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MP3 Players for the Gym Geek

2006-09-21 7 min read Gadgets marco

{moszoomimglink:ifp790}So far, I have been using an iRiver iFP 790 at the gym, and it has worked pretty ok for me. Not spectacularly well, not spectacularly poorly. Its 256MB are definitely getting to be a little small; after a year or so, it’s definitely acting up: the headphone plug is noisy and doesn’t grip the jacks any more; the buttons on top (not the best placement anyway) are starting to become insensitive; and the luster on the shiny red exterior is wearing off.

Oddly enough, though, it was the software that ended up costing the little device its place as MFUG (most frequently used gadget) in my household: I had devised this cool way of changing music on it, by symlinking tracks from the rip collection into a special folder, and then rsync-ing that folder to the device. To do that, of course, I needed to be able to rsync, which means I had to be able to mount the iFP.

Well, easily done: iRiver has an UMS firmware on their site. I downloaded, installed, and synced. Only to discover that the transfer rate was Wargames-modem. It would take about two days to upload a full 256MB. I sent a request to iRiver, and they kindly replied; telling everything should be fine.


In the same email, I had asked about the iRiver Clix, their new player. Turns out that one didn’t allow for music transfer except on Windows, so I started wondering: what do you really need from a music player?

Here are my requirements. They are modeled after a guy that goes to the gym a lot, makes a living programming a computer, and still rips his CD collection instead of downloading DRM music. And yes, that’s not because DRM is evil, but because it’s implemented poorly.

So, here is the list:

  • Flash player, to avoid the skipping typical of hard drive players
  • At least 1 GB of space, preferably more
  • UMS support, to connect to Linux machines
  • Standard batteries, preferably AA or AAA (optional)


Given the requirements, I could ‘weed out’ the field relatively quickly. My first choice up until that moment, the iRiver Clix, was canned thanks to the requirement to support UMS (thanks, folks at iRiver!!).

My starting point, as usual these days, was a stop at the water cooler called Wikipedia. Category:Digital Audio Players. Currently, there are 43 pages listed, and the subcategory “Flash-Based Players”. Another good starting point was CNet’s Flash-based MP3 Player review page.

It quickly becomes clear the field is full of contenders. There are only a few companies that are serious, though:

  • Apple and their iPod line (Nano and Shuffle fit the category)
  • Creative (MuVo and Zen)
  • iRiver (Clix and iFP)
  • SanDisk (Sansa)

There are of course dozen of other vendors: Cowon, Lexar, Sony, Philips – but the market has decided in favor of the ones above, it seems, and I will for a change stick with the leaders.


Tragically, Steve Jobs just came out of the Apple World conference at the Moscone, and this time I would have wanted to be there. The new iPods are spectacular! Apple really listened to their users, and found the worst flaws of both the Nano and the Shuffle.

{moszoomimglink:shuffleonjeans}The Shuffle, known as the only geeky item in the arsenal of Apple, was too visible to be cool. It would hang from your neck and make you look worse than a pocket protector would. Now, the new marketing emphasizes the looks of it – even going as far as putting the tiny player on jeans.

The Nano, meanwhile, was plagued by problems with its surface material. This has been replaced with a new aluminum casing, which should make it much more scratch-resistant!

There are only two real downsides to the iPods:

  1. Price – much higher than comparable players
  2. Features – a lot of the standard stuff is plain missing

If you look though at the requirements, there is a lot to be said in favor of the Nano, especially: it uses UMS for file access (although files need to be registered with the iTunes database to be playable). It looks incredibly cool. It has only one major drawback: it runs on its own internal battery. Oh, and it’s the only player that comes with an 8GB option!


Creative must be in a terrible rush of anger: they had the MP3 player market all to themselves, but thanks to their own slowness and to Apple’s insight that this was a huge market, they simply lost it. From 80% share they went to… what is it? 10% now?

{moszoomimglink:CreativeMuVoTX}Still, they have a huge selection of MP3 players, and I have been a fan for quite a while. They have to main lines: MuVo, which features in some models the oddity of being separable in two parts, a battery case and a USB dongle/MP3 player, and the Vision, which is nice, but otherwise doesn’t quite satisfy our requirements. It is neither UMS compliant, nor does it offer an external battery.

Actually, the MuVo sounds like the perfect player for me. Oddly enough, I already own one – it just went down South for me, because the earphone jack went defective so easily. I guess at the old price ($400) that was a big bother. The new price (<$100) is so much less scary, it might be a good player for just second best!


If there is one company that totally disappointed me, it was iriver. A maker of nice players with unusual styling, they had come out with the most wonderful player I had seen to date: the Clix. A 2GB player that was successor of the similar 1GB U10, the Clix had a touch screen and no buttons, which would make it a much better device to watch videos than the various Nanos or Creatives.

Unfortunately, as much as I liked it, it doesn’t have UMS and will play well only with Windows Media Center. There is a library on Linux that reads and writes the protocol used in this device (MTP), but why take chances?


SanDisk is a natural candidate for flash devices, given that they are one of the largest makers of flash ram in the world. Additionally, it has surpassed Creative as the second most popular brand of MP3 players (according to the Wikipedia article – not that it really matters).

The current contender for the throne is the 8GB SanDisk Sansa e280. At $249 MSRP, it costs exactly the same as the 8GB Apple iPod, and at that price, it better be stellar… Which it seemingly is: build quality is excellent, features are great, runs in both MTP and UMS modes, the only thing going against it is the internal battery.


So, each of the companies has at least one player (Apple has two) that satisfies our needs. And it is hard to decide where to go, because each player has its advantages and disadvantages.

The only player in the roundup that satisfies all requirements is certainly the Creative MuVo TX200. It is extremely easy to plug into a Linux setup, has the required minimum capacity, and looks acceptably cool. Unfortunately, it is quite obvious that Creative is throwing all their weight behind the newer models, and this one is soon going to be obsoleted. Given the attractive price, though, it may do well as a secondary player.

The overall winner of the contest is certainly the iPod Nano. It comes with an acceptable amount of memory (8GB), has an attractive price, and has all the cool of the world – plus the ability to run Linux on it. Sometimes, it just pays off to dismiss one’s geekdom and go with the masses!