Linux and my search for the perfect MP3 player

So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is, those three seemingly realistic requirements just eliminated most options out there of which I am aware. Requirement #1 eliminated the most common option (iPods), and requirement #2 eliminated flash memory based devices and therefore ALL of the MP3 players ARCHOS now offers, as well as most of the devices offered by other well-known manufacturers of such things.

Among those that are left, requirement #3 puts a serious dent into them. For some reason, there must be HUGE demand for portable “media” players now, rather than just simple portable digital music players. As a result, any device with decent storage capacity has a huge screen on it and the capability for video playback, which (by virtue of the big display) automatically cuts battery life down to pretty paltry levels in my opinion, even when it’s just used for music playback only.

I can come close on my requirements with the SanDisk Sansa View, if I’m willing to drop my storage requirement to 32 GB. It’s expandable via MicroSD, which is a plus (I could just permanently insert an 8 GB or a 16 GB MicroSD card to bring it up to my 40 GB requirement, if push came to shove). SanDisk claims 35 hours of battery life on a charge for this device, a claim I find dubious at best. In fact, the reviews on Amazon that mention battery life are all over the board. Some claim it’s got excellent battery life, others claim it’s 2 hours or less. With that kind of hit-and-miss, I’m skeptical, even of a solid state player like this one.

Likewise, another product that comes close is the Creative Zen 32 GB Portable Media Player. Like the SanDisk Sansa View, it is 32 GB but has an expansion slot, so I could technically live with the limited storage capacity. However, Creative claims that this device has a 30 hour battery life for playing music, something I’m not sure about. Like the SanDisk Sansa View, the Creative Zen 32 GB player is also flash memory based, and the reviews consistently rave about its battery life, but I have a hard time believing 30 hours. Still, even if it’s half that (which I find a lot more likely), that’s still 15 hours and well within my requirements.

To my knowledge neither of these devices is proprietary or platform specific, or shackled with inherent DRM, so that’s a good thing.

Between the two, the Creative Zen 32 GB Media Player has the most reviews on Amazon, and by far the most positive ones, so I’d lean toward that one in general.

I just wish that either had higher storage capacity. That’s what bothers me about both of these options, and I haven’t found any other options that even come as close as these two have.

So, what do you think? What other devices are there out there that I need to take a look at that might meet my requirements? It seems like other than the iPod (and the Zune, but I don’t really count the Zune as an option to begin with), proprietary isn’t really that big an issue for MP3 players in the Linux world. So why can’t I find a player with at least 40 GB native capacity AND at least 10 hours of battery life?

As I keep bringing up, my current device is hard drive based and has great battery life… and it’s from 2005. One would think that technology would allow MORE of such devices to be available, not fewer!

So make some suggestions, I’d love to hear what the rest of you are using.

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47 thoughts on “Linux and my search for the perfect MP3 player

    • I did a quick Amazon search for “Cowon iAudio”. Three questions:

      1) All of those have huge, full-color screens. How’s battery life?

      EDIT: Okay, according to one Amazon review, “18 hours music, 8 hour movie battery life”, which is impressive. Is your experience congruent with this?

      2) I haven’t found one yet that has more than 32 GB. Do they make any in the 40 GB and up range that you know of?

      EDIT: (jeez, I need to research this crap before commenting, don’t I?) I just found this, which is 80GB… much better! But I’m still a bit concerned about the physical size and battery life on this model, particularly because of that massive screen.

      3) The physical size of the device itself seems a bit on the big size. Do you know if there’s a smaller-model (physically)?

      Thanks for the comment, I hadn’t looked at Cowon at all, so this is another possibility!

      • I’ve owned a couple of Cowon MP3 players and I really like them. Sound quality is good & battery life is excellent. I like them also because I believe them to be a Linux friendly company. Currently I’ve got the iAudio 7 which would do everything you need – except I think the max memory is 16GB. Battery life on that particular player is great – at least 30 hours I would say. They do make some players with memory slots – the D2 is one example, though maybe the screen on that model may be too big.

        • Yeah, I really like the look and design of the Cowon players, and they get consistently stellar reviews.

          I just wish they made something that could hold 40 GB or more.

          My current player is 20 GB and I’m constantly having to delete stuff from it in order to copy other stuff to it. I just wish I could find a player that had enough space to fit everything so I wouldn’t have to bother worrying about space (that also meets my other two requirements).

