Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Save the iPod!

I’ve been living in the cloud the past few weeks, although not this new-age cloud of streaming music and movie files. The cloud of non-Apple devices and the unbelievable amount of nonsense you need to put up with occasionally to make the devices work properly.

It’s been a few years – I’ve forgotten. And I do have non-Apple devices that work well. The laptop I’m typing this on, for instance. And the Kindle I bought last fall – a fantastic device that works as advertised. But I’m thinking more portable MP3 devices.

For years, I denied the pull of iPods. To me, they seemed like frilly little things people bought purely as accessories to demonstrate how “cool” they were. For most people, they are just that, to this day. Most models don’t hold a lot of music, and the people who carry them don’t have or know a lot of music to put on the device. Therefore, the concept of an iPod with a 32GB capacity seems like a limitless sea of possibilities that they will never fill up.

For me, 32 GB is a bump in the road. Before iPods, I used Creative Nomad Zen players. Had to – at the time, they were the only game in town for larger players, and I first bought a 30 GB player, and then a 60 GB player which, at the time, seemed like a huge field to play on. And so it was, but because it was so big, I figured, time to really dig down in my collection and start putting on music that I know I want to have with me at all times. Hardly entire album and artist collections. But if you’re talking about bands like The Beatles, Kinks or Rolling Stones, there are hundreds of tracks that apply for each bands. I didn’t go wild – I rationally asked myself, now that I have a bigger playing field, what songs do I want immediate access to at all times.

And I kept on with my Emusic account, often taking out monthly booster packs to add extra tracks when I stumbled on an artist who had an intriguing catalog that I wanted to flesh out. And friends, as they do, kept on sending me DVD-Rs and flash drives with enormous amounts of music on them, thousands of songs … which I’d sort through and find what I wanted. And that golden age of blogs and websites that had rare and out-of-print albums on them as RAR files … an age which seems to be passing now with the crackdown on copyright infringement. (I have no problem pulling down music from websites that’s either hard-to-find, absurdly import priced or out of print … not to mention a vast ocean of live and demo material that I used to pay top dollar for at small mom-and-pop record stores that quietly sold this stuff as bootlegs.)

It didn’t take me long to push the limits of 60 GB. I came to a point where I had to start deleting music from the Creative Nomad player because there was no more space, which pissed me off, but what choice did I have? And a few months after that, Apple rolled out it’s 160 GB iPod Classic. Which blew the Creative Nomad (and every other portable device) out of the water with nearly 100 more GB of space. As much as I didn’t want to give my money to Apple and be mistaken for just another hipster with those telltale white earbuds, what choice did I have?

And buying that player was a revelation. It showed me a few things about Apple. The most obvious thing was they charged too much for their product, reason number one why I was never a fan. But they also showed me that while they get away with this, they also put out superior product. Simply stated, the 160 GB iPod Classic was and is the best MP3 player ever made for music lovers. Enough room to roam, the design is such that the player is no larger than half a deck of cards, the battery life is astounding, and iTunes, once you get used to it, is fairly easy to use and convenient. (I know the number of people out there who despise iTunes as a media player is legion, but aside from one glitch a few years ago where an upgrade messed with my files tags, I’ve had zero problems with the software.)

This device has been everything I ever wanted in a portable music player. And so I took the time to re-tag all my files to fit into this new format and started down the iPod road. I’ve gone hog wild in the past few years in terms of branching out into other forms of music. Celtic. African. Brazilian. A smattering of Asian and Indian. Jazz. Classical. I’ve always been curious about these kinds of music, so why not delve in, now that we’re in the digital age, I can sample everything before I buy it, and roam around fairly easily, building good-sized sampling of any genre in a fraction of the time it used to take. Owning this iPod made that not just possible, but somehow pushed me outward to find these things, since I had such a large space to use.

