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The Quality Premium

December 20, 2004

This is what happens when the most popular product on the market is actually the best product available: Any would-be usurpers come across as shoddy knock-offs.

Apple's iPod next to Creative Labs' Zen Micro

On the left, the reigning champ supreme, Apple’s iPod. On the right, Creative Labs’ Zen Micro (no relation).

What we see in the user interface buttons of the Zen Micro isn’t much of a user interface. It’s more like what goes underneath the interface — the touch-sensitive pads you’d expect to find if you peeled off the metal faceplate, or the messy internals you’d be exposed to if you dropped your cell phone on the floor and shattered the front. If they’ve thought about those buttons any further than “Back on the left, Forward on the right” I’m having a hard time finding evidence of it.

A few minor iPod usability quirks aside (which mainly revolve around difficulty operating the song/playlist selection through a jacket, without taking it out, which is mainly in turn a combination of exceptionally high expectations and just out-and-out laziness) Apple has the portable music browsing interface perfected.

No one is going to topple the iPod on ease of use. Which leaves features, or price. When the consumer has the assurance of quality, combined with the lure of popularity, paying a premium isn’t that hard to stomach.


Reader Comments

December 20, 09h

That’s really quite sad. The once proud and innovative Creative Labs have resigned to shoddy knock-offs.
To make matters worse; it’s damn ugly!

The interface may suck, but Nokia’s interface designers are still winning the “what the hell are they on?!” award of 2004.

December 20, 09h

On the plus side, however, it’s probably cheaper. That’s the only plus.

Jason says:
December 20, 09h

I could not agree more. iPod is the defacto standard. Just recently, I was trying to help a friend pick a christmas present for her husband.

She wanted to get him an MP3 player, and was looking at a particular model. I then showed her the iPod mini, that was about $80 more, but has eight time the storage capacity.

After a few quick commments, she was happily sold. I could not be happier with my 15GB iPod, but most of that has to do with winning it, and not paying for it.

cam c. says:
December 20, 09h

As someone who has probably owned a dozen Creative Labs products (my on the road MP3 needs are still serviced by an old Creative Nomad II), I’d love to defend them, but there really is nothing there to defend…

As for going from a company that innovates to one making knock-offs, I’m not so sure… their creed always seemed to be “copy something and add more features”. The original Sound Blaster, really the product that made their company, was a rip off of the Adlib music card, a defacto standard at the time, with an extra DSP to record and playback digital sound added on for a couple extra bucks, if I remember my tech specs correctly.

Dave S. says:
December 20, 10h

re: Nokia

Somebody needs to tell them it’s okay to make a button that looks like a button. Each new number pad configuration doesn’t, in fact, need to be an highly stylized work of gothic art.

December 20, 10h

What I find most disturbing is that many people do not know the stuff is outright nabbed from the iPod. Okay, I can live with someone buying a 256MB stick, but buying a Creative Jukebox instead of an iPod? No. You’re out.

People need to know, y’all.

gavin says:
December 20, 10h

Does anyone remember the B&O Beocom phone? Apple doesn’t always invent new interfaces but it certainly refines them. Good design tends to come from what you can remove.

scottbp says:
December 20, 10h

Yeah, ok, the ipod has many great features.

But if you want to move your music from one computer to another it is a pain in the butt!

With my old creative player when I updated my computer it was the work of a moment, with the ipod (unless I’m missing something pretty basic) there is no easy way of doing this.

Also there are plenty of ways that ipod can improve (like a display on the remote, or better remote!), and it is great to see that they seem to be commited to this ideal. I just hope that creative and the rest stay as close as possible to ipod goodness, as that will always spur apple onward.

December 20, 10h

Not directly related, but I think Dave hit the nail on hardware interfaces: “It’s okay to make a button that looks like a button.”

Unless it’s truly innovative, don’t make any unexpected changes. The iPod is an exception because a) its design is very innovative, and b) at least the scroll wheel was a logical decendant of something in our every day computing lives (the scroll wheels on mice).

I was looking at cell phones recently, and one company had arranged the numbers used for dialing into a circle around a few other buttons. Why the hell would you do that? As anyone who has been alive since touch-tones were introduced, I’ve become very efficient at dialing with the traditional 3x4 configuration. Get off my wave with that circle crap, or at least arrange the numbers in the same position as the old rotary phones. One rationale could be that cell phone users don’t dial anymore, but that they just select names from the internal address book. That’s valid, but the numbers are still used enough that changing their location is about as useful to me as hiding them completely.

I hope that kind of thing doesn’t catch on. It’s okay to make a phone dial pad that looks like a phone dial pad.

