blocks of Sirius content. The home kit also adds an FM transmitter to play the Stiletto through the home receiver.

Disney Mix Max

If anyone has any doubts about Disney focusing so much of its electronic product efforts on small children realize that the company's first branded MP3 player, the Mix Stick, sold out before the end of the last holiday season. Now that the company has again confirmed the power of its brand Disney is introducing its first PMP. Dubbed the Mix Max, the unit has a 2.2" display but video is only displayed in a lower quality 220 x 176 resolution. On the back of each player is an embossed graphic of one of three Disney characters including Tinkerbell, Cheetah Girls and Forever Princess. What makes these choices interesting is that it suggests that young girls are a specific target of Disney. It's very possibly Disney found that they were the predominate buyer of its Mix Stick player. The Mix Max only comes with 512MB of memory to keep the price low, but it has an expandable memory slot. That expandable slot takes pre-loaded video content from Disney called Mix Max Clips. This will include music videos and clips from Disney TV programs. Feature length films will also be offered. The Mix Max will sell for $100


Disney Mix Max

Creative Muvo V100

Creative Muvo V100

Despite the 100 moniker, this is an update of a previous generation Muvo, the V200. The Creative Muvo V100 bumps this player up to 1GB and 2GB capacities putting it better in competition with Apple's updates of the iPod Shuffle and the iPod nano. Battery life has been significantly extended to 18 hours of play time on a single AAA battery.

Creative has also dropped the price aggressively with both flavors of the V100 starting under a hundred bucks. The 2GB V100 comes in at $88, which when you consider the unit has voice record capabilities is a pretty reasonable price.

Football Helmet MP3

Football Helmet MP3 Player

People will buy all sorts of junk with their favorite team's logo on it, so why not an MP3 player? It certainly has more uses than bobble-head toys. According to Gizmodo tailgaters can now jam to their favorite tunes with one of 50 major college team helmets cradled in their palm.

These players will retail for a C-note and include 1GB of memory and an FM tuner so it can be used to follow the play-by-play action in the stands. The player also has a small OLED display and as the photo on the right shows the unit is fairly diminuative. Gizmodo does not share who the manufacturer is - and we still don't know who it is - but they were probably commissioned by an American college bookstore distributor.

Of course, MP3 players are the perfect tool to isolate you from the crowd around you. So why not use it to isolate yourself at a large social gathering where alum get together to embellish on old moldy stories?

Acer MP-340

Acer MP-340

The smaller sibling to the Acer MP-500, the MP-340 sports a more modest 1.8-inch, 160 x 128 TFT display that as the graphic shows still has that tilt feature for horizontal or vertical viewing. Shipping this fall, the Acer MP-340 handles the usual MP3/ WMA pairing (including the now fading PlaysForSure WMA) and JPEG playback. The Acer also handles H.264 video for you YouTube fans, but not AVI or any of the DRM-laden video codecs.

On the plus side the Acer MP-340 adds an SD slot for easy file tranfers and swapping from other players and twin headphone jacks. A 20GB hard drive handles overall storage and a voice recorder is included in the mix. The unit's shell measures in at 3.7" x 2.5" x 0.8" and 5.2 oz, which puts it just slightly bigger than the full sized iPod's 4.1" x 2.4" x 0.43" and 4.8 ounces. Of course, the iPod has a larger 2.5" screen and wider video codec support. Acer claims that the MP-340 will get about 10 hours of playback per charge.

MPIO FL500 Wedge and FY800

Why make everything look like an iPod when there are so many shapes in the world. MPIO has released the wedge-shaped FL500, a 0.86 ounce player that offers an FM tuner, standard WMA/MP3 support, a three-line display and - what do you know, good ol' analog switches. The unit offers 1GB and 2GB of memory and will retail for $100/$126 respectively.

For those who need to stay with four perpendicular sides MPIO has also introduced the MPIO FY800. This unit is a little more iPod nanoish with the addition of an SD slot to allow users to add to the unit's onboard memory. Like the FL500, the FY800 offers 1GB and 2GB of memory, but at the prices slightly lower. Figure on paying $79 and $100 for an FY800. More pictures of the two portables can be seen here.

MPIO FL500 Wedge and FY800

Visual Sound VS1

Visual Sound VS1

With Jens of Sweden gone there is room for another scandanavian company to vie for our money. Swedish company Visual Sound calls its first digital media player an MP4 player, but it does not handle the MPEG-4 format, but rather a low compression bretheren called AMV. Sporting a 1.8" TFT color display on its 14.5 x 60 x 42 mm body, the VS1 is a fairly simple unit that handles MP3 and WMA files as well as WMV and Wave files.

The VS1 offers a built-in speaker, a feature gaining popularity lately, and an FM tuner. Meanwhile, the Li-ion batteries will get you 10 hours of audio and 5 hours of video time. 2GB of capacity rounds out this flash player, which thanks to a not so advantageous US/Sweden exchange rate will run you a healthy $230 US. For over two bills for only two gigs were talking Bang & Olufsen money here, but hey if the Danes can charge that much...

Coby PMP4230

Coby's latest PMP is a widescreen unit that sports an ample sized 4.3-inch color TFT display. The PMP4230 offers 20GB of storage, modest in these days of 30-60GB players and particularly small considering that this unit has built-in record capabilities. The player does have an SD slot for expansion as well as file transfers.

