My MP3 Girlfriends

A few days ago, I returned my Microsoft Zune HD 16GB MP3 player. It had been purchased 3 weeks prior, the result of a hasty decision to replace my longtime MP3 device, a second-generation Microsoft Zune, with an Apple iPod Classic to fill the digital void in my musically longing heart.

Now without a MP3 player for a planned extended period for the first time in 4 years, I realized that I’ve been occupied with portable music at my fingertips longer than bonds with humans. Despite that sad and unhealthy realization, I was determined to make it that much more awkward by over-analyzing the past experiences: Like relationships, my players all had individual attributes that made them special. They had detriments that gave them character (or flaws, if you’re a “glass half-empty” pessimist) and strengths that endeared them to my heart.

But unlike mates, they served the purpose to entertain at my desire. (Okay, some partners co-exist for shallow, selfish reasons.) And like that long-lost significant other that is no longer cuddled against you in your sleep, it’s hard to not get emotional when you reach out towards emptiness.  (In this case, emptiness is the missing MP3 player.)

So in learning to live sans MP3 player, I looked back on the portable media players of the past in looking towards the future:

1. Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra 30GB

You never forget your first.

In 2006, there was an unexplained void in my life. Airplane trips were accompanied by a bulky portable CD player. A 28-hour cross-country trip the year before was scored by a case of CDs played in the car’s stereo system. I was content. And then I saw a refurbished Creative Nomad Jukebox Xtra MP3 player in the Fry’s Electronics ad for $130, and I realized what was missing.

Sure, the Creative was no looker. It’s portable cassette-size body was as tiny as ironically-named big guys nicknamed Tiny. It’s song management software was a bit clunky. And its screen was as colorful as the original Game Boy. But dammit, it was mine. And for the 2 years I owned it, it was relatively problem-free. But my music collection grew to the point that our time together was finite, and I had my eye on sleeker, larger-capacity PMPs. We parted ways in 2008, sold to a student that I hope loved it as much as I did.

That Creative still holds a place in my heart as the first to introduce me to having music on the go. And in hindsight, it was a dutiful partner that I took for granted. Its successors only highlighted the qualities that silver behemoth held.

2. Microsoft Zune 80GB

I was ready for a more mature relationship with my player that would be long-term, capable of satisfying whatever demands were thrown at it. I wanted something that would grow with me in time. I wanted something that would last forever.That was the second-gen Microsoft Zune for me.

In 2008, I bought the unit used, entranced by its smaller footprint, larger hard drive and color (COLOR!) screen. The sexier, smarter and more capable player promised a more potent, social (via Wi-Fi access and sharing music with Zune users) and hipper experience.

The one thing I forgot to factor in was hardware quality, and it would be the bond’s undoing.

The 18-month ownership of the Zune was generally satisfying: it held all the music I could rip and burn; it had accessories that could play in my car and in the air; its music management software was leagues better than the Creative; and that color screen! But its one problem, the flawed power-down mechanism, was something I couldn’t get past.

Having music sessions rudely interrupted by silence was like walking in on a sex-addicted partner cheating on you with Craigslist.com Casual Encounters. The low battery charge was the culprit; the cause was the inability to find a suitable method to turn off the system. The instances would come at random — no matter the strength of the charge, much like not knowing whether a random skank would be in your bed. I knew that I would have to eventually cut the cord, and I did — 16 months too late — via a return to Best Buy, the original point of purchase of its original owner.

And like the introspection that comes after a destroyed relationship, knowing that there was an unpublished method to save battery life through a hard power-down was like realizing that a cell phone and constant nagging could have prolonged that troubled human relationship for a few more months. The knowledge I gained in hindsight would have led to a better relationship, but that’s exactly why it is called hindsight. You can question your self with what-ifs, but there’s a reason why it didn’t last.

3. Apple iPod classic 160GB

Remember the most popular guy/girl in school? Good looks, great athlete, threw awesome parties, outgoing personality and a slight drinking problem? That was and is the Apple iPod. The classic model is no longer Jenny from the block (more like Jenny from The Back-up Plan), but people still love the damn thing. And I bought into it.

Facing limited options in high-capacity MP3 players for a budget that could be purchased at Best Buy, I decided to join the majority of music player owners and get an iPod. I could see what people loved about it and tolerated: sleek — yes; large storage — check; marketplace support — yeah; name cache — YES; iTunes being more problematic than a crack-addled baby — YES.

My three weeks of iPod ownership was like a marathon wrestling match with a needy tiger. Despite its chic and glossy exterior, gigabytes of storage that I would never tap into and endless options for accessories and music, using iTunes on my PC was like the ex that came around and sexed your partner in front of you. It made syncing music difficult, doubled and tripled my music collection, deleted and added music to the player through not understanding the commands — all while looking over its shoulder to ensure that it could see the pain on my face as they brought my significant other to Pleasuretown.

I could have done things differently: I could have learned iTunes better, memorizing commands and options that would have not tortured me; I could have found more than one alternative to iTunes that would have been easier to use; I could have been more patient and put up with those niggling flaws. But perhaps I wanted out, looking for an exit from something unfamiliar and cumbersome. It was something that everyone else liked, that ideal that fit the status-quo majority. Arm candy. The popular kid. And the arm candy would be temporary, like arm candy usually is.

4. Microsoft Zune HD 16GB

When you stumble out of a disastrous relationship, your first instinct might be to find someone different than the last one. Flashy ex? Buttoned-down rebound. That was the Zune HD 16GB for me. And like the beloved iPod classic before, the tenure would be brief — but for different reasons.

The Zune HD ownership experience was unlike the iPod in several ways on the surface: it was even smaller than the classic; the storage was flash-based instead of a hard drive, smaller by 90 percent; the market share of less than everyone on Earth resulted in a smaller user base and limited accessory options; Wi-Fi internet access to browse the interwebs; and the gorgeous touch screen had larger real estate with a beautiful user interface. The wild card was that I knew the music catalog software from my time with the Zune 80GB.

Now on the fourth MP3 player in 4 years, I had been around the block — like J-Lo. I thought that I could overcome the few ticks — smaller storage, greasy fingerprints; small support pool — with the knowledge that I could never have the perfect MP3 player, but one that was good enough. Those asides grew to be annoyances, and I wanted what I convinced myself that I didn’t need — MOAR STORAGE.

Damn, that Zune HD was close, SO close to being it. But it wasn’t it, and back it went to Best Buy.

So here I go again on my own. Like one that searches for identity through prolonged singlehood, I plan to figure out what I am trying to fulfill in having a MP3 player. Perhaps in wandering the wilderness of looking for myself, I will stumble upon that end-all, be-all PMP that I can grow older with. Maybe the musical void in my heart will find solace in time.

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