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Tech support

I will be going to live in China shortly, however I intend to backpack around South East Asia for a few months before settling in Beijing. I do not really wish to lug my two hundred and fifty or so CDs around Asia. I am not a masochist. Also, I would hate to lose them. Yet I would also hate to be without my music – so I plan to buy a portable MP3 player and copy all of my CDs on to that. However, I do not know which model to buy, so perhaps a knowledgeable reader could help me out.

Firstly, I should mention that I do not want an iPod. I do not like having to use iTunes to plonk songs and data on the device, and I have heard a lot of stories about reliability problems – units dying just after the warranty has run out, unprovoked formatting of memory and that kind of thing.

I want a player that is compatible with Windows and has a relatively simple procedure for the addition of files – as I may be doing a fair bit of that at internet cafes and places where the software available is limited. Ideally, I would like to be able to rip a CD straight to the player without having to store the music files on a computer in the process. I am not awfully concerned about a video playing ability or an especially fancy display for viewing photos, as I will primarily be using the unit to listen to music. I would like the unit to have at least 30 gigabytes of memory, and I do not want to spend much more than 200 pounds or US$400.

A tech-savvy friend told me to check out the Creative Zen Vision M and the Toshiba X-series. Does anyone have any comment on these units, or any other recommendations?

35 comments to Tech support

  • Get an iPod. They rock.

    If you wish to avoid iTunes, then try rhythmbox


    which is what I would use. (I have no idea if there is a similar thing for windows. I am sure there must be.)

    If you don’t want video (and I am with you there, I still have my gen2 iPod) then you might be able to pick up a 40Gb one reasonably cheap. There are four iPods in our house (one was won, one was donated to us, the others bought) and we have had no probs with any of them.

  • Brad

    Not to keep on the ipod kick, I have three and other than a few freeze ups on my third generation, I’ve not had any problems with the units. itunes can a be a little iffy sometimes, I agree.

    Meanwhile, I’ve tried two other mp3/portable video players over the last three years and both died in about a month.

    And others may disagree, but if you’re going to backpacking, perhaps a non-harddrive player would be your best bet. May not get as much on a “flash” based player but more likely to bear the rigor.

  • I have a Creative Zen and I am very happy with it. Easy to use, no nasty DRM issues and it works every time…what more do you need than that?

  • Are Creative prices comparable to those of the iPod? My son has an iPod and it’s been great so far (a few months). I don’t mind iTunes either. It’s the DRM thing that I’d like to vote against with my wallet. Still, I am waiting to see how the iPhone turns out. There is no cellphone that has Creative player built into it, is there?

  • carl

    I have a creative zen, very pleased with it, got over 400 cds on it, very easy to use, and you can put your DVD on it as well.
    It is so much better than a Ipod.
    Could not live without ZEN.

  • The Dude

    Creative Zen for me, iPods are more expensive than most of the competition and the new ones are supposedly quite fragile.

    Check out cnet.com if you want reviews, they are generally pretty on the ball.

    And I’d also second the “Get a flash memory drive” option for backpacking.

  • Sigivald

    Ah, remember, Perry – an iPod has no “nasty DRM issues” either. You can play all the completely-un-DRM’d MP3 and AAC files you want on it.

    The iTunes Music Store has DRM on the songs you buy, but it’s about as non-nasty as DRM can get (ie, moderately nasty).

    Given James’ requirements (being able to copy files to it trivially from random Chinese net-cafe machines he probably can’t even install a single piece of software on), I wouldn’t suggest an iPod, though I would for most other music-playing use-cases.

    (I have little confidence that other brands of mp3 player are as a whole more reliable than Apple’s, however, given my experiences with them and with the industry in general. Apple typically makes excellent hardware, with a few very nasty exceptions (Powerbook 5300c).)

    My first mp3 player was a Creative Rio, and it was a total pile (reaffirming my general judgement of Creative products at the time), but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect much on their current offerings nearly a decade on.

    I second the suggestion of a solid-state player for backpacking; better battery life and no moving parts are a win. I’d poke around the Amazon pages and check reviews.

    (If not for the sync issues and 1 gig size limit, I’d suggest finding a 1st Generation iPod Shuffle and one of the external battery packs that takes AAs. Can’t get much simpler and more flexible than that.)

  • Zen, yes. iPod, no.
    I think the zen may be slightly cheaper as well (not having an apple symbol on it tends to make things cheaper).
    The Zen would also seem to be more appropriate given the destination.

  • Charles

    If you get the Ipod shuffle, be sure to purchase the extended warranty. After about a year your computer won’t recognize the thing. I think Apple is better at design, not manufacturing.

    The first mp3 player I had was a Creative Nomad, which took a lot of abuse. It once fell off while bike riding, found it two weeks later and it still works today. Purchased an Ipod when they came out, but had constant problems. Now I use a ScanDisk Sansa. After using the Ipod I wanted two things, a replaceable battery and removable memory. They seem to be the things that fail first. Sansa was one of the few that offered both.

