Rhapsody Adds New DNA-Aware Portable Device

iriverclix.jpgThe list of portable devices capable of streaming Rhapsody Channels grew by one the other day, as the iRiver Clix debuted via a joint press release. At first glance, it’s a bit different from the Sansa Rhapsody. The Clix has a 4 GB solid state drive, but no SD expansion slot. It supports multiple file formats, including (unlike the Sansa device) OGG Vorbis. It has a bigger video screen, which is nice.

Like the original Clix, there’s no buttons; the face is almost all video screen, with the surrounding edges used for left,right,up and down navigation.

The best feature is, of course, full integration with Rhapsody, including their Channels feature which enables on-the-go discovery of new music. I’ve had a Sansa for nearly a year now, and the Rhapsody portable interface is far and away the easiest one I’ve seen. When I hear a Channel song I’d like to keep, I simply press and hold a button and it saves it, later syncing it to my PC.

My only complaint is that there’s still no way to look back at songs that have already played. If I have the device hooked up to speakers while I’m elsewhere, that’s a problem. A history list would be a great addition. Other than, that, I love Rhapsody.

To their credit, iRiver wrote code to make the Rhapsody integration backwardly compatible to other second generation iRiver Clix devices; the firmware is a free download on the iRiver website.

Fun Blackberry & Zune Rumors

mgopenbox.jpgFrom CrunchGear comes word that Research in Motion may have purchased MusicGremlin, the makers of the first Wi Fi music player, and are getting ready to release a Blackberry with music.

It’s all rumors at this point, driven by MusicGremlin’s strange absence since their somewhat innovative and almost virtually ignored device hit the market in early 2006. Bigger players have gotten a lot more ink Recently, Sansa announced the Connect, due for March retail, which will hopefully incorporate Rhapsody’s Channels feature along with other download services.

And much has been made of the Zune’s wireless capability, though unlike MusicGremlin, you can’t buy music wirelessly with Microsoft’s iPod-wannabe, only share it with other users (and from all accounts, that feature also sucks).

Speaking of Zune, the other cool rumor of the day also comes from CrunchGear – a “sound tip” that Microsoft is working on a Zune phone. Writes Blake Robinson:

It will be a smartphone that works homogeneously with the Zune marketplace. It will most likely not, however, run Windows Mobile. Rather it’ll make use of an interface similar to the current Zune, an interface that I consider among the best available on audio players—I’m sure it can transition to a phone easily.

There’s also XBox 360 video streaming planned, which lines up nicely with that gaming devices built-in video download capabilities. As much as I detested the Zune’s execution at rollout, one must remember that it usually takes Big Redmond two or three swings of the bat before they hit the long ball. Remember Windows? After all, the code name for Windows 95 was Macintosh 84.

Zune Faces Competition In Sansa Connect

sansaconnect.jpgWith the announcement of the Sansa Connect at the recent CES, Microsoft faces serious competition to the the much-hyped Zune. Two key differences in the Wi-Fi player are the focus on Internet radio, and a less DRM-crippled version of Microsoft’s much-hyped song sharing feature.

Microsoft doomed the so-called “community” aspect of the Zune at the outset, requiring that wirelessly traded songs first be purchased from the complicated, consumer-hostile Zune Marketplace, and limiting beamed songs to three plays before they were crippled. No surprise, then, that the Redmond giant announced yesterday that their iPod killer died last quarter. It lost, as my Canadian friends say, a WHACK of money:

The company is betting heavily on the consumer electronics business for future growth, and late last year it introduced a digital media player, Zune, which competes with Apple’s iPod. But Microsoft’s consumer entertainment and devices unit has contributes no profits yet, losing $289 million in the quarter.

Sansa’s device runs on Zing’s technology; their offering got a shot in the arm with the recently announced alliance with FON Networks which will provide free Wi-Fi access in several cities, which should make the Internet radio component much more valuable:

FON’s WiFi network is the largest in the world touting over 215,000 distinct WiFi hotspots, with over 17,000 in the U.S. alone. Hotspot providers are members (called Foneros) who share their unused bandwidth on a FON router in exchange for free WiFi access when roaming through any other FON access point. Through this partnership, consumers using ZING platform, software and services on their mobile players will have the opportunity to become free Foneros and have free unlimited WiFi access directly from their music players.

The only downside to the Sansa Connect is that there’s no explicit Rhapsody component. But the product spec sheet seems to say that the device will connect to any Plays-For-Sure service on the go. I would assume that includes Rhapsody. If this is so, then I’m even more excited, based on the Engadget CES demo showing some insanley cool features, like direct-to-device downloads, community friend finders and such.