          Maybe by the time I can afford to buy a replacement, there will be someone making something that fits that, but I’m not hopeful at this point. :(

  1. I have an iPod because it’s compatible with my car stereo, such that I can control it through the stereo, it’s not just a line-in as with all other MP3 players.

    My GF has a mac so I have had some experience of iTunes. I hate it with a passion, it’s slow and not particularly intuitive.

    I use solely linux and to load up my iPod I use ‘gtkpod’ fantastic piece of software, especially as it doesn’t try to do anything clever if you don’t want it to.

    • I’ve seen a lot of good testimonials about GtkPod… I just have problems with it, conceptually. I shouldn’t have to go to those lengths. Also, I hate the iPod interface with a passion.

      So, I still reject the iPod on philosophical grounds (like the Zune… there are ways of getting a Zune to work on Linux, but I reject the Zune on principle as well), and I’ve never been overly fond of the actual way iPods work anyway.

      That said, you never know. I might just say “screw it!” and end up with an iPod someday. I just hope it doesn’t come to that. :)

    • I’ve run across those. I’m assuming you’re talking about these, right?

      The price is right, though they look a bit bulky. Plus, aren’t those more or less dead products? Are they even still available new?

  2. I really like the iRiver players (http://www.iriver.com/). They are pretty cheap, but they have a good interface and play Ogg Vorbis and FLAC. I use the E100 model.

    They are OS agnostic, just copy files to the vfat partition and its internal database re-freshes the music list.

    -c

    • Thanks, Chris, I’ll have to check them out. I haven’t given them a serious look for a few years; it sounds like they’re worth some scrutiny. :)

  3. Just looking at their page, I think the E100 is still the only model which supports FLAC..

    The only thing I don’t like about the E100, is that the buttons are a little clicky. But you get used to that and for me, who has all their music in FLAC, it’s simply my favourite player ever :-)

    -c

    • Well, FLAC is nice, but it’s not one of my dealbreaker requirements. However, I question the usefulness of any portable digital music player that supports FLAC but has less than 60GB of storage. Doesn’t make much sense to me.

      Which iRiver model has greater than 40GB capacity?

  4. Yeah I see what you’re saying, but for me, the 8GB e100 can hold almost 300 songs in FLAC which is more than enough.

    My music stays on my server and I copy stuff I want to listen to across to it on the road.

    Then again, all my music is ripped from audio CD, so it tends to be easier to pick what I want.

    Not sure about larger models.. I look for FLAC support first ;-)

    -c

    • Yeah, I just have the notion in my head that my next portable music device should actually be better than or be at least comparable to the (now four+ year old) one I have (i.e., it should be able to store more music, have at least the same battery life, etc.). I just can’t see going to a device that stores LESS music than my current one (which at 20GB is already insufficient for my needs).

      That’s what ticked me off so much about ARCHOS. They used to have a couple of great lines of MP3 player products, and now all they have is low-capacity crap. Like this: ARCHOS MP3 players

      Not a one that can hold more than 16GB of music. WTF? They used to make lots of devices that held 20GB and up!

      I really honestly have to wonder WTF they’re thinking. As I mentioned in my writeup today, even the basic standard Apple iPod is 120GB out of the gate. How do these non-Apple companies expect to compete?

      Heh. Sorry, BTW. I’m not ranting at you, just in general. This has me really perplexed these days. It seems like asking for non-proprietary MP3 players that can hold 40GB of music and run for 10 hours on a charge is asking far too much.

      Which, considering even how much technology has advanced in the 4 years or so since I bought my last MP3 player, is really, really sad. I should have LOTS of options in that arena… not NO options. :(

  5. I have a Creative Zen 32gb. OK it does not meet your 40gb limit, but i find it awesome. I have Sennheiser neckband headphones (PMX 60) as i do not like loud noises next to my eardrums. Bad for you hearing in the long run. It is solid state, a very big plus. battery life is quoted at up to 36 hours. I have not timed it, but mine rarely needs charging.

    The sound quality of the combination is brilliant. Under Linux Gnomad2 works reliably as a file transfer program. It only supports mps, aac (DRM Free) and wma. You sometimes have to run Gnomad2 as root the first time you use it.

    I ride a bike and my old iRiver H340 eventually died from being bounced around, not an issue with the Zen. The H340 had RockBox installed and worked well, but it was starting to show it’s age.

