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A Tale of Two MP3 Players

Joel’s most recent article got me thinking of some design issues I came across this week.

I am a proud owner of an iPod mini (the Gold one if you really care). I have always loved Apple products because they incorporate both great design down to the smallest details, and they look cool. Hard to accomplish sometimes. All too often, what works great might look odd or off balance, and what looks beautiful might just totally blow toads (ever sit in a chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright?).

Recently I had a chance to play with some, ahem, “competition” to the iPod. I put quotes around competition, because it really isn’t. In reality there is little competition to the iPod. And while the iPod is a splendid example of great design in action where almost everything is done right (except I can’t shuffle tracks inside a specific playlist), the designers of the other player seem to have gone out of their way to do about everything wrong. Dead wrong.

The term “affordance” according to Wikipedia is “is a property of an object, or a feature of the immediate environment, that indicates how to interface with that object or feature.”

An iPod has great affordance, which makes its use obvious and fluid. Short of figuring out how to load songs onto the thing, few people would have to open up the manual to figure out how to play it, turn it on, select tracks and so on.

The other product (which will remain nameless) had me baffled the moment my chainsaw was able to pierce open its nitwit plastic packaging…you know, the kind that sorta looks like you can pop it open like a clamshell, but in truth was actually forged out of the strongest materials known only to the Elvin folk of Middle-Earth.

I had two versions. The big 60Gig  one, and the smaller 6 Gig player, both were terrible in their own unique ways. So where does one start. How about the on/off switch? Big mama’s switch had a little knob sticking out of it to give it additional friction. Trouble is, the switch required so much force I needed to use a fingernail to grip it. Not good for someone who might have long nails. Both players had a really cool looking (as in Star Trek cool) completely smooth black plastic faceplate with touch sensitive buttons that would glow a neat-o soft blue glow of joy when used. There was no tactile feedback whatsoever. Gently tapping one of the buttons would cause the player to select a track, play it, jump to another track or whatever. Great….unless you are blind, or are driving and can’t look down, or in broad daylight, or are merely gripping the unit in sweaty ecstasy during your favorite Guttersluts song and just happen to rub a thumb across the little flat non-tactile button causing it to jump to Having my Baby.

What was cool looking was therefore completely useless. And worse then useless as it could lead you to do things you didn’t want to do such as selecting wrong songs. Not critical when dealing with a consumer music player. Very critical when designing control layouts to a nuclear power plant.

Then there is that little vertical slider in-between the two blue glowy buttons. The slider you see, by its position, would appear to do the same as the iPod’s wheel. But very poorly, if at all. Oops, check that, it doesn’t do volume as one might assume. No, the volume control is hidden on the side…the slider actually does nothing at all when playing a track except show still more cool blue lights. Otherwise it is used to make menu selections or to tune the FM tuner. Hmmmm, on the latter say, you want to go from 88.5 to 102.9 you’ll need to stroke your thumb about 60 times (really!) looking like you’re going through some kind of seizure.

There is a rubber sleeve that comes with the unit with holes on the sides were the buttons are, a slot on the top where the head phone is, but nothing on the bottom where the charger cable goes. So you have to pry it out of its little snug jacket merely to juice it back up or to add new tracks.

Bad design.

Awful design.

On the other hand, I had a flashlight once that was beautifully designed. It was just a stupid little flashlight that would be an emergency light when the power went out, staying plugged into the socket until needed. The way the head could be positioned, the way it balanced in the hand, it showed that some anonymous engineer cared about his product and the people who would use it. The designers of these players, be they engineers, or just some fancy-pants extended-pinkie industrial types fresh out of art school, demonstrate that they really don’t give a damn about their users. You can either bring a little bit-o-joy and elegance into someone’s life by making a task easier or non-existent, or you can make it a chore. The iPod folks or Mr. Flashlight, took the former approach. “The others”, didn’t.
Mike Smithwick Send private email
Friday, January 27, 2006
"(except I can’t shuffle tracks inside a specific playlist)"

Actually you can, although it's awkward. Go to Settings->Shuffle and choose Songs. With that set, you'll have to manually select the first song that you want to play, but then it will choose at random from the context in which you chose the first song.
Friday, January 27, 2006
"say, you want to go from 88.5 to 102.9 you’ll need to stroke your thumb about 60 times (really!) looking like you’re going through some kind of seizure."

