Choosing a Linux-Compatible, Portable Mp3 Player

120studio.com
April 2013

Updated 7/2015


Intro

This article was first written in 2013.  The audio player industry has changed since then.  One change:  more players now support SD and micro SD cards. 

The other change has been the rise of affordable, hi-fi digital audio players (DAP's) that support FLAC and other formats. 

These players were around in 2013, but they were not as affordable, or as well-evolved, as they are now.

As of July 2015, if you're looking for a good player you can load with music files from your Linux box, I would just get one of these right now.   It's a hi-fi player with probably the best balance of price vs. performance. 

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This website is mostly about photography, but if you're into cameras, you probably also like music and tech gadgets as well.  I've been using computers since the Commodore VIC-20, and building systems since the days of the Pentium I, so I guess it was natural that sooner or later this site would start to have tech articles.

(Does anyone remember loading Frogger from the cassette drive?  I think it took about thirty minutes to load the game...)

One thing about most of the top Mp3 players today is that they're dependent on Microsoft or Apple operating systems.  When I first got the chance to use an Apple iPod some years ago, I realized just how annoying this can be.  Basically you're stuck using Apple software and, occasionally, having to go to an Apple store so they can reset the unit.  Contrary to the way every power user would intuitively want to use it, the Apple iPod cannot play songs that are dragged-and-dropped to it.  Oh, sure, you can plug it in and have a Linux system recognize it, but if you drag files to it, they're useless.

I know that other people have actually decided never to use an iPod again because of this.  I agree with them.  Apple captured some of the market by building in exclusivity, but they forever alienated another, large segment of the market.    I used to be a diehard Apple II user, but their marketing strategy has changed my opinion.

Anyway, I believe the non-proprietary mp3 player is growing as a market segment.  Why pay a premium for some piece of hardware that can't even work without proprietary drivers, when we can buy one that allows simple, intuitive drag-and-drop of songs?

When a family member found that her iPod couldn't work with the Linux Netbook I'd set up for her, we decided to try another mp3 player.  Several years ago (2007, I think) I had gotten an mp3 player as a gift and never used it.  On a lark I decided to plug it into the netbook and see if it would work.  Amazingly, this old (and now unavailable) player functioned exactly as every mp3 player should:  as a USB mass-storage device that can read and play mp3 files that are dragged and dropped into it. 

Now, this old mp3 player holds only 1 GB of songs, but so what?  The 1 GB of songs you can hear is better than the 32 GB of songs that you can't. 

Looking around at the mp3 players on the market today, I see three major problems:

1.  Poor resistance to temperature changes, moisture, and dust.

2.  Ultra-thin wires that break!

3.  Short battery life.

Unfortunately, it's tough to avoid all three of these in any one mp3 player.   If you get a touchscreen-based player, there's also a fourth possibility...

4.  Touchscreens that malfunction!


There are many low-cost, Linux-compatible players on the market.  On the upside, they work as USB mass storage devices, which is what every mp3 player should do.  In the "minus" column, they have a very high failure rate and an ultra-short battery life.  The battery on this one lasted for all of about twenty minutes.  The touchscreen was malfunctioning on the right side.  It played songs, but the voice track was garbled.  That's too bad, because they even gave it a pretty nice-looking touchscreen interface, as you can see here.

Sometimes I wish I were the boss of these industry guys for just a moment, so I could talk some sense into them.  "Don't waste your time catering to the fickle side of the market.   In two years, your flashy, finicky mp3 player will be outmoded anyway.  Instead, make a simple, durable mp3 player and promote it as such.   Give it at least 8 GB of capacity.  Make it work with Linux, no hacks required.  Make it moisture-proof and drop-proof.  Make it easy to cycle through very long track lists, or arrange songs by folder or album title.  Finally, make the buttons able to withstand a lot of actuations.  That is all."

Oh, OK... one more thing.  It should go a long time between recharging. Don't waste battery life on a video screen.  We just want a durable music player.  You can listen to music while you're walking, but it's tough to watch video without walking into a tree. 

Yeah, I know, some people are going to say "I need forty gigs!"  How many songs can you listen to in one day?  One week?   Keep your other songs backed up on a memory stick.   Wouldn't you rather have a durable, reliable mp3 player that holds 8 GB than a flaky one that holds 40 GB?  I sure would.    The best Linux-compatible Mp3 player I've ever seen holds only 1 GB, and it's from maybe 2007.  I won't bother mentioning it here, because it's out of production.  That's another drawback of mp3 players... they change designs so fast that by the time you find out about a good one, you can't get them anymore!


The Current Good Ones

Right now (2013) the contest really comes down to three brands, at least if you're a Linux user:  Cowon, Sandisk, and Creative.  Of those brands, there are only a couple of good models.  I'm going to give you a hint:  the exact models you see pictured in the Amazon ads on this page are really the only ones, out of all of them, that I consider worthwhile.  Keep reading to find out why.

I would have put the Samsung Galaxy player on the list, but you shouldn't have to mess with UUID's and custom scripts to get an mp3 player to mount on the system.  Just make it work, like any USB drive should.  (It's too bad, because if you like touchscreen interfaces, the Galaxy is probably the best alternative to the iPod Touch series.  Maybe in a future article I'll write up a procedure to auto-mount the device, but for starters you might want to plug it in and take a gander, first with lsusb , then if it shows there, check with  ls -l /dev/disk/by-uuid/  ).

The Creative mp3 players are popular with Linux users, but they have durability problems.   Note also that some models of the Creative use Microsoft MTP.  (You can usually get them to work by having libmtp installed, but really they should just make the player as a generic USB mass storage device.)