    There are two version, the Zen and the Zen-Xfi. I have the Zen. With high quality earbuds they work better with all the fancy sound processing off. I also have Sennheiser CX300 II earbuds and they require the EQ to be off to sound right. The extra money for the X-Fi version gets you higher quality buds in the box, but I use Sennheisers anyway.

    All my music is now mp3 at the highest VBR setting. I used to use ogg, but Creative refuse to support it.

    Lasly, the Zen is the size of a fat credit card and weighs almost nothing.

    I also have a simple cable to an AUX input in the car. I do not need a car charger, it lasts longer on battery than I any trip I could drive.

    • Wow, great comment, thanks for the recommendation. I think among the various devices I’ve looked at in my extensive searching, if I were to buy one today, it would probably be the Creative Zen 32GB player. It has the most (and the most consistently positive) reviews on Amazon, and one thing that it seems to get raves about is battery life, which is always a concern for me.

      A couple of questions, if you could answer for me. I notice that it has an SD slot… is that standard SD or microSD? Do you use yours, and if so, do you notice any difference in power consumption if the device is reading songs off the SD card? And is “SD” different from “SDHC”?

      Also, regarding loading the device. When you say “Gnomad2 works reliably as a file transfer program”, are you saying that you use that to sync it, or is an actual program necessary to load songs onto it? i.e., I ask because I would really rather just plug the device in, open up my regular file manager (usually XFE or Konqueror) and copy+paste to it, like I do now on my ARCHOS player.

  6. Hard drive based portable player seem like a waste of money to me. Why have so much music with you? Are you moving to a deserted island for summer vacation? You risk losing it or having it stolen. And it’s much more susceptible to damage and have less battery life. Nothing like a flash based one, with Rockbox installed.

    • I want all of my music with me. That way I can listen to whatever I want, wherever I want. And ANY portable electronic device could be lost or stolen. I’m not sure what your point is.

      I’d love a flash based / solid state one. Problem is, they don’t seem to make them larger capacity than 32 GB, which is somewhat shy of my 40 GB requirement.

  7. The iPod is supported by RhythmBox and Banshee quite well actually. Banshee can even sync your video library to it.

    About the only MP3 player you really want to avoid is the Zune, but not even Windows users are buying that.

    • I’ve read that people have had some success getting iPods to work with Amarok too. However, I don’t want to “sync” my music player at all. I just want to copy and paste files to it and then be able to play them on the device without any sort of application needed to “sync” it. The iPod has a major defect in that this relatively simple thing — which pretty much every other player out there can do — doesn’t work. That’s my main beef with the iPod, and it’s enough to keep me from buying one.

  8. I sympathise with your rejection of iPods (I got a Sansa Fuze instead of a Nano for that reason), but I’ve got to say, your requirements would really be best met by an iPod classic. I did a quick check of weight vs. storage capacity, and the only serious contender turned out to be the Archos 5. But where the Archos 5 120GB weighs in at 300 grams, the iPod classic 120GB is a lightweight at 140 grams (a reminder: your old GMINI only weighs 118 gr.).

    That’s quite sad, really; it seems the money is in flash-players these days. Perhaps you should just get a flash-player with an expansion slot and wait for 32-GB-cards to become cheaper.

    On the other hand, AFAIK at least Banshee, and I think also Rhythmbox, support newest iPods. Banshee for one simply offers to replace an iPod’s encrypted database with its own the first time you plug it in and from that time on you can use it.

    • I sympathise with your rejection of iPods (I got a Sansa Fuze instead of a Nano for that reason), but I’ve got to say, your requirements would really be best met by an iPod classic. I did a quick check of weight vs. storage capacity, and the only serious contender turned out to be the Archos 5. But where the Archos 5 120GB weighs in at 300 grams, the iPod classic 120GB is a lightweight at 140 grams (a reminder: your old GMINI only weighs 118 gr.).

      Yeah, I hate how big the Archos 5 is. I really probably should list a 4th requirement… my MP3 player should be no bigger than a standard iPod for size, or at least not very much bigger.

      That’s quite sad, really; it seems the money is in flash-players these days. Perhaps you should just get a flash-player with an expansion slot and wait for 32-GB-cards to become cheaper.

      Yeah, I’m thinking that might actually be what I do. I’m not ready to buy yet (I need a regular full time job again first before I can afford to), but when I do buy, it’s likely to be a flash based one, which kind of ticks me off, since the storage capacity on those is inferior.

