The Return of the MP3 Player

I’ve posted before about my Insignia Sport 4 GB cheapo MP3 player, and also about how I fit it into my podcast listening workflow. I’ve had a few hitches in that but am now in better shape and am happier with my podcast consumption than ever before.

First, for years I’ve been listening in my car via one of those cassette adapters. I get mine for $9 at CVS drugstores. Recently the tape deck in my car died and won’t play either real cassettes or my fake cassette in the adapter. In the year 2009, I’m not shelling out extra money to replace a car cassette deck (or 8 track either for that matter.) I decided to spring for one of those cheapo FM transmitters. This would give me a standard way of working with any car, my own or my wife’s or a rental.

What I did was pick up this cheap ass FM transmitter from Deal Extreme for $7.50. I bought essentially 2 versions of the same thing because I also bought this other similar but not quite identical FM transmitter but it is still unopened. That first one has some kind of crazy thermometer on it which I guess can be interesting to know exactly how hot your car is when you get in it. I’ve been using this for a little over a month and I’m insanely happy with it. It has a USB power input but I just run it off the three AAA batteries in there and never bother with the adapter. I might switch back to that later, as it didn’t work right with the cigarette lighter port doubler but I don’t actually need that now as I’ll get to directly. I bought a big pack of Costco AAA batteries thinking this thing would chew threw them, but I got about a month on the first set.

The other big thing is that after a solid year of pretty much all day every day use, the battery in the Insignia sport had given up. It got to where I couldn’t go all day on one charge, and then to where I could only get to lunchtime, would recharge in my car at lunchtime and then again on the drive home. Finally, it only held about 10 seconds of charge. I’m sure I got at least my 500 cycles in there. What made me insane is that they guy who sits next to me at work had the same player but cracked his screen and I never thought to harvest his battery and eventually he threw it away. Doh! This is why I was using the cigarette lighter doubler, I had the USB power for the FM transmitter and also had to keep the MP3 player plugged in to USB power too. It was quite a pain to have this giant mass of chargers sticking out of my dashboard.

For all the reasons in the first post of mine I linked, I didn’t want to replace this MP3 player. It fits perfectly in my life and I don’t want to find another cheap player that does. Luckily, I found that at Best Buy’s Part Search store (which I had never heard of) you can replace this battery for $19 + shipping. Hell yeah! I dorked around and didn’t order and finally did last week and got the replacement battery a few days ago. I got 2 full days of listening on that first charge and am just now syncing and charging up again. Oh yeah! I no longer have to walk the dog in silence, I actually get some of that good podcast listening that I’m in the market for.

For both of these things, I dropped about $45 in merchandise and shipping and I could have easily saved $10 by only buying one FM transmitter. This has me back in business as good or better than I’ve ever been at a pretty low cost and with backups at that. Color me happy!

Insignia Sport, My Best Podcast Player So Far

My Creative Zen V Plus has been getting flakier and flakier lately, requiring hard resets and just acting funky. Under the best circumstances it never has been a perfect device for podcast listening – acceptable at best. When my boss told me that he got an Insignia Sport 4Gb player from Best Buy for $60 on clearance, I looked at the specs and reviews online and basically jumped up and drove to Best Buy to buy one for myself. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now and can say that it is the best portable MP3 player for listening to mostly or exclusively for podcasts that I have ever owned.

Running down the list I have owned in order: an original 512 Gb iPod Shuffle; a 512 Gb mobiBLU cube; a 4 Gb Creative Zen V Plus; and now the 4 Gb Insignia Sport. I’ve also had the Zune but I’m not counting it in this list partly because it is big and in a different niche than all these, but also because their attempts to add value to podcasts actually make it unusable for the task. All the rest of these were about the same price, in the high $90s at the time of purchase.

Here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of each device as I found the experience of trying to use them as dedicated podcast playing devices.

Original Gumstick 512 Mb iPod Shuffle

Pros: Easy to use; small and light; very easy syncing with iTunes combined with smart playlists made for the best file handling I’ve seen; remembered the spot in long MP3s without bookmarking

Cons: No display made it impossible to identify timestamps of shows for later quoting on EGC; both the original and replacement went DOA after 9 months

512 MB mobiBLU Cube

Pros: Tiny device; mounted as an external device for use with Macs; remembered the spot in long MP3s without bookmarking

Cons: Playlist feature too cumbersome to use so I always listened in alphabetical order; weird nonstandard USB connector that went in through the headphone jack; built in headphones in the lanyard broke early on

4 GB Creative Zen V Plus

Pros: Large storage space for an inexpensive player; attractive display; theoretically plays video

Cons: Is MTP so it requires Windows to sync the device; forgets the position in file when it powers down so you have to remember to bookmark; playlist function is really cumbersome; the only format of video it plays is ridiculous and converting to it is a pain

4 GB Insignia Sport

Pros: Large storage space; cheapest of the lot at $60 on clearance; contains a microSD slot; theoretically plays video; mounts as standard external drive so usable with OS X; imports M3U files for playlists; remembers position in long files without bookmarking; has Bluetooth audio out; plays OGG files!!

Cons: Bluetooth is only for audio, you can’t move files with it; Weird conversion required to play video and it frequently fails; when twirling the wheel to change volume it is possible to be recognized as a “Next file” click; when going from file to file with different bitrates it freaks out until you stop and restart playing

Overall, I’m quite happy with the Insignia Sport. This is provisional as I’ve only had a few weeks of burn in time and the really annoying issues tend to show up after months or when your annoyance level rises to a boil for some functionality that isn’t quite right. I didn’t list it as a pro, but I like how the LED around the wheel on the Insignia Sport looks a lot like the fusion reactor in Iron Man’s chest. I wrote simple scripts to handle the moving of files from my podcatcher directory to the device and then write an M3U file to create a playlist of oldest to newest file. Since there are a couple of shows I always bump to the top of the list, I fudge the dates to make them earlier before I do the whole procedure. Just in not having to futz with the playlist like I did with the Creative Zen, thats a huge win. Over time, I really grew to hate that process. Now, I plug up the Insignia, call my sync script and a few minutes later it is done with no further intervention on my part. I dig it.

If you can find one of these on clearance, I say it’s an automatic buy. At the original price of $139 or so, it’s a marginal call. When an MP3 player gets down in the mid 2 figures some magic happens and you can take risks knowing that if the device sucks or you drop it in a lake you won’t be heartbroken. I’m glad I took the risk with this one.