29 April 2012

Of MP3 players and Apple complacency

We have four iPods of various ages and sizes: one of the first models with the dock connector, one of the early click wheel ones, a nano with clip, and a nano with a screen. One of the classic iPods lives in the car, the other I used the rest of the time; the two nanos are rothko’s.

These four iPods appear to need at least three different charging cables. The “universal” USB cable from Apple that works with the dock iPod doesn’t work with the click wheel one, and makes it crash. The cable that came with the nano won’t power the dock iPod. The other nano needs a special tiny cable. This is crap. It’s bad enough that Apple’s audio players still need a special proprietary cable; the fact that I have three players which have the same physical connector but can’t share a single cable is utterly inexcusable. Maybe they should be compatible, but here in my reality they aren’t.

Let’s talk about iTunes too. I’m a Mac user, so I get to use the less awful version. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Apple have stopped doing user-focused design and started doing marketing-focused design.

I don’t want an app store in my music player. I will never purchase an app from it, and the work iPad can access the app store directly anyway. It’s just bloat, complexity, and irritating advertising. Similarly, I don’t need a library in my music player; I will never buy a book from Apple.

While we’re at it, even though I’m one of the rare individuals to own an AppleTV, I don’t want a movie rental store or a TV show store in my music player. I can rent shows directly on the device, which is far more convenient because it means I can start watching them immediately.

I certainly don’t want a social network in iTunes, and nor does anyone else as far as I can tell. I mean, does anyone use Ping? I’ve never heard anyone talk about using it, ever.

I know 145MB is nothing these days, but it still seems way too much for an MP3 player, which is what I use iTunes for 99% of the time. I think Apple must know it too, but they can’t give us the slimline MP3 player we want because the marketing department is in control at Apple. It’s all about the ecosystem now. The iPod has 90%+ of the MP3 player market, so everyone has to use iTunes to load music on their MP3 players. Hence Apple shoves anything into iTunes that they want to try and push people to use. The ability to hide the Store section from the left side of the iTunes window is conspicuous by its absence. The store will advertise apps at you, and even books for iOS developers, and you get no say in the matter. I was surprised that the Mac app store didn’t get shoehorned into iTunes too.

I’m someone who uses the iTunes store for music sometimes, and I still find all this spam irritating. I can only imagine how rage-inducing it must be for people who have no interest at all in buying from iTunes, and just want to sync their MP3 players or play a CD.

It wouldn’t be so bad having all the crap in iTunes if the basic stuff all worked, but it doesn’t. Our music’s all on a network music server, served up via Apple’s DAAP protocol, but as far as the “Genius” and “iTunes DJ” features are concerned, it doesn’t exist. You can’t sync network music to the iPod either, you have to copy it to your local hard disk first. When ripping CDs, cover art mysteriously fails to get written to the MP3s unless I run an AppleScript to fiddle with the metadata and leave the machine to sit and think about it for a while. The streaming from the music server broke in the last version of iTunes, too, because Apple made incompatible changes to the protocol without telling anyone. I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t just disable it entirely, like they did in the last AppleTV update.

Most of the time I keep the same music on my iPods. Every now and again I’ll take an album off that I’m not listening to, and put on a new one which I just bought. This, of course, means I need to manage the devices manually; though since I have more media than will fit on any one device, that’s a given anyway. As soon as you have to take the manual management route, iTunes ceases to be an asset and starts being a pain in the ass. You can’t just drag a bunch of music files onto your iPod; that would be much too simple. Instead you have to drag the files into the iTunes library, then go and find them in the iTunes library, then select them again, then drag them to the iPod. It’s an entire extra set of file management tasks. Deleting from the iPod is almost as bad; you may have a handy playlist with the stuff you want to delete in it, but you can’t just delete it from there. Instead you have to click on the disclosure triangle, go into the Music sub-entry, find the files via search, and then delete them. And all the time, iTunes does its best to make sure that everything it knows about is neatly arranged in folders on your hard drive, by artist then album. It’s like it’s mocking you, organizing everything so that it would be really easy to just drag-copy it with the Finder, then refusing to let you do so.

Then there’s the effect of Apple’s market dominance on the MP3 player market. What I want in an MP3 player is pretty simple: a small screen, a long battery life, and a high capacity. None of Apple’s players meet those basic needs, even if you’re willing to put up with a proprietary cable. The current iPod Nano is the closest, but that’s stuck at a maximum of 16GB with no way to expand it. Everyone else seems to have given up making high capacity MP3 players, or even given up making MP3 players altogether.

All of this is why I gave up on Apple, Sony and the other big brands in portable audio, and picked up a Sandisk Sansa Clip Zip. It’s only 8GB, but it has the all-important MicroSD slot on the side. Since 32GB MicroSD cards can be picked up for around $20 these days, you can have a 40GB flash-based MP3 player for less than the price of an 8GB iPod Nano.

If that doesn’t sound good, consider this: No more iTunes. Plug in the MP3 player via a standard micro USB cable (like the one used by my phone, my Kindle, etc) and it mounts as a disk drive on any Windows, Mac or Linux system. Drop a folder of music into the Music folder and you’re done. (Oh, and this player will play FLAC and Ogg files if you like, as well as MPEG-4 from the iTunes Store and good old MP3.)

Just one more thing: The Clip Zip can drive a full size pair of Shure DJ-style headphones and give you good sound quality doing it. Boom. Try that with an iPod.

© mathew 2017