Of functionality and form factors - why I still need more than one mp3 player

of-functionality-and-form-factors

My recent gadget buying spree has left me with a gold mine of geeky gadgets. It suddenly hit me, as I made a list for insurance purposes, that I have several devices that can serve the same purpose, but I still use them all. This left me wondering: why do I have so many gadgets?

Let’s step back a bit and take stock of what we’re dealing with here. Amongst other gadgets that are not relevant to this discussion, I have a Creative Zen Stone mp3 player, an MP4 player, a Kodak V610 digital camera, a Motorola Q9h smartphone, an Asus EeePC, a Nokia N800 (with a bluetooth GPS receiver and bluetooth foldout keyboard), and my most recent acquisition, an Apple iPod touch.

If you are familiar with these devices, the common features are pretty obvious:

  • Play MP3s: Zen Stone, MP4 player, Q9h, EeePC, N800, iPod
  • View photos: MP4 player, Kodak, Q9h, EeePC, N800, iPod
  • Take photos: Kodak, Q9h, N800
  • Watch videos: MP4 player, Kodak, Q9h, EeePC, N800, iPod
  • Take videos: Kodak, Q9h, N800
  • View websites via WiFi: Q9h, EeePC, N800, iPod
  • View website via GPRS/HSDPA: Q9h, EeePC, N800
  • View ebooks or text files: MP4 player, Q9h, EeePC, N800, iPod
  • View/edit Office documents: Q9h, EeePC, N800 (using Google docs or similar)
  • Internet instant messaging: Q9h, EeePC, N800
  • Video/voice conference over internet: Q9h, EeePC, N800
  • GPS navigation: Q9h, N800
  • Connect to office server: Q9h, EeePC, N800

Wow! By the looks of it, you should just buy an N800 and be done with it! Look at that Zen Stone — why on earth would I need that when pretty much all other gadgets can do the same with far more fanfare? Heck, maybe even just the Q9h would be enough. Especially when we start considering form factor:

  • Shirt pocketable: Zen Stone, MP4 player, Q9h, iPod
  • Jacket/pants pocketable: N800, Kodak
  • Fits into shoulder bag: EeePC, N800 with accessories.

From my experience, I’ve made some observations about form factor:

  • Shirt pocketable: the flatter the device, the better, meaning the device must be far broader than its depth. Anything with a depth of over 14mm becomes unwieldy. The broader the device, the better, otherwise it falls on its side in your pocket (big win for Q9h here — even though it looks like a bulky device, it is far more pocketable than a smaller-looking device that is not broad enough). Weight wise, the device must be under 130g.
  • Jacket/pants pocketable: Again, flatter is better. Device weight should be under 300g.
  • Shoulder bag: my benchmark here is a small shoulder bag, about a third the size of a standard 15″ laptop bag, because this is what I use (I assure you, it’s manly!). Anything bigger will not come with me to shops or other outings. The EeePC actually fails here, as it’s about half the size of a standard laptop, meaning it doesn’t come with me to shops. The MacBook Air, although thin and light, fails miserably here, as it needs a standard laptop size bag.

Right, so we have analysed functionality and form factor. That still doesn’t answer the question: why do I use a Zen Stone, when my Q9h can play MP3s, has expandable memory, and is shirt pocketable? Why do I still use so many gadgets? The answer to this lies in what I believe is the current trend in gadgets: general-purpose gadgets are being replaced by application-specific gadgets.

What do I mean by application-specific gadgets? Gadgets that do one thing, and do that thing well. Examples of such devices: digital audio players (DAPs), digital stills camera, digital video camera, digital photo frames, e-book readers, mobile internet devices (MIDs), GPS navigation devices, etc. Sure, cellphones can currently do it all (being a general-purpose gadget) but it does none of them well. In fact, cellphones are getting bad at just being cellphones!

And therein lies the rub.

Do I use my Q9h for MP3 playback, watching videos, surfing the internet, or editing office documents on the go? No. Not unless I am desperate and none of the other gadgets are available (charged). So why did I buy the Q9h? For two reasons: it has a useable qwerty keyboard for sms and very quick contact retrieval, and it has HSDPA with bluetooth, which is important for tethering my mobile internet device (the N800). Using its MP3 playback feature (for example) is a bad idea because:

  • It flattens your battery. Now you have to choose whether you want to listen to music, or be contactable! That is to say, you can either use your cellphone as a cellphone, or as a music player, not both (in essence).
  • It makes for a horrible MP3 player. So much so that it is practically useless. You have to load up the player software. Then you have to load up the playlist. It doesn’t remember which song you were last listening to. You can’t one-touch switch to another song or playlist or skip to the next album. You can’t operate the music playback without looking at the screen (which makes it useless while driving). It doesn’t support gapless playback for songs that run into each other, or remember the sort order of songs, etc. I could go on, but you get the idea.