I’ve been on it for five years now with this player, but now find myself coming up on only 10 GB of space left on the player. And now that Apple is doing one of its usual “fuck you, we don’t care what you want, we’re going to tell you what you want, and then we’re going to tell everyone this is the future we must all live in” marketing campaigns for “the cloud” … it seems very unlikely that they’re ever going to put out a new model MP3 player with a larger drive than the 160 GB iPod Classic. In their eyes, it won’t be necessary … we have “the cloud” … there’s no need to store anything anymore.

Well, I know enough about computers to know what bullshit this is. The world, or at least America, is not yet ready for portable device streaming, and may not be for a very long time to come. For one thing, there are data caps in place on most cellphones that crap out after 2.5 GB of monthly data usage. I know … the past few months, my internet use at home has been determined solely by a Virgin Mobile flash-drive 3G modem that I spend $50/month on to get “unlimited” data (which slows to a crawl after 2.5 GB … and is already achingly slow as-is when compared to cable or DSL). I’ve learned not to watch video on the computer with this thing – if I do, I easily reach 2.5 GB of data usage inside a week or two. As it is, I push the limit of usage every month just sampling and downloading from my monthly Emusic account. I don’t even stream music – I can’t. The stream breaks up constantly. When I sample a 30-second piece of music on Emusic to see if I want to buy the track, invariably, the stream will stop somewhere in that 30 seconds, usually somewhere around the 15-second mark.

Using this flash-drive modem been an education on “streaming” and “the future” as it replicates what someone would experience using a phone to “stream media in the cloud.” It sucks. Until folks like AT&T and Verizon decide that we all have unlimited data usage for any plan we choose, streaming on a portable device is not an option. Sounds like a no-brainer? I don’t see it happening. I think AT&T now has a truly unlimited data plan for $80/month … but do you want to pay $80/month for only one device on top of your normal monthly home cable/DSL charges? And that one device is your phone. If you really love music … do you want to listen to music only on your smart phone? With a stream that most likely has lesser sound quality than the MP3s you listen to and, I don’t care what anyone else tells you, will crap out routinely, like when you go underground for any reason (a constant with most New Yorkers and the subway) or enter any kind of situation where streaming signals grow hazy (being out in the country, on open highways, in office buildings, etc.)?

No. The “cloud” is cool for people who don’t have a lot at stake musically. Who look at 32 Gigs of space as a vast sea of space for their music. For those of us who blew by 32 Gigs as an after-thought, streaming is not an option. I’d gather most of us in this boat understand implicitly, there is no substitute for having music you’ve acquired, there in actual files, in the palm of your hand, not being streamed to your device as a monthly rental. I’ve tried a service like Spotify, one of the larger new streaming music sites. It’s fantastic … for the home computer. I can sample albums in their entirety, even put on whole albums and just let them play … on the home computer, with cable. But I would sure hate to try using that on a device. Forget about the monthly data caps that would be reached in a week or two – just knowing the stream would stop and garble routinely in the NYC living area, and drop out completely for the half hour I spend each day on the way to and from work in Manhattan is enough to put me off.

So, faced with this “future” of streaming I recognize as a hard sell to people who don’t really like or care about music (as I’ve stated in the past, that constitutes a massive portion of the audience the music industry pays total attention to for their teenage lifespan, while basically ignoring everyone else), it just doesn’t wash with people who love music. In theory, it should. But theory doesn’t recognize the reality of data caps and satellite signals that grow hazy the farther you get from populated areas … which could be just as easy as hitting any interstate near any major city and driving no more than few miles into the countryside. Or taking a subway train. Or being in an office in any metropolitan area where cellphone service is bad to non-existent.

So what do I do? I do the next best thing. There’s one other device out there that trumps the 160 GB iPod Classic in terms of drive space: the Archos 48 Internet tablet, with a whopping 500 GB hard drive. Not sure why they call it a tablet – it’s larger than an iPod, but I can still fit it into my shirt pocket. It feels like a monster next to the iPod, which I attribute, again, to the brilliance of the design team at Apple. I bought one of these a few weeks ago, for $200, considerably less than the iPod Classic. And I was thinking, “I hate to abandon the iPod (and won’t for at least the rest of the year or so), but I’m being left no choice as someone with a large music collection who wants to go on listening and branching out … as anyone who loves music is supposed to do over the course of his life.”

