iPod Challengers for the Holidays

by Richard Menta 11/23/2008

Naturally, with the meltdown on Wall Street this fall there is a lot of concern in the retail sector. One big concern is that those expensive tech toys we are so drawn to for holiday gifts may just be a tad too frivilous a purchase this year. The worry is considerable, so great that in the last few months Apple Corporation stock has dropped from around the $190 mark to $80.

Many expect that the iPod will experience a sharp Christmastime decline so we can only speculate how badly portables attempting to compete against the iPod will fare. Of course, consumers could turn to less expensive options, so the economy prove to be a silver lining for the cheapest DAP vendors. Still, high-end nich players like Archos could take a beating. We'll have to see how it all plays out. Fir those still interested in making a purchase, below are a bunch of alternatives to the iPod. This list does not include Pro eBiz's iPod fakes, which are selling surprisingly well on Amazon.

Archos 5

The 5 series sports a 5" 800 x 480 display that handles MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 video, as well as WMV, WMV-HD, DIVX, and M-JPEG formats. Furthermore, A HiDef video software plug-in is available for $20 that allows you playback 720p video resolution at 24 fps MPEG4 and WMV formats.

One of the real feature gems of the Archos Internet media Tablets is the fact that they offer the ability to access 3G and 3.5G (HSDPA) cellular data connections. The 5G has it all built-in with a sim card slot to access your local service. Email capability and an Opera browser (with Flash support), and built-in speakers round out the feature set.

The Archos 5 offers 60GB ($340), 120GB ($400), and 250GB ($450) capacities. The 5G with a 130GB drive sell for a pricey $550.

The Archos 5 series Internet Media Tablet is available on Amazon

Archos 7

The new Archos 7 sports a huge 7'' touchscreen 800 x 480 TFT LCD display, all the better to surf the Net on this Wi-Fi monster. The Archos 7 unit is powered by a fast superscaler processor (ARM® Cortex), offers 2 built-in speakers, and with the optional DVR station can record your shows. 3G and 3.5G (HSDPA) cellular data connections are possible with the addition of a 3G USB modem from you mobile carrier.

The Archos 7 handles MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 video, as well as WMV, WMV-HD, DIVX, and M-JPEG formats. MP3/ACC/WMA/WAV is offered for audio. A HiDef video software plug-in is available for $20 for 720p video resolution at 24 fps. Big-screen units are heavy, though with the Archos 7 weighing in at 23 oz in a 7.48" x 4.33" x 0.629" shell. The Archos 7 is available with 160GB ($450) and 320GB ($550) drives.

The Archos 7 Internet Media Tablet is available on Amazon

Cowon S9

For those looking for an iPod touch with a little more zoom to it, Cowon's latest digital player may offer up what you are looking for. Sporting a 3.3" inch touchscreen the Cowon S9 has an unsusal and curiously attractive curved backside that serves as counterpoint to the otherwise square faceplate.

The unit has a 16 million color 272x480 capacitive AMOLED touchscreen that, like the iPod touch, rotates as you turn it. Bluetooth and an FM tuner are just two features unavailable with the present version of the iPod touch and the S9 also includes a TV out for those who wish to view stored videos on a larger screen. A 500MHz dual-core CPU powers the S9, which Cowon claims will get 40 hours of audio on a single charge. The S9 handles the MPEG-4 SP, WMV9 SP, H.264 BP video codecs and the MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC audio formats. The dimensions of the Cowon are 57.08 x 105.75 x 12.7-mm

Cowon S9

Cowon L3

Those who marveled at the recently announced Archos 7 Internet Media Tablet, now have another solid 7" display unit to ask Santa for come December.

The L3 offers an SD slot for memory expansion, an 800x480 screen resolution, a SIRF III antenna and chipset that suggests GPS functionality, and a built-in FM transmitter. It's a T-DMB unit also, so you may need to run to the foreign electronic shops on Broadway to find one of these players in a store.

The Cowon L3 also includes a remote control and a built-in speaker. Not much more in the detail area from the Cowon site to talk about, but we are assuming the unit has a TV-out like the S9.

Cowon L3

Cowon O2

Smack in-between the newly announced Cowon S9, with its 3.3" 272x480 display, and the Cowon L3 7" display is Cowon's new O2. Sporting a 4.3" window, the O2 doesn't have the S9's curved back, but it does have a built-in speaker, which we think is one of the most useful features for any unit offering video playback. Like the S9, the Cowon O2 offers TV-out, but it also offers an SD slot for memory expansion.

The O2 promises 18 hours of audio and 8 hours of video playback time on a single charge. The unit is available in 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB capacities and supports a plethora of codecs. For video the O2 handles Divx 3.11/4/5/6, Xvid, Mpeg-4 SP/ASP, WMV 7/8/9, H.264, Mpeg 1, and MJepg. Audio support includes WMA, AAC, AC3, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, True Audio, Monkey Audio, MusePack, Eavepack, G.726, PCM.


Cowon O2 is available on Amazon

iRiver Spinn

The first thing about iRiver's new portable is it offers a nice 3.3" AMOLED touchscreen with haptic feedback. With the iPod touch being such a nice little player, the best competition; iRiver, Creative, SanDisk and Archos, really have to take the lead in offering the latest-greatest options, just to keep from falling behind in market share.

