Holiday Portable Media Player Guide: What's Right for You?

There are loads of PMP choices—not all of them from Apple—that are worthy of being carried around and fondled as you go about your day. What’s right for you may not be right for the businessman who commutes two hours, or the athlete who burns more calories sneezing than you do the entire day.

We know you don’t fit into any one “demographic,” but we can’t very likely write a guide for every Mike Irvington of Bent Fork, Indiana (nice guy by the way) so this will have to do. Onward and upward!

If music is important and you gotta have all your tracks with you at all times, then the 80GB iPod is the player for you. For music fans, being able to bring up that Springsteen song he recorded in the outhouse during the summer of ’82 takes precedence over any video, gaming or portability requirements. With a user interface that’s still the best-of-breed even after five years on the market, the iPod wins with both storage and ease of use, thanks to its iTunes music interface and iTunes music store.

There’s no bigger selection of legal music on the net right now than iTunes, which is important since you gotta have your music now and don’t care about leasing, subscriptions or looking on BitTorrent sites.

We’re generalizing a bit here, but “The Wife” usually wants something she can take to-and-from work, allowing her to listen to the few songs she likes off the few CDs she likes. Thus, the iPod Nano is both portable, stylish, and has just enough room to capture all the music she wants to listen. If your wife enjoys a good run as well, the iPod Nano’s flash-memory will keep the player safe from the ups-and-downs associated with jogging.

Did we mention that it looks cool too? Wives like pretty, not to mention shiny, things. Yea we’re not sure why ours stick around either.

If gaming is as important to you as having all your tunes on hand, you can’t go wrong with Sony’s portable media powerhouse, the PSP. Offering lots of expanded memory via its Sony Memory Stick port, the PSP can not only play MP3s and videos, it can play actual games as well. There’s also UMD movies (if you’re one of the twenty seven people in the country who purchased them), and a web browser for streaming audio such as Podcasts or internet radio.

The PSP wins this round thanks to its gaming-centric, as well as media-playback, focus right out of the box. Honorable mentions go to the Nintendo DS (which can play media with the right third-party attachment) and the Video iPod, which can play a few pocket games purchased from iTunes.

Not all people like always listening to their own songs over and over again—sometimes they want a little variety. What better way to get that then from listening to your local radio station and finding out what’s hot, so you can go and download the tracks for yourself. The Sansa e280 has both FM-listening capabilities as well as FM-recording capabilities, which means if you like a song you hear on the radio you can save it for later. The e280 also has an 8GB internal storage plus 2GB of added SD memory, so you’re not going to run out of room to place all your NPR reruns either.

The choice between these two players depends on whether you’re currently subscribing to Sirius or XM. Both players can record its respective satellite radio, and both can play back MP3 and WMA files. This means you’re free to sign up for subscription services like Napster or Rhapsody and load up your player with a library of borrowed tracks. The Delphi SkyFi3 isn’t actually available yet, but it should be out in time for Christmas.

For athletes, the Sony NWS series of players came in a close second with its pedometer and small form-factor, but the iPod Nano still takes the cake in this category. Runners and gym rats can all take advantage of the iPod Nano’s small form factor as well as easy user interface. As you saw in our Nike+iPod Hands On, the iPod Nano is best used while wearing Nikes, taking advantage of the Nike+ website to track your distances, times and groin pulls. With the kit, you’ll even be able to see how much you’ve worked out this time, urging you to go a little extra before you crawl home and vomit on yourself in the tub.

As good as the iPod Video is, its screen is tiny compared to the giant 4.3-inch screen of the Creative Zen: W. The iPod is backed by the iTunes Movies store, which has a decent selection of TV and movies, but pales in comparison with BitTorrent or your own TiVo/Media Center. Thanks to the Zen’s large format support (WMV, MPEG1/2/4, and DivX 4/5) there’s nary a file you can download that won’t play back. That goes the same for files on your TiVo as well. With the right encoding software, you can even re-encode your recorded TV shows into a Zen friendly format, free of charge. Season pass for iTunes users: $40. Season pass for you: $0 (if you don’t count the price you’re already paying for TiVo).

If you don’t own a DVR, an Archos 404, 504 or 604 may also work. These have the added feature of being able to be your DVR, albeit with some extra equipment. After you record your shows, you can just take your Archos player out of its cradle and watch everything on the road—no re-encoding necessary.

As you can see, no one player is right for everybody, but Apple’s offerings do give you the most versatile performance while at the same time being the best in a few categories. If you’re unsure of what category your Secret Santa recipient falls into, you won’t go wrong with an iPod.