The AudioFile: iPod Touch-Up

Nice kickstand.
Now you can surf the Web, watch YouTube videos, and get over-the-air downloads on your iPod. Other portable media players out there do similar things, but are they catching on? Not even close, at least in the US. But a few from the likes of Microsoft, Archos, and SanDisk offer up some interesting tricks that are just screaming for inclusion in the iPod touch.

September 5, 2007, isn’t likely to go down as The Day the Non-Apple MP3 Player Died, despite the introduction of the insanely anticipated iPod touch. The interface and WiFi goodies packed into it appeal to everyone who wants an iPhone without the eye-popping price and ear-pooping phone.

I was initially annoyed that Apple saved the high-capacity hard drive for the iPod classic, but given the iPhone’s impressive sales rate, most buyers probably won’t mind being limited to 8GB or 16GB of flash memory in the iPod touch. Still, Apple could draw a few lessons in product design from less iconic companies like Archos.

The iPod touch’s nearest competitor outside the cell phone market is currently the Archos 605 WiFi, a slim and sexy portable video player with a high-res 4.3-inch touchscreen. For an extra $30 on top of the base price, you can get extra features like a Web browser for surfing and instant YouTube access — both free with the iPod touch.

Archos adds over-the-air movie downloads, direct AV recording from your TV (another optional but essential goodie), and streaming music and videos from a WiFi-networked computer directly to the player. You can even transfer files wirelessly, which reminds me of how disappointed I am that what Jobs said Apple had been working on for two years turned out to be a Starbucks partnership and not wireless iPod syncing with computers.

Size matters too, though: The 605 WiFi is nearly an inch taller than the iPod touch and twice as thick. I dig that Archos offers both flash (4GB) and hard drive versions (30, 80, and 160GB) — something I hope Apple takes to heart in future iterations of the iPod touch. After all, I’m betting if the massively endowed 160GB iPod classic sells particularly well, they’ll find a way to cram a big hard drive into a touchscreen iPod, even at the expense of making it a tad thicker.

Those aren’t the only two hot wireless players on the block though. Microsoft’s Zune 2.0 details were leaked recently, and the WiFi-capable flash version sounds like it might actually stay afloat, though it’ll surely lack advanced stuff like a Web browser and will just stick to sharing. Considering the Zune’s limited usefulness as a wireless device and lack of a touchscreen, Microsoft must be feeling some pretty serious pressure to return Apple’s serve.

I like the idea of the Zune’s song-sharing features, and hopefully Microsoft will lighten up on song-playing restrictions. Apple doesn’t want to play the peer-to-peer sharing game because of all the ickiness that might cause with the four major record labels, at least one of which (Universal) already has strained relations. But iTunes software already allows for ad hoc networks for listening to other libraries on your network, so perhaps it’s not out of the question for a firmware upgrade.

The SanDisk Sansa Connect’s nifty trick is to play Internet radio and access your Yahoo Music, Messenger, and Flickr accounts. It carries 4GB of flash and lets you expand the storage via microSD cards, and it recently dropped to just $149, earning the Connect the title of Cheapest WiFi Player. Unfortunately you miss out on things like video playback and a touchscreen. I’d love to see an iPod touch widget for Internet radio and maybe even a microSD slot.

Slacker’s portable player still potentially vaporware will sport WiFi and satellite Internet radio (?!) features via an adapter kit. I find it bizarre that it’s got a 4-inch screen but doesn’t play actual video, just trippy “visualizations”. And I’m starting to smell launch delays (a la SanDisk’s Sansa View, which will never see the light of day). An iPod being refreshed via satellite? Not likely, but also not necessary.

I’m sure Apple could implement all of the features above from a technical standpoint, but the company eschews frightening newbies with features. On the other hand, the iPhone’s crowd of included apps is way more intense than any iPod’s (until now), and Apple will sell a predicted 4.5 million this year according to forecasting firm iSuppli.

The iPod will inevitably get more and more complex as new features enter the mainstream, and iTunes movie downloads and maybe even an Internet radio widget on the iPod touch will almost certainly appear within months. But hopefully the next “one more thing” Apple is working on involves wireless music sharing and syncing, and not a Grammy-winning coffee company.

Each Friday, Mike Kobrin writes The AudioFile, a column about digital music. Read the rest of his columns and dozens of product reviews here.