Friday, March 24, 2006

My New Toy

I broke down last night, embraced my Inner Geek, and bought an MP3 player. Not an iPod, mind you – I settled for a Sony “Network Walkman,” with 1 gig of flash memory.

I had an excuse, of course. In order to save money, I need to start taking the bus to work more often. That’s about a 45 minute bus ride each way – a truly amazingly boring trip. I’ve tried reading, but about half the time that makes me ill by the end of it. Now, with portable sound, I have something to relieve my boredom that won’t nauseate me.

I really don’t intend to use it much for music, though. Even before I bought the player, I discovered the concept of “Podcasts,” basically an MP3 of a radio show – you download it to your player, then listen at your convenience. There’s a lot of free podcasts available out there. Not only music, but talk shows on pretty much any topic. For maximum entertainment on my bus rides, though, I subscribed to the Bob and Tom Show. (For you non-Hoosiers who aren’t lucky enough to live near one of their syndicated stations, that’s a really, really funny morning show that’s based in Indiana. Pretty juvenile humor, but several steps above the idiocy of Howard Stern.) No matter how much music you have, a couple hours of it a day is bound to get repetitive, but a daily podcast is always new.

Of course, we all know the real reason I had to get one – a geek MUST have new toys!

I must say, though, I’m a little disappointed in it so far. The player itself works fine. Not only did I listen to it on the bus, but it also worked nicely during my morning run – anything that distracts me from how much I hate running is a good thing. I need to get some headphones that’ll stay on, but for now, my stocking cap holds earbuds in well enough.

No, my toy is great once it’s loaded, but the software I have to use to load it is crap. You’d think with what is effectively a flash drive, I could just drag and drop my files into it, like I do with my flash memory keychain drive, and even with the flash card from my digital camera. But no, the reader installed on the player will only read files that have been transferred through their SonicStage software – and that therefore have Sony’s copy protection added on. Considering that Sony CDs were the ones that came with a nasty little “root kit” on them not too long ago, this is not designed to make me feel extremely comfortable with using their software!

Worse, the player will only read MP3s that are recorded at one specific bit rate. It turns out that the Bob and Tom files are recorded at a slightly different bit rate. Other podcasts are recorded at still other bit rates, as are all of the songs I’ve ripped from my CDs. In fact, I have yet to locate a music file recorded at the RIGHT bit rate! So, every file I transfer has to be converted to a new format – that, incidentally, takes slightly more than twice as much file space on the player. Thus turning my 1 gig player into what a 512 meg player would be with more open software. For my podcasts, that’s not really an issue. A day’s worth of their show takes up a little over 10% of my space, and provides almost two and a half hours of entertainment – and if that isn’t enough, I can certainly download some other podcast. I had also planned to use the player for long drives, though, like the 10 hour trip to Indiana. I even bought an FM transmitter so we could use my player over the radio in the van. I think that my player will hold a full 20 hours of music…but based on a hasty calculation, it’ll be pretty close, instead of having plenty of extra room.

Oh, and the conversion process is terribly, terribly slow. Like five to ten minutes for an album. As long as I’ve got an hour or two to load the player every time I want to change the files, I guess that’s not a problem…

I suspect that somewhere out there is a way to reformat the player and load it with simpler software that will play regular MP3s, without the need for conversion or copy protection. But my player might have some sort of hardware or hard-coded protection scheme to prevent that from working…is it worth risking my brand new player entirely in order to double the effective space and simplify loading? That’s going to take some extra thought…

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