Issue #21 July 2006

Meet the iPod alternative: iAudio

by Greg DeKoenigsberg

In a world dominated by the MP3 and the iPod, it can be difficult for music lovers to live up to the ideals of free software. The world has chosen the patent-encumbered MP3 format as the de facto standard for digital music distribution, and online music retailers and portable device manufacturers have largely followed suit.

Even as MP3s continue to get most of the attention, the free Ogg Vorbis format continues to make quiet but steady progress--and though Apple dominates the portable player market with its MP3-centric product line, lesser known manufacturers are producing players that embrace a wide range of digital audio formats.

I own a pretty good collection of music--about 400 CDs at last count. I ripped most of my collection to MP3 years ago, and recently purchased an iPod. I've wanted to make the switch from MP3 to Ogg, but the dominance of the iPod made it way too easy to make excuses. Last month my iPod started flashing its "dead battery" icon, and I discovered that it would cost me $90 to replace it. That's when my search for the perfect portable Ogg player began in earnest.

My choice? The iAudio G3 by Cowon. Chosen at random after a quick Google-aided search. I've now owned my iAudio G3 for about two weeks, and I rate it 87 percent sweet.

Why? Glad you asked.

iAudio G3: the good

Formats. This one's duh-obvious. When you commit to switching your entire music library from MP3 to Ogg, it helps to have a portable music device that can actually play them. Sure enough, the iAudio G3 plays Ogg files. Not that it's not entirely clear from the documentation (which I'll get to later), but trust me: it plays Ogg files and does a great job. It also plays lots of other file types, from pure Wav files to ultra-proprietary WMAs.

Battery. Here's what made me maddest about the whole iPod experience: I left it in my car after a road trip, and when I retrieved it a couple of days later, it was no longer recognizing the battery. Clearly the fault was mine, as the iPod documentation warns you not to expose the fancy internal battery to extremes of heat or cold. Fair enough. I was warned. My bad.

I don't care.

I will never ever again buy a device with a proprietary battery that costs half of the original device price. That's just plain stupid, and it serves me right for not paying attention to all of the people who have been complaining about this exact problem for, oh, three years.

Thus, when I discovered that the iAudio G3 was powered by a single AA battery, my decision was basically made. I'm now about 60 listening hours into my new player, and I'm still using my first 75-cent battery. At some point, I'll invest in rechargeable AA batteries--when I get around to it. Or maybe I'll be too lazy. Whatever.

Form factor. The iAudio G3 is itty-bitty; at 1.3 ounces, it's a good bit smaller than my old iPod. It's more akin to the Nano. Basically, it's a memory stick with a device built around it. It fits very comfortably into the watch pocket of my Levis, which is fine with me. It doesn't feel cheap or flimsy in any way, as small devices often do. My co-workers also think it's really cute. One of them offered to knit a little sweater for it. As in all matters of taste, your mileage may vary.

FM tuner. Story time. I'm a huge hockey fan, and as it worked out, I received my new iAudio G3 the day before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers, a game to which I had tickets. I realized mere hours before gametime that my new iAudio G3 had an FM tuner, so I brought it along with me. My first actual use of this device was not to listen to Ogg files; instead, it was to listen to Chuck Kaiton, my favorite sports radio broadcaster, who called the action as I watched my beloved Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup. Goosebump city just thinking about it.

I'll admit that I don't listen to radio much anymore -- but even had this little device turned out to be a hunk of garbage, it played a pivotal role in the greatest day of my life as a sports fan. Therefore, it is my personal opinion that the iAudio G3 is the best FM tuner in the history of radio.

Built-in recorder. The iAudio G3 has a built-in recorder and a tiny condenser mic. Why? Just because it's cool, I guess--it's already come in handy a couple of times. That whole "note-to-self" actually works if you've got a recorder there when you need it. Put it into record mode, and it creates a wav file of whatever you say. The quality isn't great, but unless you're singing opera into it, it doesn't really matter. There's also got a mode for line-in recording, which may improve the quality, but I haven't tried it myself.

Even cooler, and completely undocumented: you can actually use the recorder to capture the FM signal directly. Just push the "record" button while you're listening to the FM tuner, and the stream goes directly to a .wav file. I only wish I'd discovered this feature during Hockey Night in Carolina. Oh well. It's still an excellent feature, even if I never use it.

Price per storage. Portable music device manufacturers are fighting the music-bits-per-dollar war in earnest now, and the iAudio G3 holds its own. It can be bought on the internet for anywhere from $90 to $150 for its 1Gb of storage, compared to the 1Gb Nano's list price of $142.95. Some people may think that's a lot to spend when hard-drive based players of 20Gb and more are coming down in price; from where I sit, though, 1Gb of Ogg files is plenty of hours of music, and it's a device with no moving parts, which makes it much less likely to fail. The transfer speeds between device and computer are fast enough that it's not too inconvenient to switch between whatever playlists I'm enjoying at the time.

iAudio G3: the not-so-good

User interface. It's not terrible, but it's not exactly intuitive, either. It's simple enough to switch between the basic modes--FM tuner, player, recorder--but navigating through files in player mode can be a bit weird. Since the iAudio G3 is basically just a device built around a memory stick, it plays whatever files it finds, in whatever order it finds them. I use the same file structure I use for my Rhythmbox library, so it's pretty straightforward--once I figured out how to access the straight file view, that is. Also, the shuffle and repeat functions are a bit fiddly, and it took some trial and error to get the hang of how they worked.

Which brings us to...

iAudio G3: the terrible

Documentation. There's really no nice way to put it: the documentation for the iAudio G3 is atrociously bad--its availability in many languages notwithstanding.

Docs writers, and those who love them, will recognize that the iAudio G3's documentation is bad in a very particular way: it's the "press play on device and device will play" kind of bad. The nice folks at Cowon seem to have described what every different button combination does, while still failing to convey any sense of how the device actually works. The words "Ogg Vorbis" don't show up anywhere in the manual; Ogg is clearly "just another format" and things just work, but I was certainly alarmed not to have seen "Ogg" mentioned anywhere in the manual's text. They also seem to have dropped an entire section of the manual without renumbering the chapters.

In the end, the device isn't that complicated, but there are some functions that you just won't find without a little nudge in the right direction from the manual. The main joystick, for example, doubles as a button, and the only way to get into the simple file menu is to push and hold down this joystick button. It took me three readings of the manual to figure this out.

Eh, you'll figure it out. You're smart folks.

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Summing up

There are number of digital audio players out there that support Ogg, and maybe they're all great--but I'm certainly glad I ended up with the iAudio G3. If you've got a hundred backs to spend, and if you want to get the most music out of the free software lifestyle, go get yourself an iAudio G3. It's cheap, it's good, it's handy, and it's guilt-free.

With apologies to Neil Young: Keep on rockin' in the free world.

About the author

Greg once sang for a Smiths cover band--the key word there being "once". His karaoke rendition of "What's New Pussycat" by Tom Jones is widely admired by drunks and randy septuagenarians everywhere.