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Apple's iPod used to be the only real choice in portable music players. Not anymore
By Nick Pachetti

(MONEY Magazine) – Let's assume right off the bat that you don't own an iPod. Let's assume that the phenomenon of that small, sexy, white acrylic music player—the one that can store your entire CD library on its teeny hard drive, the one that lets you grab songs out of cyberspace for 99¢ a pop, the one that Apple has so far sold 5 million of—has passed you by. It seems like something you'd want to have, but until this point, it has remained in the hipster world. Now you want in.

Your timing is impeccable. In just three years, the iPod and its accompanying iTunes Music Store have forever changed the way we can listen to music. But Apple's ingenuity, and its handsome revenues from iPod and Music Store sales, have not gone unnoticed by competitors—which brings us to your timing. Right now is the time to buy a digital music player. A full slate of iPod alternatives has hit the shelves, and in many ways they beat the original. Apple's little white nugget is still a good buy and still the best-looking product, but it's no longer the automatic purchase. We tested the new contenders, pumping everything from Springsteen to Beethoven through their headphones at the gym, on the subway, at the office and in the car. We compared them with the iPod, focusing on four key areas. And we kept score.

Features As is the case with computers, storage space is one of the most important variables—and price determiners—when it comes to digital music players. Apple flirted with a 10-gigabyte iPod for a while, but these days, Apple and everyone else are concentrating on 4GB or 5GB models and 20GB ones; the latter can hold as many as 5,000 songs. Players with the same amount of storage are usually the same price, but get this: The new Virgin Electronics Player 5GB and the iPod mini (an adorable, more colorful version of the iPod) each cost $249, but the Virgin comes with 25% more storage space—plus an FM radio and two headphone jacks (a convenient feature when you're on a plane with a friend or in case one jack breaks). And then there's the $250 Creative Zen Touch, a 20GB entrant that's similar to the $299 20GB iPod in design and simplicity, but with a leg up: The battery that powers the Zen Touch lasts 24 hours, almost twice as long as the iPod's improved but still notoriously unreliable one. SCORE: CONTENDERS 1, iPOD 0

Availability of Music Imagine a world where you could only buy your music at two so-so stores, and your selection was limited to what they carried. That's essentially the world in which iPod users live. Sure, they can buy actual CDs and copy, or "rip," them to their iPods using iTunes, the software that comes standard on most Apple computers. But should they want to buy music online, where songs typically cost 99¢ and albums run $10, they can shop at only two virtual stores: the iTunes Music Store, which offers more than a million easily downloadable tracks but has a poor selection in key genres like classical and independent music, and RealPlayer Music Store, where transferring music from the site to the iPod is cumbersome. Songs purchased from iTunes are playable only on iPods. But with the exception of the Sony Network Walkman, which only plays music purchased from Sony, most new players work with many online stores—including such giants as Musicmatch and Microsoft's new arrival MSN Music. These outlets use an increasingly ubiquitous file format called WMA, for Windows Media Audio. (Apple uses its own format, AAC, for Advanced Audio Coding.) SCORE: CONTENDERS 1, iPOD 0

Software All players require software. Apple's is terrific. It's called iTunes, and it makes online purchasing, CD burning, organizing your library and synchronizing your computer (where all the CD music and online songs are stored) with your player simple. See, when you start using a digital music player, your virtual music library tends to grow quickly. The CDs you burn and the songs you buy from various online sources can become an unwieldy list. Plus, synchronizing requires some fancy technology. Until recently, when you owned an iPod wannabe, you had to use the proprietary software that came with the device to download and manage your music on your computer. The software was often limiting—it couldn't burn music to CDs, for example—or it was too complicated to use. And if you wanted to buy music online, you were forced to download proprietary software from each music store before you could shop. It was free, but it was a pain.

In September, all that changed when Microsoft released Windows Media Player 10. The free software not only integrates incredibly well with many online music stores, but it can also burn CDs and consolidate all of your computer's far-flung music libraries. (It can even play home video clips and display photos, although it's not clear why this is useful.) Like iTunes, Windows Media Player 10 is an easy-to-use program that lets you keep all your music in one place, so when it comes time to transfer songs to your portable player, you're a click away. SCORE: CONTENDERS 1, iPOD 1

Subscription music services There are two ways to shop for music online. One is to purchase songs à la carte, in which case you pay 99¢ to download a song onto your computer (and then onto your little music player) and you own the song forever. Or you can subscribe to an online music service, like the now-legal Napster. For a flat monthly fee of, say, $10, you can download an unlimited amount of music—but once you cancel your subscription, the music on your computer is unplayable. With subscription services, you have access to as much music as you want, but until recently, you could only listen to that music on your desktop. In September, however, Microsoft unveiled new, free software that will allow subscribers to any service to take their tunes on the road. The only catch: The portable player must be equipped with an internal clock so that the device can sync up once a month to make sure you're still subscribing. The iPod, remember, works only with iTunes, which doesn't offer a subscription model, and with Real Rhapsody, which has no plans to make its subscription service work with iPods. SCORE: CONTENDERS 1, iPOD 0

Final score: Contenders 4, iPod 1 Now, despite the scoreboard, remember this: In our comparison, a few of the newbies beat the iPod in a few criteria, but none emerged as a clear victor. In the third quarter of this year—three short months—Apple sold more than 2 million iPods. Plus, no sooner did these competitors hit the shelves than Apple announced two new models: the iPod Photo, available in 40GB and 60GB versions, and the iPod U2 Special Edition, which comes with a coupon good toward the band's entire oeuvre from iTunes. So while the challengers have a lot to brag about, they also have a lot of catching up to do. The game's not over yet.

In This Corner...

Here's the slate of challengers vying for a share of the market. The iPod's grade: A--

Sources: The companies.