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MP3 Mailbox Monday: iPod software alternatives and EU-worthy MP3 players

Get the answers to all of your questions about MP3 players, headphones, and more in this weekly feature.

Believe it or not, there are iPod owners out there who don't like to use iTunes. Luckily, you're not stuck with Apple's own software if you have the player. Read on for some alternatives. Also this week, MP3 Insider fans from Europe need new MP3 players.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for alternative programs to iTunes to use with the iPod? I have a iPod Classic after using the Creative software (which wasn't great by any stretch of imagination) and cannot stand the fact that iTunes tries to do everything for me.--John, via e-mail

A: I use Rhapsody on a regular basis with my Creative MP3 player, and the program actually works fine with iPods as well. I've also heard good things about Floola. The latter even offers management for video and podcasts.

Q: I am now thinking to change my little "jewel," the Creative Stone Plus I got a year ago. Everything has gone silky-smooth up to now, but because I do use it very intensively, I'm afraid that the battery will go bust in very little time.

When I bought the Stone, I remember it was actually a very hard task to find it. By default, I was deferred by shop's attendees to Apple products (something I got annoyed with, to be honest), even though there were a lot of other options on display. And there was a rampaging shortage of Stones to meet demand, as they were showcased, but not in stock.

What I like about the Stone is it's very straightforward interface, which allows me to use it when stuffed in my pocket. I do hybrid commute heavily (first bike, then tube). If I'm biking, no way I can look at a screen. And in the tube, it is always as packed as a bakery on a school afternoon. I tried a friend's Shuffle, but what I got was appalling music quality, not even improved when used with my Sony studio earbuds. Any suggestions for non-graphic interface players that will match the Stone's audio quality?--Inaki, via e-mail

A: It's interesting to hear from someone "out in the field" about the tendency of sales people to steer shoppers toward Apple's products. As far as replacing the Stone, there really is no other screenless player that I know of with comparable audio quality. Really, the only other player without an LCD in popular circulation is the Shuffle, and--as you noticed--once Apple shrank the iPod Shuffle down to its current clip-sporting design, it became the worst-sounding iPod in the pack.

However, it sounds as if your issue is more that you want to be able to control it in your pocket, and that doesn't mean you necessarily need no screen--just that you need a joystick or some other tactile control pad that is easy to operate by touch alone. There are two players that immediately spring to mind. The first is the SanDisk Sansa Clip, which has a 14-hour battery life. The second is an oldie-but-goodie, the Zen V Plus which lasted just more than 20 hours in our battery tests.

Q: My question is: I'm living in Belgium at the moment, so I don't have access to the full gamut of MP3 players as in the States. However, a relative of mine is going for a short visit back home, so I could request a purchase, but it would be nice if you knew of one that could be serviceable where I live. I'm looking for a small device that supports video playback, good-to-stellar audio quality, user definable EQ, podcast support would be nice, but not a must, the same with FM, and I would really like external memory support. If I have that, I guess I would be content with built-in 4GB, would be willing to make do with 2. I know that it's a lot to ask, especially with the Europe support, but I guess I'll take what I can get. Oh, and it would be really great if you could find me a sub-$125 player, but don't crack your head over it.--TB, via e-mail

A: Unfortunately, I don't know much about servicing MP3 players in Belgium, so I can't guarantee anything on that front, but I would go with a brand that has a well-known presence in the EU, such as Samsung, Creative, Sony, or even Apple or Microsoft--basically, any of the big names. Out of those, the one with both FM and podcast support is the Zune. Apple iPods have podcast support, but no FM. Also, neither the Zune or the iPod has a user-definable EQ or external memory slot. Creative offers a great site and software for podcasts, though they are not sorted as such on the device (instead, I go to Genre > Spoken Word). Also, out of all of the options from the aforementioned brands, the Creative Zen is the only one with an external memory slot. Samsung players, Sony Walkmans, and Creative Zens all have great audio quality and user-definable EQs.

Going from there--and taking your pricing preferences into account--I would narrow it down to the Creative Zen. The one downside is that I've heard that the company's customer service can be a pain to deal with. If you want to spend a little more and go without the external memory, check out the Sony NWZ-S710 Walkman.

CNET Networks/Corinne Schulze

MP3 Mailbox Monday is a recurring feature where I answer a selection of questions about MP3 players and accessories, such as headphones, speakers, and music services and software. Check back often to see if the advice presented here might be of some use to you, or send your questions directly to me. (Note: We never include last names, but if you prefer to remain completely anonymous, please state as much in your e-mail.)