Back to School Guide 2010: Digital media players

The digital media player market is virtually the same as last fall, with the exception of the Apple iPad that raised the bar for tablet devices. There are still a range of devices in a range of prices to consider for media on the go so check out our guide.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

This summer's Back to School Guide for portable media players (music and video) is virtually the same as my last fall Holiday Guide, with one major addition that has taken over as my personal video player and web browsing device. There have not been many new products released in the portable media space and the Apple iPad has not yet been challenged by any other tablet device, but may see some challenges this coming holiday season from Android with the promise of a Palm webOS tablet coming in 2011 from HP.

We haven't seen any new Zune HD players from Microsoft (one upgraded to 64GB) and a refresh of the iPod line isn't expected until September. Archos still has their Internet Tablet devices and Sony has some Walkman digital media players. Let's take a look at some of the gear you might want to carry in your backpack this school year in addition to your smartphone and other devices.

Apple iPad

Back in January when the Apple iPad was announced I said I would probably be buying one even though it seemed just like a big iPod touch. I was wrong and it is actually so much more and I could not be happier with my 32GB WiFi iPad purchase. It has turned into my couch surfing and commuter computer, primary ebook reader, airplane movie theater, portable gaming machine, and so much more. The iPad is big and expensive, but after you start using it you will probably be hooked and find it tough to put down. Don't let others in your house use it too much either or you may have to buy another.

The Apple iPad specs include a 9.7 inch 1024x768 display, 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, 1 GHz custom Apple A4 processor, Bluetooth 2.1, and various drive capacities (16, 32, and 64 GB). You can buy it in WiFi only or WiFi and AT&T 3G configurations. The 3G one requires a service plan to connect via the AT&T network and also includes a GPS receiver for mobile navigation.

The Apple iPad is not cheap, but it does so much so well that it is definitely something to consider. There are several Office apps and other apps that let you easily use it on the go as a work machine as well as a fun machine.

Price: $499 to $699 for WiFi models and $629 to $829 for WiFi/3G models

[Check out my first impressions article, other iPad experience articles, and the ZDNet reviews page]

Apple has more compact media players too »

Apple iPod nano

Last fall I purchased a new orange iPod nano and have been quite pleased with this powerful compact digital media player. The nano is a strong music player and is the first iPod to include a FM radio with RDS support. It also lets you capture video content with the included video camera. Check out my article and video on the different iPod nano video modes. Movies and iTunes video content is enjoyable on the 2.2 inch 240x376 pixel resolution display and it is quite amazing how much Apple was able to pack into the compact device.

The iPod nano has an integrated microphone for recording voice notes and capturing audio during video recording. A pedometer is now included with the iPod nano so you can use it to capture the number of steps you take as you walk around or run.

The iPod nano is available in nine brilliant colors so you can choose something personal when you buy one and if you pick it up from Apple you can even throw on some custom engraving for free.

Price: $149 for 8GB and $179 for 16GB

[Check out my review of the orange nano and the ZDNet reviews page]

Let's check out the lowest cost Apple media player »

Apple iPod shuffle

The iPod shuffle is the lowest cost media player from Apple and since it has no display it is only possible to provide audio output. It is inexpensive and limited in capacity, but for those looking for something you won't even notice attached to you as you workout then this may be a good choice.

The only button on the shuffle is a lock button and all control of the media player is performed via the controls on the headphone cable. VoiceOver support is provided so you can here what song is playing too.

The iPod shuffle is available in five brilliant colors so you can choose something personal when you buy one and if you pick it up from Apple you can even throw on some custom engraving for free.

Price: $59 for 8GB and $179 for 16GB

[Check out my review of the orange nano and the ZDNet reviews page]

What else does Apple have to offer? »

Apple iPod touch

The Apple iPod touch may be the most popular portable media player and even though it may not have the best specifications in this field, the user interface, ease of content access, and amazing accessory market make this one you definitely should consider. The iPod touch has a 3.5 inch 480x320 pixel resolution display, 802.11 b/g WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1, support for H.264 video and AAC & MP3 audio. The media player is very simple and provides the user with a fluid experience.