What a travesty!! This is clearly inferior to the iPod design, which doesn't have an FM tuner at all.

[...rolls eyes...]

It amazes me that a fifth-fucking-generation iPod still lacks something as rudimentary as an FM tuner. This is one of the reasons why I still don't have an iPod, but instead have a competing mp3 player.

(When an FM tuner is inevitably added to the iPod, it will be hailed as a revolutionary development, demonstrating the genius of Steve Jobs, much like when a second button was added to Apple's MightyMouse.)
BenjiSmith Send private email
Friday, January 27, 2006
Who listens to radio anymore except in the car?!
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Answer to your seemingly retorical question: People who have good local radio stations.
Cory R. King
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Stan, a few years ago, you could have said "who listens to *music* except in the car?"

Thanks to the iPod, people can carry their whole CD collections with them everywhere they go.

It would be nice if I could listen to NPR with the same level of flexibility. I'd listen at my desk, at the gym, on the train, while on a walk, etc.
BenjiSmith Send private email
Sunday, January 29, 2006
I think I may have one of the players Mike Smithwick is talking about. I've never had a problem with it, in fact I prefer it to my iPod nano which I tend to use because of it's size.

As others have said seems pointless mentionnig how bad the FM frequency selector is when the iPod doesn't even have one.
Andrew Gilfrin Send private email
Monday, January 30, 2006
Cue flame war, but methinks the OP is missing a several other factors:

1. Sound Quality

OP doesn't mention how the two devices actually _sound_. MP3 player or medallion, the choice is yours.

2. Price

On today:

Apple iPod Nano 4GB: £182.99
Creative Zen Micro 6GB: £139.94

No contest.
I have an earlier generation 60GB Zen. I paid about £230 for it 18 months ago: the latest 60GB iPod is £293, admittedly with video, but this side of the pond we can't get any.

3. Integration

More d/l sites and PC-based music organising apps with the Creative. With the iPod and iTunes you get to run several memory and CPU hungry Apple apps in the background while coughing up the £££ for the low bitrate tracks.

Rich (poorHouse)
Monday, January 30, 2006
Note that Apple <finally> did come out with an FM tuner thingie as of a couple of weeks ago. Haven't played with it, but I'll assume it doesn't require 60 thumb slides to go through half the band. And just because company A comes out with feature X a little after company B doesn't mean A's products suck and B's products are great. A might be either lazy, slow, or just trying to get things right. Although more often than not, it is the first two instead of the last item.

Regarding the sound, I didn't want to get into a full review of the thing, that wasn't the goal. The intent was to show how one major company really missed the mark by trying to be different. Sometimes great design ultimately reaches up to some as yet, inexplecable quality that some companies just get, while others do not.

(Athough the other player gets good marks for sound. But if you can't get to the damned music you want, who cares?)

In JS's latest column he goes on about the Zen which I haven't played with. True, other players like this one I HATE have more features. But just like the cel-phones that can place phone calls AND knit a lovely afghan at the same time and do everthing inbetween...feature count is less important than how easy it is to get to and use those features. In great design, the hardware kindly steps aside and gets out of the way of task a user wants to do. I want to go from Point A to point B with a minimal detour in "I have to get WHAT new drivers?" land. Or whatever.

With a great product, I have to think less on how to get things done then with a poorly designed product. That is perhaps one of the key metrics to figuring out if you have made something great or merely good. And one of the real mysteries in the business.
Mike Smithwick Send private email
Monday, January 30, 2006
So here's the new iPod FM tuner gizmo... it good design to have the radio available only through a wired remote control extension? Or would it have been better design to build an FM tuner directly into the iPod?

