Sure, sure, you're hopelessly, helplessly in love with your iPod. That doesn't mean your precious doesn't have pimples. What about iPod's notorious lack of endurance between recharges, the sealed case that means you may have to scrap the thing if the internal battery dies, and the proprietary digital-music format that joins you at the hip to Apple's iTunes online store? Apple may hold more than 60% of the market for hard drive--based digital-music players, but even iPod devotees may have wandering eyes--and competitors are crying "Pick me!" by delivering fetching new digital-music players that adopt some of the benchmark's strengths while offering more flexibility and features.
Leading the iPod-killer list is Sony's NW-HD3 Network Walkman, a player that attacks Apple at its stylishly minimalist core. Sony engineers understand that consumers want products that look as good as they sound, and the 20-GB NW-HD3 reflects that with its slim, anodized-aluminum casing. The player offers excellent sound and a menu that's easy to navigate using a four-way directional button. The company claims the player can go 30 hours without recharging. But Sony style means Sony price: at $349, the NW-HD3 costs $50 more than Apple's 20-GB iPod and is the same price as the 30-GB iPod photo--yet unlike the latter, the Sony has no color screen.
Craving more than monochrome? The display's the thing on Toshiba's Gigabeat MEG F20--a gorgeous, 2.2-in. color screen that can crisply handle JPEG images, slick menu icons and even animated graphics that pulsate in synch with your music. Unlike the Sony and Apple players, which are closely bound to the companies' Sony Connect and iTunes Music Store, the Gigabeat can download songs from most music sites, and there's a forthcoming $449 version with an enormous 60 GB of memory.
Not all of us want to spend that kind of cash on a pocket player. Less memory equals lower price; a 5-GB hard drive can store up to 2,500 songs, enough for many people, which is one reason the iPod mini is as popular as its big brother. That's also why the mini is attracting competition from devices such as the iRiver H10. (An iRiver ad campaign features headphone-wearing models biting into apples over the tag line SWEETER ONE.) The H10 is about the same size as the mini, has about the same storage capacity and likewise comes in designer colors, but it offers features that Apple doesn't: a removable Li-Ion battery, a 1.5-in. color LCD, an FM radio tuner and voice recording. At the CeBIT electronics show in Germany last month, iRiver's parent company announced that it would introduce 20-GB and 1-GB versions, starting at $440 and $270, respectively.
Another iPod mini challenger is the Zen Micro, made by Singapore-based Creative Technology. Like the H10, the Zen Micro sports an FM radio and audio/voice recording. The unit has a solid feel, a sharp, white-backlit screen and an easy-to-understand menu rivaling Apple's famously user-friendly interface. At $250, the 6-GB version costs the same as a 6-GB iPod mini; it's also smaller, plays tunes in the Windows Media Audio format as well as MP3, and when you throw in the radio and recording features, it might be a better deal.