You will also find a web browser that does quite well, as well as thousands of applications and games to make it a full featured media and gaming device. Gaming has actually become one of the most popular reasons to use an iPod touch and the main reason my daughter uses hers. The iPod touch also makes for a good ebook reader with all the ebook applications available in the App Store. I imagine the iPod touch line will be revamped in September and the rumors indicate it will have a digital camera and maybe even a higher resolution display like the new iPhone 4.

Price: $399.00 for 64GB, $299 for 32GB, and $199 for 8GB

[Check out the ZDNet reviews page]

Archos has a media player for non-Apple fans too »

Archos 5 Internet Tablet

The Archos 5 Internet Tablet is powered by the Google Android operating system and is focused on the media experience with Internet browsing also being a prominent feature. Archos has been known to excel in portable video playing capability and the Archos 5 continues that tradition. You can view HD video content and photos on the 4.8 inch 800x480 pixel resolution display. The Archos 5 Internet Tablet supports the following video formats; MPEG-4 HD (up to 720p), MPEG-48, H.264, WMV, MKV, and M-JPEG. Supported audio formats include MP3, WMA, AAC+, Ogg Vorbis, and Flac. There are some optional plug-ins available to further enhance support on the Archos 5.

The Archos 5 comes with a 500GB drive and has a microSD card slot with support for up to 32GB, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0, FM receiver with RDS, and FM transmitter. There are a couple additional accessories to extend the functionality of the device to your TV as well.

With the Google Android operating system you will find that many third party apps seen on Google Android smartphones also work on the Archos 5 Tablet.

Price: $479.99

[Check out the ZDNet reviews pages for the 500GB model]

Microsoft's player is still available »

Microsoft Zune HD

The Microsoft Zune devices have been around for a couple of years, but it really wasn't until the Zune HD was launched in September 2009 that Microsoft hit a homerun. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not marketed the Zune HD at all and a fantastic media player is available that no one really even knows about. I purchased a Zune HD on the day of release and followed up with a purchase of a custom Zune Original device in blue.

The Zune HD has a brilliant 3.3 inch 16:9 OLED display in 480x272 pixel resolution that supports capacitive touch. The entire experience is fluid and fast on the Zune HD. A HD FM radio is included and you won't go back to standard FM radio after experiencing HD radio where you can also choose to add songs to your cart as they plan on the radio.

A web browser is provided, but the real strength of the Zune HD is the music and video support. You can pay just $15 per month for unlimited music on the Zune Marketplace with 10 free song credits given to you each month. There are multiple ways to discover new music (social integration, Smart DJ, and more) and with the Zune Pass you never have to worry about loading up the device to your heart's content. I also find Zune players to have higher quality audio quality than other media players. Over the past year, Microsoft has rolled out several free games and applications, including Facebook and Twitter, for the Zune HD so you can enjoy other functions on the device in addition to music and video. The games are actually actually quite good and I recorded a video of the first six. Microsoft also released a 64GB model in early 2010.

Price: $349 for 64GB, $249.99 for 32GB, and $179.99 for 16GB

[Check out my initial hands-on review (there are several follow-up posts too, and the ZDNet reviews page]

Sony's Walkman brand continues today »

Sony X-Series Walkman

My first portable music player was a cassette playing Sony Walkman player that I still have in working condition. Sony has come a long ways since then and their latest player series, the X-Series comes in both 32GB and 16GB capacities. The Sony X-Series Walkman has a 3 inch OLED display at 432x240 pixel resolution and is quite compact at 3-7/8 x 2-1/8 x 13/32 inches and 3.5 ounces.

Supported video formats include AVC(H.264/AVC), MPEG-4, and WMV DRM. Supported audio formats include MP3, WMA, AAC, and L-PCM. The X-Series also has an internet browser you can connect via WiFi. Slacker Radio is also supported to help you discover music.

The Sony X-Series Walkman has a long rated battery for 33 hours of music playback and 9 hours of video playback and in all the reviews I have read the audio quality was reported as top notch.

Price: $399.99 for 32GB and $299.99 for 16GB

[Check out the ZDNet reviews page]

Go back to the beginning »

Editorial standards