I might like an Android-based mp3 player, but the Creative Zen Touch II is not doing so well with it.  Stability problems abound.  Maybe they'll fix it at some point, but for now I'd steer clear of that model.

Of the Sansa players, the Clip + has the fewest features and is therefore the most durable.   The problem is that its battery life is much shorter than the other players.  With high-sample rate mp3's, you might get six hours out of it.  No good if you're flying from NY to Singapore (which I don't do anyway, but whatever).  If you don't care about battery life and need the mp3 player for short walks or car trips, then get the Sansa Clip +.  (It is more reliable than the Clip Zip, by the way). 

The others (Fuze and View) have more complexity and more to go wrong:  slow startup times, device failures, and other problems.  This appears to be the general state of mp3 players, circa 2013:  high failure rates and poor quality-control.

If you get a Sansa player, you will have to set it to MSC mode (Mass Storage Class) to get it to mount as a generic USB storage device.  Otherwise you're stuck in a Microsoft protocol.
    


The Cowon player has a touchscreen instead of buttons.  I count touchscreens as a minus, but it's not that bad, I guess.  Some people even prefer them.  (OK, for an mp3 player, you could convince me, but I still hate smartphones). 

UPDATE: 
The Cowon iAUDIO 9 is discontinued / unavailable now, so that leaves the Cowon iAUDIO 10.  Here again the audio quality is great (probably the best out there), but again you might not like the interface.  I can't stand touchscreens, but I guess for the audio quality I can overlook that.

The Cowon does have very good audio quality, and good battery life.  If you're really into audio, the Cowon can also serve as the auxiliary input device for anything that can use one (actually the Creative does too, now).  You could run this into a stereo tuner / amp, a home theater system, even a car stereo if it has AUX input.  The adapter you'll need for most stereo systems will have a 3.5 mm stereo plug (male) on one end, and stereo RCA plugs (male) on the other.  You can get one of these cables here (6 ft version) or here (12 ft version).   There will typically be one white RCA plug and one red RCA plug.   (Some car stereos can use a cable that has a 3.5 mm male plug on either end.  It's basically an AUX input that looks like a 3.5mm headphone jack.) 
     

The newer Cowon players are even more slick and have more features than their predecessors.  They also cost more money ($200+).  At that price you'd think you're getting an mp3 player that will never let you down.  Actually these have more durability issues than they should.  This goes back to what I've been saying again and again:  too many features introduce too many ways to fail.  


Summary

The Updated Summary (2015):

Since this article was written, there have been some changes in the market.  Chief among them is the trend toward players that accept SD or micro-SD cards.  Another trend has been the appearance of affordable hi-fi players that support MP3, FLAC, OGG, and other formats.

If you use Linux, these are great developments.

In 2015 I would still consider a Sansa Clip +, but if you're serious about audio, there's something better now.  Spend the extra money to get one of these players instead.  It will play FLAC, MP3, WAV, and a variety of other formats.  You can also use it as a stand-alone DAC for other devices.


Just to put things in context, here's...

The Old Summary (2013):

Although there are a couple players that aren't bad, the market in 2013 doesn't have a Linux-compatible mp3 player that would meet all my criteria:

- Real "drag and drop" functionality.  Must function as USB Mass Storage (UMS) / Mass Storage Class (MSC). 
- No firmware or "hacks" required to enable true UMS / MSC functionality.
- Good battery life.
- Supports play-by-folder or playlists.
- Durable
- Has a screen, but not a sluggish, resource-hogging operating system

None of this is really that tall an order.  Unfortunately, even the best manufacturers have been moving toward flashy, feature-overloaded devices that malfunction way too often.  At the same time, they have paring down their customer support to make it the least-effective and most time-wasting exercise possible.  On top of that, some companies have gotten on the stupid, proprietary software bandwagon.   I really wish Sony would step in and show people how to make a Linux-compatible player, but lately it seems like they've gone over to the dark side completely.   Windows only?  In 2013, seriously? 

Creative's Zen Touch 2 has too many stability problems for my liking.  Some of their other models are even worse. 

Sandisk has the Sansa Clip + (available here), which is very good except for its battery life.  It's one of the two overall choices I consider viable in 2013.  I would avoid the Clip Zip, and definitely avoid the Sansa View and Sansa Fuze.

Cowon's iAudio 9 is (was) a great player, but it's discontinued.  That leaves the iAudio 10 as the most viable choice. 
The others are too flaky.  Cowon has the new and cool-looking X9, but there again:  durability / failure-rate issues.   Their older S9 (still available as used / refurb here) was a good player, but like most manufacturers, they deemed it necessary to keep making something "newer" and less dependable.

What's happened with mp3 players (and cameras) is sort a repeat of what I saw happen in the Eighties.  The older cassette decks had big, robust, clunky buttons that worked.  Then someone said, "Hey, let's make soft-touch buttons on the cassette decks, so they look all futuristic and cool."  Bad idea.  You'd press the button and then have to wait until the mechanism engaged another mechanism, and this mechanism made the tape heads engage.  You could no longer dub accurately on a tape deck.  And the fancy buttons were one more thing to go wrong.  There's your "futuristic" and "cool". 

The Cowon iAudio 10, which replaced the iAudio 9, is available new / current production.  Get yours through this link (it helps me out, too.)  The iAudio 10 is my top choice among the current, Linux-compatible mp3 players, taking battery life into consideration. 

I realize the engineering challenges of trying to make a gadget that's both affordable and has many features.  They should take it easy on the high-tech features and concentrate on reliability.  It really is that simple.


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