It's software-mania this week, and I'm all for it. First up, we have a question about veering off the iPod path and onto something new, but anxieties about non-iTunes software abound. Then, find out about managing music for the Zune, and get a chance to check out some great podcast managing software for the Creative Zen.
Q: I enjoy MP3 Monday Mailbox and thought I'd send along a question. I've got a 3-year-old iPod that has bit the bullet and is heading off into retirement. I have been looking at players comparable with the 8GB Nano, namely the list of CNET's top flash-based MP3 players. My biggest hesitation for going off the iPod reservation is having to figure out new software. I've heard horror stories of Sony's SonicStage software, and then I read in reviews how its interaction with windows media player isn't that much better. I'm just sort of hesitant to move into the deep unknown of non-iTunes software. Is this even an issue I should be worried about? I listen mainly through a pair of Shure e2cs and a pair of Shure e4cs, so all of the comments about "better sound than the iPod" make me take notice. Is the sound that much better?--Dan, via e-mail
A: Well, the good news is that Sony SonicStage is dead, dead, dead! (Ding, dong, the glitch is dead!) Sony Walkmans now work with any Windows syncing software, or just drag-and-drop via Windows Explorer. Basically, all MP3 players except the iPod and the Zune work seamlessly with Windows Media jukeboxes such as Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, or MediaMonkey. If you want to see even more options, check Download.com under Music Management, Jukeboxes, and Digital Media Players. Any new software will take a bit of getting used to, but you should have no problem finding a program that works for you. Personally, I use Rhapsody and it works just fine for me (though it's not perfect. Sadly, technology never is. Sigh.)
As for the sound quality issue, I would say that the iPod Nano's sound quality is good. It's certainly satisfactory for the average listener. However, it doesn't match the audio of a Sony Walkman, Creative Zen, or a Cowon, which are the three brands that most consistently produce excellent sounding MP3 players. The Zune is also becoming known as a top-sounding player, although it doesn't have as much of a history. Also, it's technically limited to the Zune Software, but that may appeal to you. I suggest checking it out before committing to a Zune. Last time I used it, it was still working through some kinks.
Q: I am considering getting a Zune. I have done my research (on CNET), and Zune is one of the best players that fit the features that I want: FM radio, uses Windows Media Player, video playback, long battery life, Bluetooth is a plus. I have heard that Zune will work with Windows Media Player from my friend, who works in the BestBuy MP3 and iPod section. Is that true? If Zune doesn't work with Windows Media Player, is the require software good? Are there any other players you would suggest other then Zune?--Leeder, via e-mail
A: The Zune is a great player, though it does not have Bluetooth. It has Wi-Fi, which is used for sharing songs with other users and wireless syncing with your computer. (Unlike Bluetooth, it doesn't make the player compatible with wireless headphones.) I've heard of the Zune working with various software program, but it technically only supports the Zune Software, which is essentially a heavily-skinned and feature-packed version of Windows Media Player (it's all Microsoft, after all). The Zune Software was still kind of buggy last time I used it, though it's certainly nice to look at and the integration of the Zune Marketplace (for song purchasing and podcast management) is a definite plus for Zune users.
Q: I have a second-generation iPod Shuffle, but the only MP3s that go on the Shuffle are podcasts. Now I would like to view video podcasts as well. After listening to Episode 91 of MP3 Insider, I reviewed the alternate MP3 players and seem to like the Creative Zen player because of good quality and SD card expansion. Do you agree? Also, could you recommend a good podcasting client other than iTunes that would work well for video and audio? --Paul, via e-mail
A: Yes! I do agree, and there's an excellent Zen-friendly application called ZenCast for acquiring and managing both audio and video podcasts.
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.)