  • G Jones

    You want to convert 250 cd’s to MP3 – I thought you said that you’re not a masochist.

  • I have a SanDisk Sansa, and it gives me no back-talk at all – I just sync up with Windows Media. On the other hand, it is flash-based, and my 2 gig flash holds nothing like 250 CDs. And it was very affordable – 2 gig memory, which can be used for MP3s and for making voice recordings. (The sansa has a built-in mike.) It also does FM radio. And best of all, it cost less than $90US.

  • J

    I’m not sure you can have your cake and eat it. Anything that fits 250 CDs worth will require a harddrive, and will therefore be fragile and need frequenty battery recharging. Solid state mp3 players go up to 6-8 Gb, which is a pretty good amount of music, but not 250 CDs worth.

    I’d consider taking a small MP3 player and uploading your large music collection to a web server somewhere. When you get bored of your first 6Gb worth, find a cafe and download some of your other stuff.

  • Sam

    Several comments:

    If you need near-universal player/computer compatibility without installing software, you should consider looking for a player which acts like a USB hard drive, instead of using MTP or a proprietary protocol. Formally, this is having support for MSC (Mass Storage Class), though it is often called UMS (USB Mass Storage). Many players now use MTP exclusively, a specification that Microsoft created and effectively made a requirement for their Plays4Sure. Windows XP with Windows Media Player 10 installed and Windows Vista have MTP support in the OS, there are also several applications which have MTP support (primarily some Unix and Mac OS X apps). Some Creative DAPs (err.. digital audio players) support MSC. I believe all the Sandisk DAPs have support for both MTP and MSC, switchable as an option through the menus. A number of players are MTP primarily and fall back to MSC if connected to an OS without MTP support, though I have never seen this this mentioned in any official product literature, and often even the technical support staff don’t know about it (you’ll see it mentioned in some reviews and forum postings). I believe the majority of devices generallyh sold in western markets today though are MTP only.

    With an MSC device, you should be able to rip CDs directly onto the device since its effectively a hard drive, from the point of view of the operating system.

    You should pay attention to power. If a DAP is only powered by an internal rechargeable battery, playing time from a full charge, recharge time, and from what plug the player recharges from will be an issue, especially if you’re going to be out in the wild for more than a day at a time. A typical design point will be for the player to be recharged once a day at the owner’s PC, so playing time will typically be in the neighborhood of 8-12 hours, using a not terribly fast charger powered through a USB connection. This might not suit someone hiking for several days who can hook it up to a USB connection only for an hour or two since its at an Internet cafe. DAPs using replacable AAA batteries might make more sense for you. (However, I think I’ve seen solar powered USB chargers around….)

  • Winzeler

    My Zen MicroPhoto 8GB works great, syncs with Windows Media Player, and has proven quite durable.

  • RAB

    Well my 60g ipod video has been going strong since last May.
    The thing that pisses me off the most is that Apple want to charge you extra for connectors and chargers that I feel for that kind of money should be part of the package.

  • Julian Taylor

    If you are prepared to feed 250 Cd’s into an iPod, bearing in mind the dreadful DRM rubbish you have to go through every time (don’t forget to drag all the information in the iTunes Music Folder onto the iPod as well, otherwise you wasted your time) then well and good. I would consider investing in a well-made 100Gb portable hard drive (La Cie make some rather good little combi Firewire and USB2 ones) and use a nifty application called AltoMP3 to rip all your CD’s at very high quality mp3 (320kbps) onto the drive. That way you don’t have your own precious CD’s caught up in Apple or Microsoft’s ridiculous Digital Rights fiasco with your OWN purchased CDs, you get a nice little store for your music and when you have transferred all your data over to your shiny new computer you have a rather neat little backup device as well.

  • Just don’t get a Sony. They seem to have actually built some kind of complicated mental torutrue device, rather than a workable MP3 player and software…

  • Soylent Green

    If you are prepared to feed 250 Cd’s into an iPod, bearing in mind the dreadful DRM rubbish you have to go through every time

    If you are feeding CDs into an iPod there is absolutely ZERO ‘dreadful DRM rubbish you have to go through every time’.

    DRM only comes up in connection with an iPod when you buy a tune from the iTunes Store, and that’s only because the music publishers insist on it, as Jobs made clear very recently.

  • Bruce Hoult

    My god there is a lot of uninformed anti-iPod FUD going on here!

    I’m sure other people make great players as well but I don’t have to know because my 30 GB iPod is four years old next month and has never missed a beat. It goes as well as it did the day I bought it. The battery isn’t quite as good as it once was, but it still lasts the distance of a road trip between Auckland and Wellington if you let it get on with playing albums or playlists rather than fiddle with the menus and backlight constantly.

    It’s a pity that the iPods have become so common as to attract disdain for being common, because they really are wonderful and reliable little devices.