The Spinn in the name is a spin wheel feature that handles analog controls (even the iPod touch has a home button). The iRiver Spinn handles MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC audio and MPEG4, WM9 for video. Throw in Bluetooth, something woefully missing on the iPhone, and a radio and you add a couple of more items not found on the iPod. Unfortunately, the DMB capability allows you to only receive digital TV overseas, so this unit will not be US-bound without a change or two. $259 gets you the 4GB model and $299 gets the 8GB.

iRiver Spinn is available on Amazon

RCA Slider

RCA sold one of the first MP3 players, the original RCA Lyra, which we reviewed back in 1999. Despite being a respectable player for the time, that was the only time that RCA was considered one of the key players in the digital audio portable space. RCA has always had a line of digital audio portables - they co-invented the MP3 format - but with the exception of an early PMP unit that preceeded the video iPod to market (but sold modestly), the company has not been a leader.

That said, RCA has revived the Lyra name with an interesting slide PMP that pulls its inspiration from the mobile phone market. The Lyra Slider offers 4GB and 8GB of capacity and offers an FM tuner and voice record. The unit promises 8 hours video and 50 hours audio from the battery. We don't have info yet on the supported codecs, but prices will run $79.99 for the 4GB and $99.99 for the 8GB

RCA Lyra Slider on Amazon

Sony NWZ Series

The latest in the E-series of portables brings us three models, each available in black, blue, red, and lavender. The player sports a QVGA TFT LCD display and an FM tuner. The Sony player supports the MP3 / WMA / AAC formats as well as Linear PCM, an uncompressed audio format found on DVD players. The Sony comes in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB capacities.

Sony Walkman NWZ-E435, NWZ-E436, and NWZ-E438 are available on Amazon

Creative Zen X-fi

It's not a touch-screen unit, but Creative's new flagship portable offers Wi-Fi and a number of features unavailable in the iPod touch. The folks at Creative crow about their X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity Audio technology, which supposedly restores qualitly lost when music is compressed into the various codecs. The X-fi sports a 16 million color 2.5-inch TFT screen and offers an SD slot for upgrading the memory. An FM tuner and voice recorder add to the mix.

The faceplate measures 3.3 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches and the unit weighs in at 2.4 ounces. With capacity up to 32GB the unit promises 30 hours audio and 5 hours of video playback to the charge. The Zen X-fi supports MP3, WMA, AAC5, WAV (ADPCM), and the Audible 2,3,4 audio formats. MJPEG, WMV, MPEG-4 (including DivX and XviD) catch the video codecs supported.

Creative Zen X-fi is available on Amazon

Creative Zen Mozaic

As summer reaches the halfway point, DAP vendors are starting to unveil the portables that will line shelves come Christmas. The Zen Mozaic is Creative's latest personal media player, sporting a 1.8in TFT color screen and a built-in speaker. From there it is just a simple portable with the usual FM tuner plus the MP3/ DRM'd WMA combo. Considering yet another store using Microsoft's old WMA codec, Yahoo Music, just announced they are closing their music store (and thus all those files using WMA's digital rights management scheme will cease to function) it is a wonder so many players still support Microsoft's dead format. Anyway, the Zen Mozaic also handles JPEG, BMP, TIFF, GIF and PNG photos and AVI video. 2GB, 4GB and 8GB models will ship in early August and a 16GB player will appear by the fall.

The Creative Zen Mozaic is available on Amazon

Creative Zen Stone Plus With Speaker

First Creative introduced the Zen Stone, which gave the user a gigabyte of space for thirty bucks. Then came the Creative Zen Stone Plus for those who wanted a display with their still spartan unit. Creative offers both models with a speaker added for those who wish to share their tunes with others.

The Creative Zen Stone with Speaker retails for $49.95 and offers 2GB of storage. Another ten dollars gets you the Zen Stone Plus with Speaker, which adds the aformentioned display, a stopwatch, and an FM tuner. The Zen Stone Plus also adds AAC support for those non-protected iTunes acquisitions.

Creative Zen Stone Plus With Speaker

Microsoft Zune 2008

Even though Microsoft's Zune only has only managed a sliver of the MP3 player market share, thanks to Apple and its venerable iPod, it keeps pumping away with improved portables. The company has released details of its third generation player with several new features it hopes will at least allow the Zune brand to gain ground on number two maker SanDisk. Since Microsoft introduced Zune in 2006 it has sold 2.5 million players, which is quite modest when compared with the 18+ million iPods Apple moves in a single quarter.

The flash-based Zune gen-three offers 4GB ($129), 8GB ($149), and 16GB ($199) capacities, while the brand's hard-drive units will get 80GB and 120GB ($249) of storage space. Like the iPod touch, the new Zunes will be able to download song files through its Wi-Fi connection. Zune 3 has also added RDS (Radio Data System) and RTplus (radiotext) technologies for its "Buy from FM" feature that allows users to tag songs heard on the radio for later purchase. A new proprietary music discovery algorithm allows the Zune to make song suggestions ala Last.FM and Pandora. These features are backward compatible, meaning owners of older first and second Zune units can upgrade their portables.

Zune 2008 is available on Amazon

Samsung P3

It is amazing that the big electronices firms have had so much difficulty gathering market share against the iPod. Those that have had the best traction, San Disk, Creative, and (shockingly) a company called Pro eBiz, are miniscule in comparison to Panasonic, Sony, Hitachi, Samsung, Toshiba and others. So as good as Samsung's new portable may appear, is it going to change anything?

The Samsung P3 offers a haptic touchscreen display with a 3" 480 x 272 screen. The P3 offers built-in Bluetooth with A2DP support, a speaker, an FM tuner and will offer 4GB to 32GB of capacity. There is no word on price or availability yet and as we get real close to the big holiday shopping season we are not sure if this unit will be available for Christmas. Considering that the meltdown on Wall Street this fall has left a lot of consumers uneasy, there may be less rush to push this player's stocking stuffer status

Samsung P3
Other MP3 stories:
iPod Fake a Top Seller on Amazon

The Archos 5 series Internet Media Tablet is available on Amazon

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