From today, I’ll be contributing a new weekly column to the site every Tuesday afternoon about digital music. We’re calling it Noise Gate – which refers to an electronic device that cuts through the noise and crackle of an analog signal and delivers you a noise-free result. In the same way, I want to cut through all the crap surrounding digital music, mainly delivered by major labels and tech companies, and deliver you the pure, unadulterated facts. Think you can handle them?
Today, I’m going to be talking about Wi-Fi on MP3 players. An increasing number of models have it, including the iPhone, the Zune, and the Creative Zen X-Fi. But is it actually useful? Or is it just a gimmick? I’ve taken a close look at each device and how it uses its Wi-Fi chip. Click through the jump to see what I thought.
You might call the Zune the pioneer of wireless on MP3 players – the original Zune 30 had wireless on board right from the start, when it was released in 2007. Using that wireless connection has always been crucial to the Zune’s functionality, and each update has seen the Zune’s bag of tricks grow bigger and bigger.
The most well-known of the Zune’s wireless features is the Zune-to-Zune transfer. *hushed Bellamy tones* It’s a rare occasion, but if a Zune owner encounters another in the wild, then the two creatures may mate. The offspring will be stunted and almost unrecognisable as a media file. It’ll be drenched in DRM restrictions, and can only be played three times before it sadly passes away. The Zune team unhelpfully call this process “squirting”. “Yuck” is all I can say to that.
But since the Zune was released, considerably greater functionality has been enabled over time by the developers as the major labels grow more comfortable with digital music. Late last year, coinciding with the release of the second-generation Zune, the ability to sync wirelessly with a computer was enabled. This means that when the Zune detects its home network, it will automatically scan for new media files and add them over-the-air.
Even better, in the most recent patch, the Zune gained the functionality to browse the Zune Marketplace on the device. When you’re listening to the radio, you can “tag” songs and download them immediately if you’re in Wi-Fi range and you have a Zune pass subscription, or later if you’re not in a Wi-Fi zone.
Overall, I think the Zune uses its wireless chip exceptionally well. It lacks some of the more advanced social features seen on the Creative Zen X-Fi, but I strongly doubt you’d miss them. I know I never haven’t. Of course to get the best Zune experience, you need to shell out US$15 a month for a Zune Pass subscription.
The iPod Touch is more than just an MP3 player, if you’re in a wireless area. It’s got a full on web browser, as well as email, messenger, and all sorts of other web-connected services. It can also access Apple’s music store, so you can get songs on the move. The iPhone is even better – it can access these things even when outside of a Wi-Fi zone, thanks to its 3G connection.
However, the iPod Touch and the iPhone are locked up tight. They promise so much – I had the vision of using an iPod Touch as a portable aggregator for music blogs, downloading and sampling new bands. That would be amazing, and so useful as a way to listen to new music on the move, But then I found out that Apple don’t let you download MP3s or any other digital media files using the browser on the device. I haven’t been so disappointed since I found out that the Pope wasn’t real – he was just my dad in a golf cart.
It gets worse – if Apple don’t like the application that you want, then you won’t be able to get it. In several cases, Apple have removed applications without warning that 3rd party developers have created. “But!”, you cry, “You can’t even get applications on other devices!” That’s true, but personally speaking I’d rather have a device where I know its limits when I buy it, rather than one which is subject to the whims of a technology company at a later date.
The iPod Touch and the iPhone are more than just MP3 players – they’re personal organizers. They’re a platform in their own right, particularly the iPhone. If you’re happy to pay an 18 month contract for that, and be subject to Apple’s notoriously finicky whims, then it comes recommended. If you’re looking for something that’ll take advantage of wireless technology but that’s a bit more focused on actually playing music, then my advice would be to look elsewhere.
Creative Zen X-Fi
The X-Fi’s an interesting one. It can access a central media server in a network, which initially sounds really useful, but then you realize that there are very few situations that would involve you being within range of your home network, but still needing to listen on headphones. Perhaps doing some gardening, or late at night without wanting to wake people, but it seems a bit of a niche idea.
There’s also a very basic social network. You can define “friends” and a profile, and chat to them through the device itself. You can also create a profile and define an avatar. As you can imagine, without a keypad of any sort it’s very fiddly.
Most bizarrely though, there’s no actual application for any of these features. It would have been fantastic to be able to send songs or recommendations to your friends – eg “I think you’d really like this track…” complete with a 30 second clip. Nope. You can either type it in yourself, with no preview, or there’s nothing at all. Bit of a missed opportunity, I think.
Lastly, no discussion of Wi-Fi on MP3 players would be complete without some mention of smartphones. Many of these all-in-one devices have got Wi-Fi on, and many have MP3 players built in. It only seems fair to dedicate a couple of paragraphs to them.
Well, much of what I said about the iPhone applies – you’re getting a device that isn’t focused on music, but has it tacked on as a bonus. Almost all phones, including most notably the Sony Walkman ones, don’t come with a 3.5″ headphone jack, which will make listening to your tracks significantly more difficult. Even the ones that do, the N95 for example, sound awful using the built-in MP3 player functionality.
Almost none have any specific music-wireless functionality. I can’t think of a single one, in fact, beyond basic access to music stores. Nokia’s forthcoming “Comes with Music” service promises much, but all your downloaded songs will be tied to a particular handset. How do you feel about losing your music collection when you upgrade? Not too happy, I’d imagine.
The trap that I think both Creative and Apple fall into, when adding Wi-Fi to their MP3 players, is that they haven’t used it for music. Sure, there are some music applications that use the Wi-Fi connection, but neither have focused on music as the end result. There’s social networks and messengers and internet browsers and all sorts, but none of it relates to music.
The Zune team, on the other hand, know that music is absolutely crucial to their device. Until very recently, there was zero functionality on their device that isn’t dedicated to viewing, or sharing, media files. Now they’ve added some pointless games, but even with those, you can listen to music tracks while you’re playing them. The Zune guys know that music is what you buy an MP3 player for, more than anything else, and until they’ve got the music experience perfect, they won’t make it do anything else.
Minus points for Creative – there’s very little useful WiFi functionality on the device, beyond chatting to people from your bed. If you want to do that, just get a Wi-Fi smartphone and download Fring. Or just phone them. Creative need to try a lot harder to make their UI less complex and focus in on what they want their MP3 players to do.
Big up to Apple for allowing external applications to run on their devices. As long as you play by their (relatively stringent) rules, and don’t try and enhance Apple’s existing applications, then you get a multimedia platform beyond all others, combined with one of the best user interfaces you’ll find on a portable device.
But for me, the biggest downside to the iPhone, or any mobile phone music solution, is that very occasionally you’ll be walking along, absolutely lost in your favourite song, walking to the beat, with everything around you syncing with the music. You feel like you’re about to take off, or explode with happiness, as the prechorus builds and builds. But then, suddenly, jarringly, just as the final epic chorus is about to kick in, just as you’re about to have a happy accident in your pants, the music stops, replaced with an awful ringtone. Your mum’s calling you.