An anonymous commenter recently asked "by the way, which mp3 player did you go for?", presumably a reference to a post from about two years ago.
This rather unprecendented level of interest had led me to document in excruciating detail the various bits of electronic gizmodery that I have owned in the name of progress.
Various personal radio/cassette recorders, 1987-2002.
Right, technically these weren't digital by any stretch, but they began my interest and set the standards. When I was a teenager with a weekly paper round, I needed something to listen to while I trudged round the streets of a Kent village, my only other enterainment being to try to target the papers through the letterbox to hit the yapping dogs. So a combination of tapes of shows recorded off Radio 4 the previous week and various erratic walkmen rip offs did the trick. Special commendation also has to go to a couple of Panasonic radio/cassette devices which served me through my entire graduate life, being used pretty much every day to give radio accompanyment to my research, for up to six hours a day. I still have the last one of these. They would eat two, or even one AA battery at a time, and they lasted for weeks at a time. This was a standard of battery life that I would not see again for a long time.
A cheap CD/MP3 player from Walmart, 2003-2004
My first MP3 digital music player was this device, for all of about $30. It seemed like a good idea at the time: you could put many many hours of stuff onto a single CD, burn CD-RWs with new things to listen to, and so on. It was pretty good, and saved my sanity multiple times while I was trekking around the US looking for jobs in 2004 (when you are stuck in ORD and just cannot summon up the will to even read a newspaper, it's good to have something to listen to). The downside was that it ate up batteries rather too quickly, and was a bit too bulky: you couldn't really listen to it while walking around because of the CD spinning around (it was probably fine, but it just didn't feel right), and it felt off to have something quite that large on a plane. Also, the user interface was a bit clunky, and it could only seem to read a few characters of a file name. So it made it rather hard to keep track of which files you had already listened to, when listening to audio books or recorded radio shows.
Lexar JumpDrive player 2004-2005
So I looked for something a bit smaller, and something which I could easily move things onto and off of as I had listened to them. I settled on the JumpDrive player, a neat arrangement which could play mp3s and wma's from off a USB key drive (but only those made by lexar). This was actually really good in many ways. It ran off 2 AAA batteries, and lasted quite a long time. I liked the navigation system, and it was easy to put things on and off it. The only disadvantages were that you couldn't fit too much onto the 512MB stick I used it with, and I had to reencode files down to lower bitrates to get a decent selection on it. Oh, and it had no FM radio. A radio isn't that important in the US, when most of the stations are rubbish, but it is absolutely vital when travelling to the UK, I find. Anyway, I wanted to move up to a big grown up hard disk based MP3 player that I could put all of my music on, so...
iaudio X5 player, 2005-
I bought an iaudio player. You are forgiven for not having heard of them. They're a not so well known Korean manufacturer who make actually really good players. This one had video before the iPod did. Of course, you find that the video is small and jerky, and so nothing more than a novelty, but it's still a nice idea. The reason I picked this rather than an iPod or even some of the other reasonable alternatives (Creative, iRiver), is that it has a good user interface and mounts as a hard drive. It's funny that although people list all the features of a gadget, they rarely pay attention to the user interface, which is vital if you actually want to use these features. This device has all the bookmarking, resume, and fast seeking options that I wanted in a digital media player (see previous posts on this subject). It has the obligatory FM radio, but it also has the best radio UI I have ever used: you can easily automatically search and store the local radio frequencies (handy when you travel a lot), and switching between preset stations is instantaneous, just by clicking back/forward. It's just a really nice, well done interface compared to the many dreadful interfaces I have suffered in my life. It mounts as a USB mass storage device, meaning that I can manipulate files on my hard disk, then run an rsync while it is plugged in. But, sadly, this is not enough for me. The one failing of this device is battery life. It has an inbuilt rechargable battery intially, it would last about 10 hours of use between charges, but with time this has dwindled to around 4 hours. That's not really enough, but even with the longer battery life, I found that I was still rationing its use while I was travelling, which seems to defeat the point. So...
iaudio G3 2007-
Most recently I have been using a 2GB iaudio G3. It's a thing of magic and beauty. I'd prefer 4GB to 2GB, but I can just about get by with 2. See, I noticed that although I could carry around (almost) my entire music collection in 30Gb, actually, I almost always would listen mostly to audiobooks and recorded radio shows (harking back to my paperround days), so I should just focus on those. Since I liked the X5 so much, I knew that I would like the G3: it has a similar interface, although in greyscale instead of the "color sound" of the X5. It also mounts as USB mass storage, and so I can still rsync to keep it up to date. The radio interface is also good, although changing stations takes an appreciable second or two. But -- this is great -- it stores the frequencies in a file called radio.ini which is a text file that you can just edit, which is smart. The reason that I go with this device is that it runs on AA batteries, unlike most of the modern fancy flash players, so you can carry around a supply of batteries and know that you'll never be stranded. Not that this is too much of a problem -- it can last for up to 40 or 50 hours on a single battery. That's a long time! When travelling in Europe recently, I was listening to it a lot as I travelled around -- probably 24 hours over the course of a week -- and the battery barely noticed. Unfortunately, this model seems to be about to be phased out; I just hope that the manufacturers make more removable battery powered players, with larger capacities.
And that's it... well, except for the fact that I recently bought a new car based GPS navigator device (a Garmin nuvi 350), which includes MP3 playing capabilities. This just underlines the importance of good user interface. All the players mentioned above use the file/folder approach to navigate, which works great for me. This new device navigates based on artist/album tags in the files -- which seem to be all over the place in the files I put on it to test. It's absolutely impossible to navigate around, which is a bit of a worry for an in-car device. Fortunately, the GPS part is great, and that's what I mostly use it for. I have no idea how people with digital players which use id3 tags and have 30GB of music manage to find what they are looking for.
Well, you did ask.