This device itself isn’t news, and not just because this post comes two weeks after CES. Anyone with a Sirius Stiletto will recognize the design; SanDisk didn’t build it from the ground up, they simply licensed and re-branded Zing’s device.

Two complaints about this: The Zing device has 8 GB of onboard memory, the Sansa Connect only has four. SanDisk is touting the SD expansion slot, but as readers of this blog know, at the present time this additional storage will only work with non-DRM’d content, on the Rhapsody player anyway.  That kind of defeats the whole purpose of the extra space,  and makes we wonder why the Connect doesn’t simply ship with the full 8 GB.

It probably has to do with the fact that SanDisk’s main business is storage cards.  A company engineer told me a couple weeks ago that SanDisk is working on ways to make this extra capacity integrate with the device. I hope it happens before the Connect becomes available for retail customers in March.

Hands-On With Sansa Rhapsody

sansarhap.jpgThe new line of Sansa Rhapsody portable media players represents the strongest challenge yet to Apple’s market supremacy.  One of the iPod’s key strengths is its’ integration with the iTunes Music Store.  The Sansa devices, ranging from the 2 GB E250R to the 8GB 280R, are built to work seamlessly with Real’s Rhapsody music subscription service.

The Player

The Sansa Rhapsody is slightly shorter and somewhat thicker than a comparable iPod Nano, but it’s packed with more features.  A built-in voice recorder and video playback capability, for starters.  It’s light but substantial, with a scratch-resistant steel back and smooth matte black front.  The interface mimics the iPod’s click wheel, though the arrow buttons are separated from the raised ring used to navigate through selection lists.   Best of all is the small menu button at the bottom left of the keypad, used to quickly return to the top level; it’s also an on/off switch.

The screen is bright, and the main interface looks like the Mac’ OS X “dock,” with icons inflating like balloons as they move into the select position.  It’s neatly organized; most users will be navigating it easily within minutes.  The only complaint is that backing up from choices isn’t quite as easy as moving forward.

Rhapsody Channels

The player’s main innovation is integration with Rhapsody Channels, genre and artist-themed playlists designed to encourage musical discovery.  The player comes standard with a few already built in, and its’ easy to add favorites.  Each channel contains up to 200 songs, which are discarded after they’re played.  Synchronization with Rhapsody adds new tracks.  If you want to save a song for later use, it’s a click away.  Tunes can be added as subscription tracks that expire when the monthly credit card charge stops, or purchased outright.

Once a song is added, it’s immediately available on the device.  Upon computer synchronization, it’s placed in the music library.  So far, the Sansa Rhapsody is the only player to offer this kind of on-the-go functionality, though some integrated portable satellite radios let users click on songs and sync to a PC.

Channels can explore a certain theme, like alt-Country, Classic Rock or Acid Jazz, or present like-minded music for fans of particular groups.  The Rolling Stones Channel, for example, included selections from Bo Diddley, Humble and Eric Clapton, along with a healthy dose of Stones.  If a certain song offends your sensibilities, you can skip it or use the player’s rating system to ban it from ever being played again.

DNA is the new DRM

Another interesting element introduced with the Sansa Rhapsody is Real’s new Digital Rights Management (DRM), known as Rhapsody DNA.  Unlike Apple’s DRM, which only works on iPods, songs with DNA DRM will work on other players.

Playing encoded songs on DNA-enabled devices like the Sansa Rhapsody enhances the user experience with additional metadata such as album artwork and artist notes.  This information adds particular value to the Channels feature.  When the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” came on, a quick click revealed a mini-band biography and the song’s release year.

Digital music often provides a bloodless listening experience, all bits and no bite.  Real DNA’s metadata doesn’t supplant liner notes and CD booklets, but it illuminates the experience better than anything offered by any content provider to date.

With the ever-present tether to the Internet, one can only expect metadata quality to improve.  Sansa routinely updates the player’s firmware, adding new functionality to the device.

Priced to Move

Prices for the players range from $139 for the 2 GB (500 song) E250R, which costs 10 dollars less than a comparable iPod.  The E280 is priced the same as an 8 GB Nano.   Feature for feature, however, the Sansa leaves the Apple player in the dust – though the inclusion of an FM radio makes no sense at all.

Currently, the Sansa players are only available through Best Buy.  The big box retailer is bundling a store-branded version of the Rhapsody music service with a two-month trial to entice customers.  The player’s free content, which fills up half the device, syncs fine with other versions of Rhapsody.

There have been many pretenders to Apple’s throne since the iPod was introduced six years ago.  Microsoft’s wireless-enabled Zune player, along with a dedicated music service, is due next month.  The Zune Marketplace may be the player’s undoing, though, as content bought there won’t work anywhere else.  Apple, for its part, also insists on keeping iTunes songs exclusively tied to the iPod.