Is this product a result of superior design, or simply of economic pressures (i.e., they wanted to be able to sell radio functionality for an extra fifty bucks)?
BenjiSmith Send private email
Monday, January 30, 2006

I should have tinyurl'd that.

BenjiSmith Send private email
Monday, January 30, 2006
David Corking Send private email
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Yeah, I know there are workarounds.

But what I really want to do is "listen to the radio" not "download MP3 recordings of radio shows and then synchronize them with iTunes so that I can listen to them later".

Any "great design" of a portable music player would, in my opinion, acknowledge that these are two very different things.
BenjiSmith Send private email
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
While the ipod itself is very nice to use, the design doesn't transfer to the software or the philosophy of putting music on the thing.

I don't want a proprietary software to transfer files.
 I don't want 2 or 3 applications running all the time on my computer just in case I want to plug my ipod in.
I don't want to use iTunes and be bombarded with istore, or whatever it is, ads.
I don't want to use a software that was obviously designed without a right mouse button in mind.
I don't want to use a software that only works on half the PCs I have.
I don't want to use a piece of kit that won't allow me to put my (Note MY) mp3s onto another computer...

Sorry, this rant probably doesn't help the discussion much, but people get obsessed about how easy/nice the ipod is to use, but never seem to mention how unfriendly and crappy the software is and how ill-designed, for the needs of the user, not Apple, the whole concept is.

That's why mine landed on ebay and I bought something else which is not as cool or slick but allows me to dump files back and forth with ease.
Jeff B Send private email
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Jeff, about half of your statements above are wrong.

It is interesitng to talk about affordances in hardware though.  The circle wheel of the iPod is a marvelous thing that allows one to navigate almost precisely to their intended target through a monstrous library.  My 10 Gigs isn't too huge, but I often want a specific song and I spin that wheel with some momentum and land within 10 songs of where I want.  I've tried the Dell music player and I had such a problem with that.  Now I'm biased in that I'm used to the iPod's interface and not the Dell's, but I couldn't do what I wanted to do with any real ease.

In software, affordances are tougher in some ways.  Some applications really do get it close to right though. Delicious Library is an example with their barcode scanner.  You don't have to push a button, hold the barcode up, have it fail and beep at you, only to push a button to try again.  It just keeps sampling the screen for a few seconds trying to find a barcode.  If that fails then it gives you some options.  It puts the burden where it belongs, on the programmer.

I, as a user, don't want to think about too much.  I want to pull out my iPod, have the fewest buttons I can get away with, and just play my music.  If I subscribe to podcasts, I want them to end up on my iPod and I want to be able to find them.  If I want the volume to increase I want to perform a simple function to do so.

Yes, some of the affordances on the iPod don't work for some people (volume control being the primary one), but that elimintes the need for a jog wheel on the side.  My last mp3 player that had a jog wheel on the side got smacked every time I went running and would invariably sound like it had turned off by mile 3.  Go figure.
Lou Send private email
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Lou, which half of Jeff's statements are wrong ? Everything he said looked bang on the money from where I'm standing. Especially the stuff about the DRM. I don't know how people can stomach it. Beautiful looking piece of kit but way overpriced for what's on offer - and that's a pretty neat summary of most Apple produce in a nutshell.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
The DRM crap is really the deal breaker for me and I'm not even a slashdot INFORMASHION WANTZ TO BE TEH FREE drone.  It is like they never considered I might own a laptop AND a desktop and, gee, I might want to plug the device into both.  To me, that negates  EVERYTHING else that is good about the device.  And it's not even ME!  It's the ladyfriend who has the problem.  She uses the laptop to upload songs, I use my desktop.

If I didn't get the iPod Shuffle for free, I would have returned it for that reason alone.  I'm not a %$&#38;#* theif!  And that, IMHO, is a shame.
Cory R. King
Thursday, February 02, 2006

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