iPod killers?

Apple's competitors have a new strategy – if you can't beat 'em, copy 'em.

The dream of an iPod killer, a digital media player that would somehow break Apple's lock on the lucrative MP3 market, has apparently died. Most vendors today appear bent on a different strategy: if you can't beat 'em, copy 'em. Witness two recent market entrants, the Toshiba Gigabeat and Creative Zen Vision:m, both iPod look-alikes.

Neither will tempt the true techno-hipster — the iPod's cool quotient is still too high — but both are definitely worth considering. Like the iPod Movie, both have big hard drives. I tested units with 30-gigabyte drives, but they're also available in 60 GB. Both can play videos and display digital photos on their colour LCD screens — like the iPod.

So how do they differentiate themselves? Not on price. One major retailer sells the 30-GB Creative and Apple products for an identical $299. The only dealer I found carrying the 30-GB Gigabeat was selling it for $349.

Both products have a few features the iPod lacks. They have FM radios that work well, and the Vision:m lets you record voice notes using an integrated microphone. With the iPod, you can play downloadable games, something you can't do with Gigabeat or Vision:m.

All three devices have similar-sized screens — 2.5 inches for the iPod Movie and Vision:m, 2.4 inches for the Gigabeat. But the Vision:m screen can display more colours — 262,144 versus 65,000. This is a distinct advantage when it comes to playing video and displaying photos; images look more realistic. Also, while all three screens measure 320 by 240 pixels, the Vision:m LCD looks higher-resolution — images appear sharper.

Given that you'll likely only ever watch brief video clips on a screen this small, audio quality is more important. In separate tests comparing the Vision:m to the iPod, and the Vision:m and Gigabeat, I marginally preferred the Vision:m in both cases. Bass response was a little better than the Gigabeat, and the sound was slightly cleaner and clearer than the iPod. But the differences were minute.

Much has been made of the iPod user interface with its touch-sensitive navigation wheel and simple menu system. But the other two products work as well, arguably better. I've always found it far too easy to make a wrong selection with the iPod's vaunted navigation wheel by lightly brushing the touchpad at the wrong moment.

Toshiba uses the second generation of Microsoft's Portable Media Center platform, based on its Windows Mobile operating system. The menu is simple, attractive and elegant. The physical interface, which features conventional buttons and switches, is simple to learn and use. The Zen Vision:m uses a proprietary operating system developed by Creative. The onscreen interface isn't quite as intuitive as iPod or Gigabeat perhaps, but that's a very slight disadvantage. The Vision:m's more iPod-like physical interface features a touchpad, which is easily as super-sensitive as the iPod wheel, though not circular.

Bottom line: A case can be made for Vision:m over iPod for its slightly superior performance and features. It's tougher to make a case for the more expensive Gigabeat. Neither of the wannabes can match the iPod's cool factor. But if you're concerned about theft, owning a slightly less-desirable player may be a distinct advantage.