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For the downloading music-lover on your list, look to the newest MP3 players, writes ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN. They may be the closest you'll ever get to God singing in your ear
By ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN
Saturday, December 6, 2003 - Page R10
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Some of them look like disposable lighters, except that they have tiny earphones attached. Others emerge from a pocket like a slim cigarette case, except that they're stuffed with more songs than a Gitane has shreds of tobacco.
They're MP3 players, and they are the ittiest of itty-bitty music machines. Many aren't machines at all, in that they have no moving parts, and no way of absorbing anything so grossly tangible as a CD or tape cassette. They're memory modules disguised as music boxes. What they know of music is what can be stripped from a CD or downloaded from the Internet.
For some people, MP3 players represent the physical endgame of music collecting, where there's a vast stockpile of music at hand but no CD towers or groaning shelves of vinyl. In extreme cases, they also mark the end of an old reliable gift-giving strategy; what's the point of buying a CD for someone who snaffles all the tunes they want from the Web?
MP3 is the despair of the music industry. The name refers to a digital sound format originally developed for short and compact digital movies. More broadly, it means any of a number of ways of squashing tunes into relatively tiny computer files. Thanks to MP3 and its cousins, the Internet has turned into a Wild West music store, where the price of everything is free.
Until very recently, that meant that the trade in MP3 players -- the gizmos needed to listen to those five-finger bargains away from a computer -- was a bit like the trade in bong pipes. Everybody who bought and sold them knew they probably weren't going to be used for lawful recreation.
Now, of course, there are legitimate ways of fetching music from the Internet, such as the Toronto-based Puretracks service, which will sell you a legit copy of the latest single by Dido or Remy Shand for as little as 99 cents. It's possible that the guy you saw on the bus, fingering a music player no bigger than his thumb, was listening to something loaded from Puretracks, or from his own CD collection.
You don't have to be a sneak thief to own an MP3 player. Maybe you want one because you have a serious fetish for miniaturization, since even the bulkiest MP3 player is way smaller than a portable CD player. "It runs the gamut," said Roland Drake, a salesman at a Toronto Apple dealer, referring to the types of people who buy Apple's ultracool iPod machines for $439 and up. "You have professionals, you have students."
Aside from the fetishists, you probably don't have many people whose intentions are entirely honourable. Apple maintains an on-line service, the iTunes Music Store, for the 1.4 million iPod customers (fully half of the MP3-player market, according to Apple) who may want to pay for their music files, but it's not available in Canada. And iPod doesn't support the Microsoft format used by Puretracks. Anybody who walks into Drake's store with $729 to blow on a top-of-the-line 40-gigabite iPod is going to leave with a machine capable of holding 10,000 songs; which means he's probably going to fill 'er up at a no-pay site like the ones the music industry is struggling (with some success) to shut down or convert to a paying basis.
Leaving aside the question of how you get your music, hearing it with an MP3 player can be the nearest thing to having God sing into your ear as you jog through the park. The smallest players, which start at around $99 and hold upward of 60 songs, weigh almost nothing, and unlike portable CD players, they never skip. Some are built to clip onto a backpack or keychain, while others are worn like wristwatches, with a few rubbery control pads on the face. Looking at them is like that scene in all the James Bond films when 007 is shown the latest tiny doodads for giving the bad guys the slip.
But the chip-based memory on these players maxes out at around 500 songs, for which you would pay $390 at an on-line dealer such as MP3Shopping.com. At that price level, you might as well go with the bigger capacity (and admittedly larger size) of a hard-drive, jukebox device such as an iPod or a similar player from Rio or Nomad, both of which are completely compatible with Puretracks.
Aside from memory, the biggest issue for MP3 users is battery life. Makers of hard-drive players claim anything from eight to 16 hours of music when the internal battery is fully charged, although in practice the effective span may be hours less, and grows shorter as the battery ages. Apple got some nasty publicity on this score lately, when the Neistat Brothers, a pair of underground filmmakers, distributed a short video called iPod's Dirty Secret to on-line Apple-user groups. In it, the Neistats are shown putting spray-painted warnings on iPod posters while an Apple phone-support person tells one of the brothers, whose iPod battery has died after 18 months, that a replacement battery would cost almost as much as a new machine. (This may no longer be true, although Apple did not respond to a request from The Globe and Mail to set the record straight).
Chip-based players don't have that problem. Most of them use AA or AAA batteries. Some also will accept supplementary memory modules, useful for packing in more songs without deleting the old ones. If you know someone with such a player, a memory stick could be a useful gift. But beware: There are several types of memory available, and not all are compatible with every player.
A safer gift idea would be one of the e-mailable gift cards you can buy at Puretracks.com, in denominations of $10 and up. For something to fit in the stocking, Puretracks is planning to launch prepaid cards, like the phone cards sold at corner stores, through bricks-and-mortar retailers next week.
As for giftable accessories for hard-drive machines, Apple is well ahead of the pack. A candy-coloured iPod "skin" costs $40, and for $60 you can get a wireless adaptor that will let your iPod-owning friend play his or her MP3s through a home or car stereo. The coolest after-market item in the store I visited was a white retro "groove bag" -- sixties-style Carnaby Street satchel with two speaker covers on the front, and an iPod dock inside. You slip the player in, and presto -- it's a boom box.
And so the cycle turns on itself, with the machinery of music playback first shrinking down to almost nothing, then bulking up again to something big enough to haul a towel and a few summer novels to the beach. At least with the groove bag, you don't have to worry about the great undiscussed issue surrounding MP3 players: what to do when your $300 player slips into one of the millions of hiding places the world reserves for small things to run off to.