The Coby offers built-in speakers and a kickstand for convenient non-headphone viewing and an FM tuner. No size and weight specs as of yet for the Coby. The PMP4230 will retail for a $350 and should be in stores by the beginning of November.

Coby PMP4230

Coby PMP7040

Coby PMP7040

If the 4.3-inch display on the Coby PMP4230 is not enough for you them maybe you will be more interested in the 7" TFT screen on this model. The Coby PMP7040 also ups the storage to 40GB. A competitor to the Archos AV700 series players, the PMP7040 offers audio and video record capabilities, MP3 and WMA support, and a lithium polymer battery that manages 7 hours of video time despite the big screen.

Like the PMP4230 the player offers a built-in speaker and a kickstand. It's a large unit to tote around, though, sporting a hefty 7.8" x 4.76" x 1.26" body. The PMP4230 is available now, probably at a KMart near you.

iRiver S10

Just days after Apple unveiled its latest iPod update iRiver quietly introduced its latest portable player, the iRiver S10. Sporting a 1.5” OLED color display, this little player matches well against the new iPod nano, while coming in about the size of the new iPod shuffle. iRiver's new player offers both 1GB and 2GB models with an FM tuner and OGG capability. The S10 is encased in a svelt 1.6" x 1.2" x 0.3" body, though a battery small enough to fit in this thing will only allow for 8 hours of music time. The S10 ships this fall and will retail for $140 for the 1GB version and $175 for the 2GB version.

iRiver S10

Toshiba Gigabeat V Series

It is obvious that Archos is not the only iPod competitor looking to take the high ground with feature sets way ahead of what Apple is ready to launch. Toshiba has announced its Gigabeat V line of portable media players.

Dubbed the Toshiba Gigabeat MEV30K, this unit takes its cues from the company's S line of players adding a larger 3.5" TFT LCD display, a built-in speaker (one of the most practical features in our opinion, despite the modest sound quality) and longer battery life. The unit has a 30GB hard drive and supports a whole array of audio and video codecs including all of the present Microsoft formats. As Toshiba will be building Microsoft's upcoming Zune player one speculates if they will be given access to the new codec MS will launch with the Zune music store.

The new Gigabeat MEV30K ships in October for $399 and is available for pre-order on several sites including Amazon.

The Toshiba Gigabeat V Series is available on Amazon

Archos 604

Archos 604

Think of the Archos 604 as a slimline version of the Archos 504 with the same feature set and widescreen 4.3" color TFT display. Like all Archos X-04 models the unit is a DVR that can record from the television with the help of an optional Archos Digital Station dock.

The Archos 604 is a little over 2 ounces lighter than the 504 and about a third thinner. Still, it is a pretty big unit relative to the competition, but the added girth brings with it added flexibility and quality. The Archos 604 only comes with one drive, a 30GB unit, and the player offers voice recording, a PDF reader, and a healthy alphabet soup of codecs to support a variety of audio and video formats. Archos has also extended the 604 with an upcoming version that includes wireless and a touch screen, both features iPod fans have been begging Apple to add to its popular player. Word is Apple may announce such a player shortly after this article appears.

Archos 404

Rounding out the Archos Generation Four line is the smaller Archos 404. For those who simply find the Archos 504 and 604 pair too big and heavy for their tastes, the 404's 3.9” x 3” x 0.59 dimensions and 6.75 ounce heft will be more tolerable.

The unit sports a 3.5'' color 4:3 TFT display and has a 30GB hard drive to hold video and audio. The player handles the same formats as its bretheren, but gets less battery life on its smaller li-ions. Figure 12 hours audio and 4 hours video. Again, voice recording and a PDF reader are included as well as the ability to use the optional digital docking station to ease television playback and record. The Archos 404 is available now and will run the user just under $300 street price.

Archos 404 is available on Amazon

Cowon N2

Cowon N2 Adds GPS

Sporting a monster 7-inch 480 x 234 display, the Cowon N2 offers 32GB of capacity, an FM transmitter, built-in speakers, and two SD slots for file transfers and added capacity. But there's more. This beast of a unit also offers built-in GPS and DMB capabilities.

For those who think big is better, you definitely get what you paid for here. The Cowon N2 weighs in at a whopping 1.2 pounds and its 7.5 x 4.7 x 1 inches dimensions make the Archos 504's 5.1" x 3" x 0.9" girth seem downright petite. But hey, at least the N2 plays OGG files! Despite all the features no H.264 video support, an odd omission.

Wolverine ESP is available on Amazon

Wolverine ESP

Here is a PMP unit for those shutterbugs looking for an option outside of the Epson PMP. This puppy offers either an 80GB, 100GB or 120GB hard drive, JPG, BMP, TIFF and RAW support, and can take several different variety of memory cards. The inch thick Wolverine ESP offers a 3.6 inch LCD display that handles MPEG-1, MPEG-4, WMV9 and Xvid video playback. the unit also offers an FM Tuner, TV out, and a feature that is growing in popularity a built-in speaker. The reader handles CF cards and drives, SD, MMC, Memory Stick, Mini-SD, and XD cards

Prices are 80GB for $430, 100GB for $480, and 120GB for $530.

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