So, the smart way to use technology seems to be to buy the best device for each application, rather than one device that does a lot of things badly (the bonus here is that the application-specific gadgets being sold today are really beautiful, well crafted, lovely to look at, and lovely to hold). For me, this means I need the following:

  • MP3 player for the car: must not have a screen, because if it does, I cannot use it while driving. This is why I use the Zen Stone – it is perfect for car use. You can skip songs and albums without looking at the device. You can load it with songs easily, and it plays them in the correct order. It remembers exactly where you were when you switched it off (which is necessary for audio books or long songs). It has a long battery life and is easily recharged, even with a car charger. It’s so cheap I can buy one for each car, or one for each genre of music!
  • General MP3 player, for when I’m relaxing somewhere like the garden, at a resort, or in bed. The Zen Stone will work fine here, but its storage space is limited, and I generally leave it in the car. The iPod is good here with its beautiful interface and ample storage space. However, I most often use the N800 because it can play music off my network via Wifi (or a SD memory card) while I surf the web, look at photos, or read an ebook. In addition, I can listen to the music via its (surprisingly great) built-in speakers, so that I can still hear my phone or doorbell ring.
  • Cellphone: must be shirt pocketable. A qwerty keyboard is nice-to-have for SMS and getting to a contact quickly. Long battery life is essential. Must support 3G or HSDPA as it will be used as my mobile internet connection. Any other features are irrelevant as I do not want to unnecessarily shorten its battery life.
  • Mobile internet: must be with me whenever I might need mobile internet: When I’m sitting in my garden soaking up winter sun, stopped off at a coffee shop, or waiting in a queue to renew my vehicle licence. This means it must be jacket/pants pocketable. The iPod can view websites, but is severly limited by not having bluetooth or a screen with enough resolution. Zooming in and panning around is just not a fun way to browse. The Nokia N800 wins here in spades. The one thing it does really well is mobile internet browsing. It has a full-blown Firefox 3 engine (meaning Google Docs works!), ample resolution to display most websites without sideways scrolling (800×480 – same as the EeePC), extremely good wifi reception and bluetooth tethering, built-in webcam for video conferencing, speakers and flash for watching YouTube videos, etc. The fact that it runs Linux is an added bonus for a geek like me (yes, it plays Doom), as well as great community support in the form of third party software for things like iPod-like photo viewing, video playback, GPS navigation (when using the bluetooth GPS receiver), games, and tons more. Also throw in the laptop-trouncing battery life of about 5 to 7 hours. All my blogs to date have been written on my N800 using the fantastic iGo foldout keyboard that tethers via bluetooth. And the cherry on top — it cost me about half the price of my Q9h, including the keyboard! The iPod, with its far larger development community, has also come up with great hacks (it can play Doom too!), but the lack of bluetooth and high resolution screen means it will never be as useful as my N800 (but maybe a future version might be).
  • Photo viewing: Must have big-ish screen with good resolution and be sunlight-viewable. The iPod wins here, even though the N800 has a bigger screen with better resolution, simply because it is sunlight-viewable, and has an orientation sensor so that you can rotate the display for vertically-oriented photos. Also, the iPod’s touchscreen is easier to use.
  • Watching videos: all the devices need the videos to be transcoded. The N800 has the better screen and has speakers, making it the better video player, but the iPod can, if I get the cables, be connected to a TV set (for say, when I am at a resort or hotel). No definate winner here (especially when you consider Nokia’s noBounds project — high definition video from an N800 onto an HDTV? Yes, please!). Maybe I should buy an MVix? There’s an application-specific gadget, complete with remote control and no need to transcode videos!
  • Taking photos: Only a digital camera will do. The Kodak V610 is awesome with its pocketability, while still providing 10x optical zoom, bluetooth for transferring pics directly to my N800 (or I could just stick the SD card in), orientation sensor (making it a good picture viewer too), and big LCD screen. It takes great video clips too, and since my video taking requirements are minimal (i.e. I don’t have children), it will do perfectly.
  • Viewing ebooks: An ebook reader would be ideal here, but I find the N800 quite adequate with its high resolution screen. The downsides are that it doesn’t remember where I left off last (software problem), battery life needs to be in days not hours (although five hours is not bad at all!), and the screen is not sunlight readable.
  • Instant messaging on-the-go: both the Q9h and N800 do this task well. However, since I don’t want to kill the battery on my cellphone any faster than I need to, I prefer to use the N800.
  • Work-related server maintenance: only the N800 or EeePC would be useable here as I need SSH, VPN, VNC, and Remote Desktop access to the work servers. The limited screen resolution of the Q9h, along with the need to protect its battery life (it is my lifeline to the outside world) make it unsuitable here.
  • GPS navigation: A dedicated GPS device would be ideal here, although I admit the Q9h works well enough when using Nav4All software that I haven’t found the need to buy a GPS device. The N800 works well too, although routing is still in-the-works for South Africa (to make a long story short).

And there we have it! My gadgets and why I use them. You may notice that I don’t in fact use the EeePC. That’s because I bought it for my wife — she uses it. I don’t need it since I have the N800. I also don’t use the MP4 player, it’s been “boxed” (to borrow a term from Battlestar Galactica). Also, the iPod touch is a little unnecessary, but I had to get it because it’s just so sexy… Other gadgets I might consider now are:

  • Mobile gaming: Sony PSP or Nintendo DS lite. Just for fun.
  • A digital photo frame for displaying my picture collection. And please don’t sell me a slightly more expensive one that can play MP3s too!
  • Charging solution: a solar USB charger would be nice, because most of my gadgets charge off a USB port. You know, for when I’m stuck on a deserted island or in the middle of a desert. Anywhere with at least a GPRS signal… Something with a strong battery would be even better, for when Eskom shuts off our power. Like the powermonkey explorer.

(Hoping my wife is reading this:) Honey, you understand the method to my madness now, don’t you?

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