Zune vs. iPod: Peripherals

December 27, 2006

I’m not writing the Zune off nearly as quickly as most commentators, if only because I’ve seen what Microsoft is doing to Sony with the Xbox 360. Also, now that I’ve learned to work around or live unhappily with a few really annoying software glitches, I actually am enjoying the Zune more than my 4th generation iPod (if I had a fifth-generation Pod with color screen, it might be a different story). And I definitely agree with this former iPod fanatic that the Zune offers better audio quality than iPod–and this is on the exact same AAC files that I originally ripped from CD into iTunes.

But one area where Zune will have a really hard time catching up is third-party peripherals.

This Christmas is a case in point. My wife wanted a way to play music up in the baby’s room, so I bought her an iPod clock radio from iHome, and it’s one of the most thoughtful, well-designed pieces of consumer electronics equipment I’ve ever purchased. Plug an iPod into the dock and it charges while playing. The remote control controls both the iPod (to skip songs, fast forward, and so on) and the clock radio (to change the volume, switch to radio, and so on). It’s got an atomic clock with separate buttons to set the time zone and the manual minute-by-minute movement. It’s got a lighted faceplate with an intuitive dimmer switch. There’s nothing really stunning or original about it, it’s just simple, elegant, and works like you expect it to. (Shows how low my standards have gotten for consumer electronics, I guess.) 99 bucks at the Apple Store.

The other side of the coin: knowing that I’m giving my Zune a real go, my wife bought me two peripheral packs. The Car Pack with FM Transmitter, like its many iPod equivalents, lets you play your Zune through an unused frequency on your car’s FM radio. When the Zune team briefed me back in September, one of their folks bragged about the transmitter’s Autoseek function, which is supposed to automatically find the nearest blank station so you don’t have to do it manually. Let me tell the world: it doesn’t work. At all. It suggested 88.5, the local NPR station, and 107.7, an alternative station. Two of the strongest radio signals in Seattle. I finally found that 91.1 works fairly well, although all of these FM transceivers are sketchy in major urban areas with lots of radio stations.

My wife also bought me the Home A/V Pack, which is intended to let you dock your Zune (the dock has the same cool rubberized plastic finish as the device itself) and connect it to your home entertainment system, then control it with a remote. For some reason, the only cable included was an 1/8-inch (which connects to the base) to composite RCA (which connects to your home entertainment system). Fine and dandy, except I have 600 records downstairs with my real stereo and would never dream of listening to highly compressed digital audio on that system. Instead, I want to connect the dock to the small Bose in my living room, which has an 1/8 inch auxiliary input. Nope. Not supported. I had to use an iPod connector (part of a much cheaper home A/V pack I bought for the iPod a year ago), and then jam it into the base station, which was constructed specifically to accept a three-notch 1/8-inch jack instead of the standard audio-only two-notch jack. (I don’t know but am guessing that the notches correspond to the number of discrete signals transmitted. Left, right, and in the case of the A/V jack, video.) Once I got it set up, though, it did offer really nice sound through the Bose–considerably better than the iPod.

Last anecdote: my wife had to go to three stores before she found one (Car Toys) that stocked these peripherals. And the guy at Car Toys said he’d only sold one Zune, and that it had been returned the next day! Other local consumer electronics stores said they were waiting to see if it took off. And this in Microsoft’s back yard, the strongest market for Zune so far.

The point: the iPod has become a platform on which third-parties innovate. The Zune has a lot of proving to do before perhiperhal makers and retailers will give it the same level of support. Ironic given the respective history of the two companies in the personal computer space.

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Gear that sucks

January 17, 2006

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that when I used to buy electronic equipment, I could have a reasonable expectation of it lasting for a few years.

I had a cheap-o Sony CD player that lasted about 10 years, and the only reason I replaced it was because it inserted a layer of noise in certain CD-R.s (I think it was some copy-protection scheme, since it didn’t simply refuse to play, but actually added layer of static that rose and fell in volume…and the problem never appeared in other players, such as my car or Bose portable…thanks, Sony!). I have my grandparents’ 27-inch Zenith TV, it’s got to be 15 years old and having no problems. My VCR lasted about 8 years before it started eating tapes. I have a Gallien Krueger 800 RB amplifier for my bass, it’s from the early 1990s and completely bulletproof. My six-year-old desktop PC, which was put together by Hard Drives Northwest (a local whitebox manufacturer) is still running great, despite an OS upgrade, lots of software and hardware installs and uninstalls, and years without antivirus software (I run Firefox and the free level of AdAware for spyware, and scan monthly using the free Trend Micro scanner…the whole AV industry’s a well-orchestrated scam, but that’s another topic).

But most of the stuff I’ve gotten lately has sucked.

