What I want from a portable audio device

It’s kind of annoying when the market comes close but doesn’t quite give you what you want.

I want an MP3 player that I can listen to podcasts on. Poking around in forums and reviews for suggestions on what might be suitable, it seems that the typical response is “Podcasts are just MP3s aren’t they? Anything can play those!” Which is true, but kind of unhelpful.

MP3 players on the market present a user experience for people who want to listen to music. Listening to music is a subtly different thing. You organize by artist and album, for one. You want really good sound quality and features like gapless playback. You make playlists so you can listen to different types of music for different types of activities or moods. All these things that are great for music are either useless for listening to podcasts or they actively get in the way.

I want

  • to be able to find podcasts easily so I can pick what I’m listening to.
  • my player to keep track of whether I’ve listened to something.

The biggest problem for me, I think, is that the iPod actually does a very good job of both those things. Aside from maybe the Zune (I haven’t tried), it seems to be the only player out there that does. My problem is I want all of that, but I don’t particularly want all the other nonsense that comes along with using an iPod. Namely iTunes.

There’s extra stuff that iPods don’t give me. I also want

  • to be able to play Ogg/Vorbis files.
  • to have an expansion slot for more storage.
  • to be able to swap out the battery.
  • a player that syncs up podcasts over WiFi. Or maybe bluetooth.
  • my player to similarly handle other audio files that are kind of like podcasts but didn’t originate from RSS feeds.
  • a non-proprietary USB cable.
  • my player to work nicely on Ubuntu.

So I’m pretty much screwed. Some things come close. iPods come close, sadly. I never had a chance to try syncing mine up on Linux to see how that worked (there are tools to do it). I’d lose Ogg, the battery, the expansion and syncing over wifi (the iPod touch has wifi, but you can’t download podcasts that way. And it’s obscenely expensive). But I’m going to have to make some sort of compromise anyway.

The Zune does wifi podcast downloads. Maybe it has a decent interface for them. It will never, ever be able to get it to work on Linux. And I’m not buying the damn thing if it means giving money to Universal Music Group. That’s a deal breaker. I’m never going to use this thing for music. Especially Universal’s music. They can just fuck off.

Other players look good, but compromise the basic podcast stuff. The iRiver clix2, the Creative Zen, the Cowon D2… If I can find a player that actually runs rockbox, while the interface isn’t so great, it’s open source. So maybe I can make what I want.

In the interest of science, I think I might pick up a few different players to try them. I’ve decided that this is actually important enough for me that I don’t mind wasting investing some extra money in it.

RCA Lyra 1020

My sister got a new iPod for Christmas, so she didn’t need her old MP3 player anymore. She gave it to me. She was having trouble getting music to work on it anyway. She couldn’t tell me why, but I can usually figure these things out.

[The RCA Lyra RD1020] It was an RCA Lyra 1020, vintage 2002 or so. The nice thing about it is, even though it’s only got 128MB of flash storage, it takes SD cards, and SD cards are dirt cheap. I’ve got a 2GB one lying around the house I’m not doing much with. I have no problem picking up more.

It’s a mass storage device too. I just have to plug it into a computer and drag files onto it. Supposedly it came with an old version of MusicMatch Jukebox, (now known as Yahoo! Music Jukebox), but I didn’t care about that. For one thing, I’m running Linux. For another, I’m not downloading anybody’s POS music management software just because they tell me to. Ever. I’ve tolerated iTunes with the iPod because it works rather well for podcasts. That doesn’t mean I ever liked it.

Anyway, as I said, this thing looked like it would be really great to use in lieu of my lost iPod, since I could plug it into Linux with a standard MP3 cable, or copy MP3 files directly onto an SD card and play them on this little device. Handy!

Except, of course, it wasn’t that easy.

You see, this is an MP3 player that doesn’t actually play MP3 files. It plays “.mpy” files. I don’t even know what an .mpy file is. The MusicMatch software it originally came with had a conversion plug-in so you could transcode MP3 files before uploading them. Apparently this was some lame-ass attempt to keep people from transferring MP3s between computers with this device. You know, because apparently it’s hardware manufacturers’ responsibility to make piracy difficult by making their hardware as inexplicably crippled as possible.

And I’m guessing that’s why my sister had a hard time getting this thing to play music. She got a new computer last year, and I guess she never thought to dust off the old CD she got with the Lyra and use it to copy music over. Which makes sense to me, since it’s so much easier to just drag and drop.

If this little bit of technological garbage has any saving grace at all, it is that it plays WMA files unmolested. However, I have no use for WMA files and I’d rather not have to go to the hassle of coming up with some way of converting podcasts before copying them over. So this little piece of crap is probably going to collect dust in a box somewhere until I get around to throwing it out.