By opening their new players enough to work with other services, and allowing Rhapsody content to work with other devices, the Sansa Rhapsody performs a neat balancing trick.  Loyalty is rewarded with an improved user experience – but it’s an added benefit, not a requirement.

Wired News – Rhapsody 4.0 Review

sansareal.JPGWired News has a comprehensive review of Rhapsody 4.0 and the Sansa Rhapsody MP3 with embedded firmware. Some highlights:

  • Smarter playlists
  • Faster song transfers
  • Better song license management
  • Best Buy partnership
  • Easier drag and drop to device
  • Listening history blogging

The service is designed to enhance music discovery, which I think will improve Rhapsody’s standing and the stature of subscription schemes as well. What I don’t know yet is how reliable the song feeds are – the algorithm is the key.

Sansa Rhapsody’s Tasteful Imposition

sansarhapsody.jpgWalter Mossberg looks at Sansa’s Rhapsody-integrated player today. I generally like his columns, but he has a tendency to draw a bead on one or two features and focus on them. With the Sansa Rhapsody, it’s the annoying inclusion of 500 or more “free tracks” on the device. It’s designed to leverage the song discovery functionality, which is the key differentiator between it and other players, the iPod Nano most prominent among them.

Mossberg winges about the entire concept:

Personally, I found the preloaded music more of a hassle than a boon. It included both canned playlists and channels — preprogrammed radio stations. They featured numerous artists and genres I didn’t like, or actually hated, and I was forced to delete most of them and replace them with music I wanted to hear.

Before I could do this, however, I was amazed to find that Rhapsody wanted to keep adding its own choices to my player. The minute I plugged it into my PC, the service began downloading 73 songs of its own choosing to the Sansa, to “refresh” the choices that came on the device. Real says it plans to change this behavior to ask users first whether they want such a refresh.

I agree that Rhapsody should devise a way to pare down the genre list. Kanye West and Kenny Chesney aren’t often going to show up on the same favorites playlist, why pair them on a PAD, free or otherwise? But I’m intrigued by the referral engine’s usefulness on the portable player, as opposed to services like last.fm and Goombah which, good as they are, are tied to the desktop.

A genre checklist at startup would solve this problem easily. On first sync, launch a Sansa Rhapsody Preferences sub-application with a handy checklist. Whatever genre a user unchecks is removed from the device. Limit it to Rhapsody-To-Go content so tracks selected by the user aren’t deleted.

Of course, this opens up a whole range of possibilities for improvements. What if the Sansa Rhapsody analyzed the user’s listening habits at first synch and built a smart playlist from them? How about partnerships with streaming services that don’t sell subscriptions like last.fm, Mercora or Pandora that leverage usage habits and turn them into referral playlists?

Unfortunately, Mossberg’s too stuck on the song-stuffing problem to explore these issues. The rest of the piece is, unsurprisingly given his history, devoted to form factor. The Sansa Rhapsody is thicker than the Nano, that’s a problem, but it has a bigger screen and a replaceable battery – with a shorter life.

I’m interested in paradigm shifts, and find the discussion of a quarter inch here, and third of an ounce there tedious. How will it change the way I interact with my music? Do that first, then make it fit on the head of a pin – please.

Rhapsody’s explanation of the song list is worth reading – link.

By popular demand, here’s a screen shot of how to delete a song from the player:

rhapsody.jpg

Lefsetz’s Sonos Mea Culpa – Maybe

lefsetz.jpgFor those among us who hang on every word uttered by music biz uber insider Bob Lefsetz, it’s shocking to hear him praise the virtues of Rhapsody. I thought it was his opinion that only idiots and clueless record company execs believed in rental, but here’s the man himself as he sees the light:

I’ve spent eons downloading, STEALING, so much of this stuff. But now all you have to do is lay down ten bucks a month, and you can hear it EVERYWHERE!

Granted, he’s waxing Rhapsodic about the new (and outrageously priced, but Bob gets it free) Sonos player, an Internet radio that doesn’t require a computer, only a broadband connection. From the sound of Bob’s post, it’s also the greatest remote control ever devised.

But I gotta say, Mr. Lefsetz sounds like Sam I Am finally digging the green eggs and ham. I’m glad he’s beginning to understand that the ability to call any song, from anywhere, at the touch of a button is worth ten bucks a month. The instant gratifaction factor alone sold me a long time ago.

I get it on my PC, like most proles unwilling or unable to lay out nearly a grand for the latest gee-whiz gadgetry. It bypasses Windows, though, and that’s a good thing.

But causiing a cranky rental holdout like Lefsetz to grudgingly depart the P2P pulpit – that’s priceless.

Welcome to the club, Bob.