      On the other hand, AFAIK at least Banshee, and I think also Rhythmbox, support newest iPods. Banshee for one simply offers to replace an iPod’s encrypted database with its own the first time you plug it in and from that time on you can use it.

      Right, but as I’ve mentioned, I still reject iPods out of hand for the rather major defect of not allowing music to be loaded by a simple copy+paste. That’s simply too big a design flaw for me to not get angry about every time I loaded something to it, on principle. :)

      To me, that’s incredibly insulting, a lock-in offense on the same order as Microsoft commits regularly. It’s such a huge defect I have major trouble actually paying money for an iPod. If Apple were to fix this, I’d buy an iPod without hesitation.

    • I shouldn’t have to “fix” a device that costs that much, just to get it to work in a reasonable manner. That, to me, would be like buying a beautiful new car and then taking it to a mechanic straight from the dealer so that I can put an actual working engine in it so I can drive it.

      Sorry. Can’t bring myself to do that. I’d put up with a much lesser car rather than validate that as a viable option.

  9. The SD slot is a full SD slot, compatible cards are listed on the Creative site. They list up to 8gb, so it supports SDHC. It reads a 4gb Lexar card I have OK.

    But it is not as useful as it first seems. The card does not become an extension of the library. You can import photo files from the card, or play music files from the card using a simple file browser. It would be great if you could configure it to be an extension So it essentially becomes two libraries, controlled differently.

    I have not used the slot much so I cannot comment on battery drain.

    Gnomad2 is a two pane file manager with the player on the right and your computer on the left. You just highlight the file(s) you want and press an arrow to send to the player. Simple and effective. I believe you can use Amarok to connect and sync, but I have 80gbs on my computer so I do not sync.

    I hope that explains it clearly enough. It is a great 32gb player that works with Linux. It is not drag and drop with Konqueror, but Gnomad2 works well. The SD slot is OK, but not as useful as it first seems.

    • Thanks for the comment, Greg

      The SD slot is a full SD slot, compatible cards are listed on the Creative site. They list up to 8gb, so it supports SDHC. It reads a 4gb Lexar card I have OK.

      But it is not as useful as it first seems. The card does not become an extension of the library. You can import photo files from the card, or play music files from the card using a simple file browser. It would be great if you could configure it to be an extension So it essentially becomes two libraries, controlled differently.

      Ah, ok. That greatly limits its usefulness in my opinion.

      Gnomad2 is a two pane file manager with the player on the right and your computer on the left. You just highlight the file(s) you want and press an arrow to send to the player. Simple and effective. I believe you can use Amarok to connect and sync, but I have 80gbs on my computer so I do not sync.

      I hope that explains it clearly enough. It is a great 32gb player that works with Linux. It is not drag and drop with Konqueror, but Gnomad2 works well.

      Ugh. I take it that it probably wouldn’t work to copy files via command line either? Like via a script that I have that I currently use to great effectiveness?

      That kinda ticks me off, and it’s a potential dealbreaker for me. Yes, it “works in Linux”, but it’s an unnecessary design defect, and it’s at the heart of my #1 requirement. I shouldn’t require any kind of special program to load music onto the device, at all. If I can’t copy+paste, there’s something wrong with it.

      Why do companies make stuff like that? I’ve never understood that. :(

      If that’s the case, I might as well buy an iPod and just use GtkPod to load it. At least then I’d have the storage capacity I need.

  10. Seems your best choices would be the aforementioned Creative 32GB or the Sansa View 32GB then, which cost about the same (~ 200 USD).

    The big plus of the Creative is that it takes up normal-sized SD(HC) cards, which are less pricy than the microSD(HC) cards the Sansa demands. The Creative weighs 65, the Sansa 80 grams, so both are ridiculously light-weight. The Creative’s screen is 0.1 inch bigger…

    The Creative also plays back AAC files, while the View does not. The only thing the Sansa has going for it is its slightly smaller size. Well, that and that the click-wheel is far superior to the Creative’s four-directional rocker. This last point would be enough for me to seriously meditate about the decision as I LOVE the handling of my Sansa Fuze… ^_^

  11. My choice of the Zen rested on one and only one criteria. I read all the reviews and when coupled with good headphones or buds nothing can compare to the Zen’s playback quality, and that includes iPods. The fact that I can load the music using Linux is the only other factor I cared about.

