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Music goes miniature

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The iPod has been the standard in portable music for so long, many assume it is the only option for MP3 files, especially in the miniature shuffle format. But serious rivals are emerging, as ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK discovered when he tried the Sansa Clip+, not to mention a few other tiny alternatives.

Around ten years ago, 21-year-old Tony Fadell took a new business idea to the company that was then the giant of digital music: RealNetworks. They turned him down flat, so he took the idea to Apple. They jumped at it. Within a few months, that idea became the iPod, the world’s most successful player of digital music files known as MP3s.

A British inventor, Kane Kramer, gets the credit for coming up with the technical concept two decades earlier, and for developing the first MP3 player, but it was Fadell’s business model for the iPod that saw it become one of the fastest-selling consumer technology products in history ‚ around 300-million have been sold to date.

But as much as its users love their iPods, their love comes at a price. It ties them to iTunes, one of the most frustrating pieces of software ever to bedevil loyal users of a product. Clunky, unfriendly and bulky, it invades your music collection like a virus, and renders it near unmanageable through anything but iTunes. We live with it because we love our iPods.

We have played by the iTunes rules because the iPod was the only game in town. In its smallest format, the iPod Shuffle, we could clip it neatly onto wrist- or arm-bands to accompany us while jogging or cycling. For that, we could live with the maddening limitations.

Now, however, the Shuffle has met its match.

The most delightful alternative to appear for a long time is the Sandisk Sansa Clip+, a tiny MP3 player about the size of a Shuffle but with three giant-sized advantages:

* it has a screen that allows the user to scroll through the playlist and select specific songs (you need a Nano or full-sized unit to do the same with an iPod):

* it has a slot for micro-SD cards that allow you to add up to 32GB to the built-in storage capacity that ranges from 2GB to 8GB (the Shuffle has a maximum 2GB capacity, for around 500 songs, although some older models offer up to 4GB):

* and when you connect it to a computer, you can copy any music track directly from your computer onto the device without intermediary software.

For specialist users, there are even more charming alternatives to the iPod. Swimmers, for example, can use a Shuffle-like device called the FINIS SwiMP3 v2, a waterproof MP3 player that doesn’t need headphones. It transfers sound through bone induction, getting round the technical barriers that bedevil sound quality in aquatic headphones.

At the other extreme, mountain-climbers could do worse than the ZA 502 Xtreme Sport, a shockproof mini MP3 player with rubberised casing. It has a 1GB capacity, built-in FM radio and even voice recording. Astonishingly, for a cutting edge gadget, it was developed by a South African company, Zartek. Like the iPod, it is built in the Far East.

Getting back to Tony Fadell for a moment: before he took the iPod idea to apple, he also presented it to Phillips. They, too, turned him away. It took them almost a decade to recover from that blunder, but here they are, with the GoGear RaGa, an 8GB mini MP3 player which, like the Sansa Clip+, sports a tiny screen for scrolling through your music. Its local price and availability counts against it, but it proves that even old dinosaurs can learn from their mistakes.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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If you read Kane Kramer’s granted Patent’s you will see it was Kramer’s business model of combining a music download store and digital player not Tony Fidell, even Apple agree’s.

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