1. iPod sucks. I got a 20GB fourth-gen iPod for my birthday in October 2004. One year later, the hard drive is dying–it often lags and has totally frozen a couple of times. I took it into my local Apple store “Genius Bar” and the condescending pretentious long-haired jerk tried to reinstall the system software, failed, and told me “we’ll give you 10% off on a new one.” (I managed to save it that time by reinstalling the software at home, but it’s failing again.)

Wait a second—my (overly generous) parents paid $299 for a cute package containing a hard drive, audio digital signal processor, two-color LCD, and headphones. And it lasted just over one year. Piece of junk.

(Aside: this is the main reason why I’ll never buy another Mac, even though the software’s usually better than its Windows equivalent. Faulty hardware that’s completely non-serviceable. I once had a Classic II whose hard drive died after a few years. Irreplaceable—you need special tools just to get the damn thing open. Apple’s the king of planned obsolescence.)

2. Notebook PCs (still) suck. I should have known better–I’ve been telling people for years that laptop PCs are unreliable, then I have to go and drop four grand on one.

I had been thinking about getting into some multitrack hard drive recording. At the same time, I had simpler needs, like being able to work anywhere in the house and wanting to record my record collection digitally. This required a notebook.

I mulled getting a Powerbook, but they say the G4s aren’t quite up to snuff for serious recording. I thought about an Alienware, but was worried that the company wouldn’t be in business through the life of the warranty, so finally made the safe choice and bought a Dell with a four-year support contract. This is a top of the line machine, the XPS Gen 2, built for gamers. I added a notebook soundcard to go with it, figuring I could start by converting my records. If that worked, I would consider getting a breakout soundcard with FireWire connection, which you need for multitrack recording.

Long story short, every time I jostle the computer or touch the soundcard, or so much as breathe on any part of it while an audio file’s being recorded (that is, if it’s in memory and hasn’t been saved to the hard drive), it bluescreens. Total memory dump, forced restart. The help screen says it’s a driver problem (surprise). I downloaded updated drivers for the soundcard. Problem not fixed. Dell support was completely unhelpful, and frankly I’d rather reboot and suffer than send it back to them since I know the problem arises from non-standard hardware (the soundcard) on a slapped-together system. Yes, even a four-grand notebook from Dell is still a just-in-time mass-produced piece of equipment.

What’s the point of having a mobile recording system if it’s not mobile? Needless to say, I won’t be using it for recording…although I don’t want to buy a Mac either given my experience with Apple. Sigh.

3. Xbox 360 sucks. I’m lucky. I got a free Xbox 360 through work for evaluation purposes. Free games too, including Project Gotham Racing 3, and a free one-year Live subscription. Lucky me.

The games look absolutely beautiful, even on a standard definition 15-year-old 27-inch Zenith. The Live experience is addictive and reasonably easy to set up (although there’s some poor documentation about connecting it to a WEP-enabled wireless network).

Unfortunately, the early stories are true: the box itself is a piece of junk. I got about 10 hours of gameplay, and maybe about six hours of DVD playback before it started failing. Now, I can play a game for about 10 minutes before it blackscreens. Or I can watch a DVD for about 20 minutes before it blackscreens. Xbox support was, unsurprisingly, completely useless (“have you cleaned the connectors?”).

The really sad part is they had previously sent me another unit, but asked me to send it back because they anticipated it would have problems connecting to Xbox Live. In other words, I am 2 for 2 in terms of defective 360 units. And they haven’t bothered to replace the second one yet–I guess the launch is over, I’m done writing my articles and being quoted in the press, so they suddenly have no use for me.

I not only sympathize with the guy who’s suing Microsoft–if I’d spent $600 on all this, I’d be incredibly angry–but I think he might have a case. Why has Microsoft pulled back on their initial sales expectations? Because they can’t ramp up production as quickly as they thought they could. Why’s that? Surely they estimated demand and planned sufficient manufacturing capacity before the launch, didn’t they?

Of course they did. But I bet they’ve uncovered a severe defect in one of the components, or in the way the boxes are designed, and they’re having to do a major reset. (Sound familiar?)

4. GK (now) sucks. For a while I was in three bands, each with its own practice space. Since not all of those bands had bass gear for me to borrow, I needed a small mobile amp for practicing. One of my bandmates had been allowing me to use her GK combo amp and it sounded great, and I love my old GK head, so I bought a GK Backline 110 for a couple hundred bucks. 70 watts, 10-inch speaker, weighs about 15 pounds. Just a little practice amp. Much easier than hauling around a 90-pound speaker.

I played it literally four times before it totally failed. When I took it in to the warranty repair shop, the guy shook his head. “We see these all the time. You know, the old ones used to be really good, but in the last couple years they’ve gone way down in quality.”