    The Sansa is certainly Linux friendly as are the Cowans. I have had an iRiver and that also worked well with Linux.

    Depends on what is important to you and how good your ears are.

    cheers

    • Thanks, Greg. I still have to ask though… like the SanDisk Sansa also discussed here, does the Zen have an “MSC” mode that just makes it behave like a mass storage device, so I can copy+paste files onto it, or do it via command line?

  12. The Zens are MTP and cannot be switched. I just plugged mine in and fired up Amarok and it appears as a device without any configuration. You can add/remove songs from inside Amarok.

    That is neat for me.

  13. I’ve run a Rockbox-powered Sansa e280 for almost 3 years now and never had any issues in any OS with its usage. They just added HID drivers to Rockbox, so you can use the physical controls on your player to control your media software now – if that’s your thing.

    IMHO being hung up on hdd devices over ssd devices is a mild form of douchebaggery – since many hdd devices can have their drives replaced by 64,128GB CF or 32,64GB SDHC cards. As soon as SDXC takes off it will be a moot point – you could just pop your 2TB microSDXC in the slot on an older Sansa and be good forever – Rockbox will most certainly support newer flash standards than the OEMs. They have in the past added SDHC support to devices over a year in advance of the OEMs.

    My advice is to pick up a Sansa e280 (8GB internal flash) and a 32GB microSDHC when they become available (or just a pair of 16GBs), Rockbox it, and voila you are set…

    Full flash memory, 40GBs of storage, 24hrs battery life, support for virtually all file formats, extensive sound control, superior sound quality to the majority of other players, easy customization of settings and UI, etc.

    Use RockboxUtility to make the process idiot-proof.

    • IMHO being hung up on hdd devices over ssd devices is a mild form of douchebaggery

      Where do you get that I’m hung up on hdd devices? I would actually prefer solid state, because it usually means much less power consumption. But I want a device that has a minimum of 40GB natively, and I haven’t found a solid state device yet that does.

      My advice is to pick up a Sansa e280 (8GB internal flash) and a 32GB microSDHC when they become available (or just a pair of 16GBs), Rockbox it, and voila you are set…

      Full flash memory, 40GBs of storage, 24hrs battery life, support for virtually all file formats, extensive sound control, superior sound quality to the majority of other players, easy customization of settings and UI, etc.

      Actually, what I’ll probably end up doing (unless a better product becomes available by the time I’m ready to buy) is buying a 32GB SanDisk Sansa View and as big a microSD card as I can find.

      I don’t like the click-wheel interface at all (and I’ve seen videos of usage with this model, so I know how it works), but I can probably put up with that since I can expand its storage pretty seamlessly with a microSD card to exceed my 40GB requirement, it’s platform agnostic, so I can just use it regardless of what OS I’m running on my computer, and it allegedly has great battery life for music playback. It’s still more of a compromise on native storage capacity than I’m happy with, but the price is right, so I won’t feel too bad about buying something a lot better if such a device becomes available a year or two after I buy this SanDisk device.

  14. zhab,
    Can the Sansa e280 handle large (meaning >16gb) microsd cards? I’ve read some reviews of users complaining that it couldn’t recognize more than 2 gb microsd cards.

  15. Hello, I know that I am resurecting an old post but I was seaching the same thing as you. I finally found out the Cowon X7. Touch screen, ~100 hours advertised on music, hard disk 160 go, read flac and ape files. http://www.cowonglobal.com/.
    I still haven’t bought it because it’s not currently in stock but I plan to.

    • That thing’s physically enormous though… that’s even bigger than my phone (a Samsung Instinct). Ugh. Might as well just use my phone…

      I’m not overly fond of touch screen devices when it comes to MP3 players. They necessitate having to stop what you’re doing and look at the device in order to do things on it (as opposed to something with physical buttons, which I can skip songs on, pause, stop, play, just by reaching into my pocket).

      I’m really glad my old Archos player is (so far) still functioning; I still haven’t found a thing with which to replace it.

      Not to bash your suggestion, mind you. I appreciate the comment. I just wish the X7 were about half as big, physically.

      • I guess I probably should have added “physical size” to my original requirements. It shouldn’t be any bigger than a “standard” iPod.

        And while I dislike touchscreens on mp3 players, I could put up with one if I could find something that met my other requirements. But I’d rather not.

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