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Apple iPod V. Rio Karma

Recently my sister Rachel joined with her brothers in a common choice of portable digital music player. The Apple iPod is by far the most popular product in this area, but all three of us have found that it falls short of our needs and wants. There is another player we've found, though, that works for us. Let me preface this discussion with the fact that the three of us are certainly quite picky, maybe even elitist, on this subject. And we're geeks. We all agree that the iPod is quite over-hyped and overpriced, and that there are excellent alternatives. One size certainly doesn't fit all, but the Rio Karma definitely hits our demographic.

First, I want to make it clear that I am comparing the fourth-generation 20GB Apple iPod (4G) with the 20GB Rio Karma. I'm not making any comparison to other Rio or Apple players.

Both players retail for about $300 USD. Apple closely controls the price of their player, so you will likely not find it for significantly cheaper online or in a store. The Karma, though, can easily be ordered online for less than $250 with shipping and taxes. I see seven vendors on that have a total price for less than $250, bottoming out at $225. So, the Karma is a good deal cheaper.

The extras that comes with the Karma also severely outclass the iPod. For $39 on Apple's website, you can get a docking station for more convenient charging and file transferring. For $79, you can get that same dock along with cables to hook the iPod directly to your home stereo system. This same setup is standard with the Rio Karma. Total cost: Karma $225 with tax and shipping (my best price online); iPod $378 before calculating tax and shipping. The common conception here is that the iPod is a much better product overall, and hopefully earns its higher price tag.

Here's a point for the iPod. It is smaller than the Karma. The iPod is longer and slimmer at 5.6 cubic inches total. The Karma is shorter and squatter at 8.91 cubic inches. Despite the size comparison, the Karma manages to be barely lighter, at 5.5 ounces to the iPod's 5.6 ounces. In my opinion, the Karma is still small enough. It fits in my back jeans pocket, albeit with a bulge. It's not uncomfortable, though.

The major selling point for the Karma for me, though, is gapless playback. I will concede that most people don't seem to care about it, so perhaps I'm too much of a music geek/elitist/purist. According to several message boards that I've read, lots of of folks will defend the iPod's lack of this key (to me) feature by saying that it's a meaningless feature. It is not for me. To listen to a well-crafted artful album where the artist has chosen a beautiful gapless track-to-track transition (one song rolls right into the next, e.g. the last few tracks on The Beatles' Abbey Road), and get a jarring silence and equally jarring restart after a second or so ruins the transition entirely. The Rio Karma gives you a "just like the CD" smooth transition for all its supported audio formats. The Apple iPod simply does not. There is a petition online to add this functionality, but until then, some music just cannot be conveyed properly on an iPod.

Speaking of supported audio formats, that leads to another important note for me, but understandably not for many: supported audio formats. The Rio Karma cannot play music bought from the Apple iTunes Music Store, the most popular digital music service on the net. In fact, the iPod is the only player that can. That doesn't affect computer geeks, though, because we're pretty turned off by rights-controlled music in general. The Karma, on the other hand, natively plays one of the most popular formats for lossless live music recording, Ogg FLAC. It also supports Ogg Vorbis, which is my particular lossy favorite, and the favorite of many audiophiles. Of course, both support the ubiquitous MP3 format. Though, again, the iPod can't play them gaplessly.

Another boon for the iPod is the simplicity of transferring music to it. If your music is not properly tagged with artist/album/trackname information, the iPod can make do. Without proper tagging, though, the Karma is difficult to impossible to navigate. Once your music is tagged correctly, though, there are more benefits for the Karma than a functioning player. You can then search and sort by any tag (including year, genre, etc..). Also, the Karma can serve up custom playlists based on this information (Sounds of the 70s..). The Karma also tracks your listening habits, and if you're so inclined, you can have it make a playlist of your favorites, old favorites, songs you've forgotten, and many other combinations.

One thing iPod proponents claim as their trump card is the slick interface of their player. I will not disagree. The iPod definitely has a very cool and easily usable interface. That's not to say that the Karma's interface is bad, though. It is different. Those I know who have used it do agree that it is still very fast and easy to use. Subjectively, it is not as "cool," but it is as "good."

If you choice of music player is the Apple iPod, then so be it. Just don't fool yourself into thinking the iPod is head and shoulders above the other players in the market to which Apple was a late arrival. There are pros and cons to all players, even the iPod. The Rio Karma is the player that fits my needs and wants the best.