    It’s also a pity to admit ignorance and ask for advice from experts, while preemptively ruling out the very answer that most experts are going to give you.

  • Wil Cruz


    Check the iPod mini , they are better for you needs . If you are not keen on the iPod family , try Sandisk’s offerings. Avoid the Zune as much as possible .

    Julian Taylor

    You are mistaking Apple’s iPod with Microsoft’s Zune . When I transferred my songs from CD to iTunes,I have no problem with it’s DRM because iTunes don’t add DRM to your songs that was transferred from your CDs while music you buy from iTMS are the ones that had the FairPlay DRM .

  • madne0

    Just one small recommendation. If you’re a fanatic when it comes to mp3 quality (as i am), i urge you to use Exact Audio Copy for the ripping process.

    Download site

    Very helpful “how to” site

  • madne0

    Hmm…seems that last link didn’t work. Lat’s try that again

    “how to” site

  • Tex

    I thought you were staying in Oz to be an LDP candidate?

    You are wise to stay clear of Ipods. Mine is a piece of shit. Crap battery life, shit reliability, rubbish controls & interface. I’ll never buy one of these pieces of junk ever again.

    For my future travels, I’ll be sticking with my slim CD player and a pack of 20-30 burned CDs: compilations of the best tracks from my CD collection.

  • jc

    i own a sony mp3 player for myself and my wife has an ipod nano. i think the sony has a little edge on the sound quality and battery life is quite a bit longer but that nano surpasses the sony in every other category. the sony has some god awful software on it and the navigation on player itself is horrible. the ipod played anything i put on it while the sony only played mp3’s with a specified bit rate and sample rate. i actually love the itunes software. it is quite a bit better then anything else i have seen. if i had the money to buy an ipod i would. so don’t be an idiot like me and get an ipod.

  • Soylent Green

    Since you are going to be spending some time in relatively undeveloped parts of the world, and since iPod ‘owns’ 80% of the world MP3 player business, I would suggest it would be daft to choose anything other than an iPod.

    If anything goes wrong, you’ll find help, in the shape of tech support, spare parts, repairs, etc., available for iPod most places, but nothing for any other brand.

    Really, I think it has to be an iPod.

  • Soylent Green

    For my future travels, I’ll be sticking with my slim CD player and a pack of 20-30 burned CDs: compilations of the best tracks from my CD collection.

    Why not get really retro: sheet music and a mouth organ?

  • ResidentAlien

    Get one of these or something similar and a handful of SD cards. I don’t think you will findanything more robust and reliable on the market. It also acts as a card reader and thumb drive.

  • Charles

    There you go James. It’s all very simple. All you have to do is purchase one of the Ipods that will always work, instead of the Ipods that will soon fail.

  • Tex

    Why not get really retro: sheet music and a mouth organ?

    If those things were designed by the Ipod team, the mouth organ would stop working after 45 minutes and the sheet music would disintegrate at the same time

  • ThePresentOccupier

    Many of the Zen series are crippled with Windows Media DRM. Creative have been unhealthily eager to embrace DRM, IMO; I’d look at an iRiver if I wanted something unencumbered.

    That said, I use an iPod and the DRM doesn’t get in my way because a) I only use mp3s that I’ve ripped from CDs and b) you don’t actually need to stick with iTunes. There’s several replacements out there both free & paid for that will be less obnoxious than iTunes is.

  • DMcEwan

    Since you’ve already had plenty of folks comments about specific mp3 player recommendations, I’ll just make a suggestion about the non-player portion of your project.
    I currently own a Toshiba Gigabeat S30 and a Rio Carbon 5GB. Both are excellent and have been reliable, especially the Rio. Nevertheless they still have moving parts that can fail. Anyway, I have been a subscriber to the Yahoo Music Unlimited for a few years now and have slowly gotten tired of the constant syncing of the rented music. I am in the process of ripping all of my CD’s to 320kb/s mp3’s and not renewing my Yahoo Music subscription. Once I have all my CD’s ripped to mp3 I’ll be burning them to DVD’s so that I don’t have to bother with ripping them all over again should I have a hardware failure in my mp3 player or computer. I’m using the EAC program that Sam mentioned above and find it fairly easy to use once you get it configured to rip at a high bitrate.
    The music is far more important than the player that you choose so I’d suggest that a bit of time consuming torture up front will pay off in the end.
    Good luck!

  • Nigel Holland

    The Monolith is probably the sturdiest player out there, I’ve seen one survive being whacked with a lump hammer.



  • CFM

    If you use Internet Cafes, and want your own software, get a flash drive of decent capacity and put some mobile software on it. This program can record music from CDs, Internet Radio, even the microphone on the computer. There are a few more programs available if you look. You can use a little USB hub and transfer directly to the Sansa type flash players.

  • Terry Wrist

    Would be interested to have your views on the ideal backpacking partner.

  • Thanks, guys. The flash players mightn’t be a bad idea…