Sunday, August 30, 2009

The ideal portable media player

After the overwhelming response to my Goodbye Apple blog post, I have compiled a list of criteria I would like to see in a portable music player:

Linux compatibility


This is a deal-breaker for me, as I only use Ubuntu. The next mp3 player should be manageable from a Ubuntu desktop. In order of preference:

  • Manufacturer lists Linux support or compatibility on the box
  • Manufacturer lists Linux support or compatibility on their website
  • Device is known to work with Linux

Of course, I would also need to be able to update the device's firmware, but this isn't a must. I can probably find someone with a Windows box to do a one-time firmware update.

Video support

I spend a lot of time in airports and planes. This is where I use my player the most. I like watching videos and movies while on the move. I want at least a 2.5 inch screen, but it still needs to be light and small enough to fit in my shirt pocket. It's what I had on my 5G iPod Video, and it's the minimum I would tolerate.

Video conversion should be easy, and should not require Windows-only software. I should be able to encode video from DVDs I own, and from video podcasts I download from the Internet.

Bonus points if the manufacturer gives some example ffmpeg or mencoder command-lines in a wiki somewhere, or submits presets for their device to encoding software such as Handbrake.

Podcast support

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Since a lot of podcasts are available encoded in mp3 format, most people think they work on any mp3 player. Fact is, I want the player to be able to recognize podcasts and apply special logic to them the way iPods do. They need to:

  • Have a “completed” flag to be able to easily spot the ones I've listened to already
  • Automatically resume from where they were left off (without having to manually set a “bookmark”)
  • Be in a separate list from regular music files

The most important criteria for me is the automatic resume one, and is the one most media players are lacking. I don't enjoy losing my place in a podcast when I get interrupted, or want to listen to some music. Trying to locate where you were in an hour-long podcast with a fast-forward button is painful.

Standard USB port

I want a media player with a standard mini or micro USB port for syncing and charging. I hate having to spend extra on spare proprietary cables. I hate having to lug ten different proprietary cables in my laptop bag when I travel. And most of all: I hate forgetting the proprietary cable at home when I leave on a trip. Even though the iPod has a proprietary connector, at least you can purchase a spare cable pretty much anywhere.

Of course, most devices come with proprietary ports because a standard USB port can't offer all the extra features that a portable media device needs, such as TV Out, Audio Out, Line in, etc. How about this for an idea, folks: USB for syncing/charging, and proprietary port for all the rest.

User-friendly interface

My dad came over the other day with a cheap no-name 3rd generation iPod Nano knockoff he bought at an electronics store. He was raving about how inexpensive it was.

The user interface was the most horrible thing I have ever encountered. It was so complicated to simply get a song to play that I would have paid double the price difference to never see it again.

On-demand playlist support

Although this isn't something that's absolutely necessary, I really enjoy listening to music while creating a playlist on the device itself.


Adequate volume


The volume needs to be loud enough to listen to music and movies while on a plane. My Sony PSP isn't loud enough for me to listen to movies on a plane.

Open multimedia format support

It would be great if the device supported open multimedia formats and codecs, such as Ogg, FLAC and Theora.


Well, that's all I can think of for now. Based on recommendations in my blog comments, I have purchased a Cowon S9. Also, I have received a Creative Zen MX, and will be receiving a Sansa Fuse shortly. In the coming weeks, I'll be reviewing each of these (and maybe others) to try and find the ideal portable media player for Linux users.

10 comments:

David Ron said...

I think that anything running Android should fit the bill.

JM said...

Well, when I saw the first paragraph of your post I thought "Ah, Sansa Fuze", which I've had great compatibility with in Ubuntu, but the Windows only video conversion software (nobody's come up with a workaround for that yet) would be a dealbreaker. I use it for audio only, because I usually have my netbook along with a slew of movies on it.

But on to recommendations. I've heard the Cownon O2 is pretty reasonably priced, high capacity (also has an SDHC slot), large screen (not terrific but acceptable resolution) and not too picky about file formats. Don't own one myself, but I have a couple of friends on the 'net that do and they are reasonably happy with them (both Linux users). When it first came out I heard quite a few complaints, but there have been several firmware updates since launch (Cowon's always pretty good about that) and I think the initial issues have largely been fixed. As one reviewer put it "it will play your most rebellious file formats". According to specs it supports AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, OGM, MPG/MPEG, DAT, MTV, MPEG1 Layer 1/2/3, WMA, AC3, OGG Vorbis, AAC, FLAC, BSAC, True Audio, WavPack, G.726, and PCM. Also uses a standard mini-usb port. Another little goodie is the Linux SDK they have available for download if you wanted to try your hand at making some apps for the device. Downside may be that playlist support isn't that great, but might still be worth a look.

Good luck with your search!

crashsystems said...

Another vote for Android. I'm loving my G1 with a 16GB micro-SD card I bought for $50. Seeing as newer Androids are out, you'll probably want to go with one of those.

As far as video goes, I've found that HandBrake on Ubuntu does nicely. The "iPod" preset for video conversion works great for any Android phone.

Erigami said...

I've had a terrible time with Creatives. I use a Zen right now, but the damn thing freezes once or twice a week (I now carry a paper clip in my wallet so that I can reset it). After the latest firmware upgrade from Creative, it now crashes whenever I try to copy stuff onto it with Amarok.

My girlfriend's Creative used to crash fairly often, and its battery died after a little over a year of ownership.

In my experience, Creative is crap. It's too bad, because the Zen has a nice form factor and decent hardware.

ff said...

Android is great, but I find their mp3 player so so ... don't like the differents available.

A lot of mp3 player can have their firmware replaced by rockbox, an opensource firmware... check it out

finally, Archos has some linux mp3/video players

crashsystems said...

Great thing about Android is that you can replace the default software. I agree about the default MP3 player. Just browse the market for an alternative.

Giancarlo Bianchi said...

I own a Meizu MiniPlayer SL, that supports flac too. Movies need to be reencoded to be played (you need ffmpeg/mencoder and a little script I wrote to ease the process).
Quality is really good, it's slim and batteries last a lot of time. The UI is not the best I've ever seen, but everything can be done from a Linux box, even upgrading the firmware. Cable is standard mini-USB->USB, and an adapter for wall charger is supplied.

ff said...

crashsystems said...
Just browse the market for an alternative. tried most of what's available

I did that. My problem, is I want something simple that can play the content of a directory, normal order or shuffled, and maybe m3u playlists. at the moment all the mp3 players scan all the memories and add everything. including the auto recorded phone conversations... not cool! I don't care to have the lyrics or album arts auto DLed for me. I feel all the android player want to do too much but do none of the basics well. plus the need to convert USB to jack is a pain.

Even though I love my android phone, and it is a fantastic phone/pocket computer, I would not recommend it as an ideal player for now (and it still lacks true video support)

Odysseus F said...

check out http://isitopen.eu.org. Its still very early alpha but its purpose is to help people find things like this

rmjb said...

Hey, what was the outcome of your research? I'm in a similar boat and would love a new player that supports podcasts like you described.