- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Digital music is getting better and better. I can’t imagine a better time in which to live.

To those worried about financial markets, that might seem a vast overstatement, but I’ll stand by it. Like many readers, I spend my workday in a cubicle, open at the top and adjacent to co-workers. We all have work to do, people to speak with and challenges in keeping focused. One nice “escape,” for me at least, is slipping in a pair of earbuds and listening to some music. The same goes when I’m traveling - I have a 12-hour flight to Tokyo coming up soon, with four more hours to Manila. Having my own soundtrack is a very nice idea.

But how to do this? Borrowing from the ”60s hit “Abraham, Martin and John,” I propose this mantra: “iPod, Slacker and Zune.”

The iPod, of course, is the Apple Inc. iPod, of which much has been written. The newest of these is the iPod Touch, which starts at $229. It features a 3.5-inch (diagonal measure) “widescreen” display on which you can watch a movie or TV show. It will store 10 to 40 hours of such video content and 1,750 to 7,000 songs along with podcasts, audiobooks and photos as well as many of the applications found on the iPhone.

The big difference is that the iPod Touch is not an iPhone 3G. That should be obvious, of course, but the Touch is deceptively similar to the 3G phone in appearance and screen layout, and it shares many applications, not to mention that both have built-in Wi-Fi capability.

Apple apparently is walking a fine line here, wanting to offer a high-end music and video experience but not wanting to cannibalize the iPhone’s sales. “Is a puzzlement,” as Yul Brynner famously declared to Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” long ago.

At the same time, I can see a lot of people preferring the iPod Touch. Many of those folks are locked in with other mobile phone carriers or don’t like AT&T; (which has sole rights to the iPhone for now) or don’t want their children racking up ginormous cellular bills. Or maybe you’re a music/video/photo/audiobook hound and are willing to fork over more bucks for a 32-gigabyte device, double the top iPhone capacity right now.

Most important, the iPod Touch delivers what people will want: stunning sound, great video and a neat way to carry music, get e-mail and surf the Web. Add the new Facebook 2.0 application, and you’re good to go.

I can’t find too much in the way of flaws in the iPod Touch: For $299, you get 16 GB of storage; $100 more doubles it. The playback is excellent, you can watch a movie without too much strain (buy some plug-in goggles if you want a bigger screen) and you can find a ton of great accessories.

Indeed - and I’m not the only critic to point this out, I believe - the “critical mass” surrounding the iPod, iPhone and iTunes is making these highly desirable services and products. Buy an iPod or iPhone, and you tap into a network of tremendous possibilities for accessorizing, customizing and getting music. It’s a big factor in making a decision.

I have written before about Slacker, an online service that delivers the kind of music you like via the Internet, in both a “free” version and one you subscribe to for slightly less than $8 a month. Slacker has cut deals with the record companies so the music is “legit,” and paid subscribers can “store” (virtually) the songs they like most and access them with a mouse click.

Now the firm has launched a small MP3-playing device that will grab your favorite Slacker “stations” and your playlists and even load MP3s from your computer. At $199 for a 25 GB device and $299 for a 40 GB model, the Slacker G2 player is well worth considering. Tons of songs are available for listening, and the device seems well-equipped to handle a cross-country flight or a few hours at an outdoor cafe. The firm offers a small FM transmitter to let you play music via a car stereo.

It’s not an iPod, though, and as such it suffers a bit in comparison. Its three redeeming factors are a nice “flywheel” control setup (dial the wheel and navigate the menu, click the wheel to select a menu item), the monthly subscription (it’s nice to pay one flat rate, get your music and be done with it) and the fact that Slacker keeps its programming current thanks to what the firm says are “real” radio-station program directors, who keep the playlists fresh.

Sound quality, again, is very, very nice. Parental controls are available to keep Kate Bush’s or even Katy Perry’s top single away from your preteens. The price is right, and for those with a computer and Wi-Fi connection (the device also can refresh itself via Wi-Fi), it’s a good buy.

Finally there’s Microsoft’s Zune, which underwent a software refresh recently. It also offers a nice subscription model: $14.95 a month for “all you can eat,” musicwise. Some new models of the Zune player offer video capabilities as well.

Microsoft, however, has yet to fulfill its promise to send along the new items, so I’ll just say that though a recent demo was impressive, the proof of the pudding has yet to be tasted. Stay tuned.

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