And that’s the cloud I’ve been living in the past few weeks … trying to get this god-damned Archos player up to snuff. It’s been an enormous pain in the ass. Just finding the right software/media player to act as a solid transfer point to the device was a problem. (iTunes is a completely closed system that will not transfer to any non-Apple device.) I finally stumbled on Media Monkey, which I actually like more than iTunes as a media player, and respect a great deal as it pulled all the songs from my iTunes library and had a very good percentage of tagging everything properly. (I’d say about 300 tracks didn’t work out right and had to be re-tagged, but that’s not bad considering there were over 24,500 all together.) Unlike iTunes, it can mimic iTunes itself, and then allow the user to transfer the files from Media Monkey onto any non-Apple player.

Which is what I’ve been doing the past two weeks. I’ve learned a serious lesson in data transfers that you had better dot every “i” when doing something this large, as getting anything wrong will require you to scrub/erase the data and start all over again … which I’ve done three times between Media Monkey and the Archos player. The auto-synch also takes forever. When I auto-synch from the iTunes library to the iPod, it takes literally seconds. This things takes 20 minutes just to read the files, and then an indeterminate amount of time to dis-mount the player. I’m doing this process right now, for instance, since my last data transfer was mostly successful, but neglected to copy my dozens of playlists. I’ve been sitting here over 45 minutes waiting for the auto-synch to end and may well just get frustrated and un-plug the device from the USB port. It shouldn’t take this long to synch up a player that already has all the tracks on it.

Just one of more than a few issues I’ve had, and it’s made me realize Archos puts out a pretty choppy product. Unfortunately for now, the only product larger than the 160 GB iPod. I do like the device, but the amount of shit I’ve had to go through is not worth it. And don’t get me started on the anti-Apple tech heads who over-populate the online forums for Media Monkey and Archos. When you have to run scripts, and get into your computer registry, and write code, and make sure every minute aspect of a transfer is perfect, and run de-bugging programs, and download firmware … then you’ve just demonstrated why Apple is so popular beyond the hipster quotient. You just plug the fucking thing in, and it works. That’s hard to beat, and that’s what all these tech heads aren’t getting. Nobody, save tech heads, wants to spend hours trying to figure these things out and jump through burning hoops just to make the device work normally. It just underlines a level of quality a notch or two below what most people come to expect as standard operational procedure for any Apple product.

Can we save the iPod? I hope so, but I just don’t see it happening in the current climate of cloud hype. The Apple folks seem dead-set on driving their point home that we must all acquiesce to the cloud and their version of the future … when they’ve made a device that is just sheer perfection in terms of listening to portable music. And they should be building these things with larger drives, and switching to flash drives and putting them in the devices as flash drives grow larger and cheaper over the next few years. Doesn’t even have to be iPod Classic. I’d assume they could move forward with iPod Touches since they have larger viewing screens and people could watch movies and videos on them. The key for me is room to grow, and if I had a 320 GB device, or even a 240 GB Apple portable device, it would take me a long, long time to fill it up. It took me five years to fill up a 160 GB device that automatically had 60 GB on it, and you can throw down about another 20 GB when I went into my CD collection and went hog-wild in terms of throwing everything I wanted on the player. A device with twice the size hard drive would take me another decade to fill up, at least.

But I know this is all idle chatter. Everyone in my shoes does this – speaks it out loud, or writes it on the web, and thinks wishing publicly like this will make it so. In the mean time, I’ll face reality and wrestle with the frumpy, tank-like, pain-in-the-ass Archos player. It may be royally pissing me off, but it’s my only hope for the future right now.

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