There are a vast number of portable media players on the market. They come in all different sizes, colours and configurations, each hoping to capture the greatest market share. The iPod, which has dominated the market since its launch in October 2001, is synonymous with the portable media player, in much the same way as the Walkman and the Hoover are for the personal stereo and the vacuum cleaner. Apple have maneuvered themselves into this position by being early adopters in the market (although they were by no means the first) and by innovating with their design, features and marketing.
Personally, I own a 2GB iPod Nano (1G). It is great! I use it every day and to be honest if I had to choose I would pick it over my mobile phone. However, it is starting to show its age, not just because of wear and tear, but also because of its design and technical capabilities. This got me thinking as to what features I would like in a media player, and why they’re not available yet. I’ve tried to show no bias towards Apple (or any other manufacturer) but comparisons to other media players are inevitable.
- Small case
- Soft corners
There is a trade off with between size and usability — if it’s too big then it’s unwieldy, offers little portability and can be heavy, but if it’s too small then it makes it easier to lose and harder to operate. This is, of course, dependent on the interface chosen for the unit, the resolution of the display and size of the hardware itself. I think the iPod Nano is a good size — I’ve never had any problems with the thickness (or lack of) and the weight is negligible. However, the screen size lacks for video. If the screen was the full width of the unit, the unit a little taller and the screen fitted the 16:9 ratio then this would be more suitable. The soft, rounded corners make sense – no-one wants ripped pockets. My main criticisms are the easily scratched case (the anodized casing on the 2G models may have solved this) and the equally susceptible screen.
- Large capacity (at least 64GB)
- Solid state/flash memory
- Fast (at least 50MBps read/write)
My music collection in iTunes, which is only a handful of downloads and two thirds of my CDs (ripped at an OK bitrate) is just over 20GB in size. Add to that 2GB in podcasts. Then allow for the rest of my CD collection, and for it all to be ripped at near lossless, then my 2GB device is hardly adequate, and doesn’t even allow for videos, photos or any other media. I’ve listed 64GB above because at the moment that is the largest flash drive that can be bought, although I expect that to change quickly with the market driving it. I think flash memory is the only way to go for media devices; it is smaller, more reliable and less power hungry. I know hard drives are getting smaller (in size), but flash drives are getting larger (in capacity), and by being solid-state they are much, much less prone to crashes and physical damage. Hard drives, however, are much faster than flash drives, although Wikipedia reports that “a South Korean company called Mtron claims the fastest SSD (Solid State Drive) with sequential read/write speeds of 100 MB/80 MB per second.”
- Wireless USB
Obviously, any media device needs to have media loaded onto it for it to be of any use to anyone. And for that to happen it needs some sort of interface to an external source. I’ve listed USB2 because its the de facto standard for peripheral connections, plus its fast and reliable, and I think a wired connection should be included as a backup to any wireless system. Wi-fi connectivity would be a must-have inclusion for iTunes-style media purchases direct from the internet and for networking with other machines for retrieving media. It would also allows for streaming ala AppleTV of film and TV content from the device to a remote receiver. However, this may be usurped by wireless USB, the emerging standard for connecting devices at speeds of 480Mbps within a 3m radius.
- All video/audio formats
- Identical software for any platform
Ideally any media player will be compatible with any media format, and could be easily expanded to cover any new formats via software updates. Also, I think that the application used to manage the media player (e.g. iTunes, MusicMatch, WinAmp, etc.) should be identical on any OS. This makes the transition from machine to machine much smoother should the device be used on any other.
- Touch screen
- Navigation buttons
I’m obviously influenced by the iPhone’s interface here (although I haven’t actually used it) but the idea of a touch screen for browsing and organising media makes sense. Being able to manipulate albums and photos like they were physical objects is appealing and easy to get used to. However, I like the idea of easily placed navigation buttons for back/forward for easy flicking from track to track when in your pocket or maybe handheld while jogging.
- Internet browser
- Intelligent playlist organisation
The basic software of any media player, which allows you to browse and selects tracks to play, leaves little room for improvement. However, I think that playlist management can be improved massively. With a large storage capacity, a portion should be set aside which monitors the users listening/viewing patterns and recommended media based on previous activity, i.e. they’re skipping any fast tracks, plus they’ve manually selected some jazz tracks, so lets try suggesting some more laid back jazz. With a large media library it becomes very difficult to just suggest tracks at random and achieve a great degree of accuracy to the users tastes without some sort of intelligent filtering. I also think that the unit should have some sort of web browser included, but tailored to music sites, with seamless in-browser media playing and linked to the intelligent playlist software (“Ah, they’ve browsed the U2 site – lets try offering The Fly”.)
In conclusion, many of the features described above are available or are in development. It is only a matter of time before the cost of components comes down enough to make it possible for my ideal media player to become a reality — at a mass market price point.