Martijn says:
December 20, 11h

My first Nokia phone had a number pad with rounded buttons, which meant you could dial in pitch blackness feeling your way around the pad. There was one button in the middle beneath the screen which served as the menu/select button. The option you could select with the button was depended on the context of the selected menu-item. It was impossible to miss-click or get lost in the menu structure.

Look at what they produce these days; you have to have a masters degree of some polytechnical to begin to understand how to operate a Nokia phone.

I hope Apple stick to their guns and resist the temptation to slap more “features” on the iPod than the competition.

11
praetorian says:
December 21, 01h

scottbp, yes, you are missing something… my 40g ipod goes from my g5 at home to ‘their’ dell at work everyday… as of this morning, there are exactly 5051 songs on my ipod… i add at least one song to my ipod every few hours or so, sometimes a cd per day… it has never once taken longer than 15 seconds for any such transfer of power…

Matt says:
December 21, 01h

The Zen actually has a few really nice things about it that make it a better choice for some people:

* Smaller than mini
* 1gb more space
* Plays WMA
* It records
* Removable battery, you can have multiple ones
* FM Radio
* Better sound

Making it look the same size as a regular iPod was a little unfair. It’s actually quite small and light.

13
Les says:
December 21, 02h

There are other possible options available to people who avoid being trendy at all costs :0)

I did about 4 weeks of umming and ahhhing and ended up buying the Cowon iAudio M3 http://eng.cowon.com/product/iAUDIOM3/about.html

It does it all as far as I can see - out of the box it includes 20Gb (there is a 40Gb option), it has a dock/cradle thing and an extra small one for on the move. The reason for the dock is because this little thing can record and encode Mp3 on the fly - up to 320kbps at 44Hz! It also has an FM radio (which you can record from). All for £220!! Oh yeah, and it’s a weenie bit lighter than the Ipod 20Gb - I think they’re about the same size tho.

The nice bit I like is the remote - there is no display on the device, just some sleek looking buttons - but it means I can leave the main device in my pocket and have full control!

The only bummer is the headfones - they make you look like frankenstein, and fall out all the time. A quick purchase of some Sony in ear phones and everything is cool…

December 21, 02h

I second Les on the iAudio tip. I’ve had the 20GB M3L for about 6 months now and it’s been fantastic. What sold it for me was the battery life - 35 hours continuous playback, which kills the iPod. The file system is drag-and-drop so I can play my library without having to install iTunes, and that’s another big bonus since I spend a lot of time working from other people’s offices. Oh, and if you take an iPod out of your bag round my way you’re likely to get it knicked so a remote with a screen is essential! It has it’s downsides as well but for me it was a better choice than the market leader. It’s a shame no one knows about it…

gilgamesh says:
December 21, 03h

moreover you can get the complete css guide on your ipod via westciv
a must have for a webdesigner ;-)

December 21, 03h

My brother has a Creative Zen Touch (similar to the Micro). I was in the Apple Store in Rgeent Street yesterday.

Personally, I don’t think the Creative range is as bad as you say. Sure I’d pick an iPod over the Zen but mainly because it’s been marketed as ‘cool’ (see Scoble’s recent spate of posts).

One thing that bigged me about the iPod I was playing with: The circular scroll. I was using it on the left side of the circle and it did totally the opposite to what I expected: up was down and down was up. It seems it works anti-clockwise which seems very odd to me. But then I’ve only played with it for a few minutes so I can’t really comment too strongly.

Adam says:
December 21, 03h

Sony’s new VGF-AP1 is a promising venture. Not the network walkman it’s a direct competitor to the ipod photo but at a ipod price and seems very innovative.

A few reviews
http://asia.cnet.com/reviews/portable_av/0,39033456,39080402p,00.htm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/comment/story/0,12449,1217154,00.html
http://www.digitmag.co.uk/news/index.cfm?fuseaction=displaynews&NewsID=4043&Page=1&pagePos=1

Bear in mind it now takes MP3’s natively as well now.

December 21, 03h

You don’t *have to* use iTunes to handle the music on an iPod (at least not on the Mac, not sure what the situation is on Windows).

If you mount the iPod on your desktop and use the finder to copy music to it, you’re free to use whichever MP3 playing app you like, and copy files both ways.

19
koen says:
December 21, 04h

I think the view that the ipod doesn’t look like what’s underneath is biased. We are grown up in a ‘culture’ where they tell us that their products are design. But I think that you could look at the round button design also from the viewpoint of ‘it looks like the inner side’.
That doesn’t mean I like the outer design of the zen. It’s just that it’s outer design looks like worse inner design than the ipods.

tini says:
December 21, 04h

well, a cute little remote control with a tiny LCD for iPod would be nice.
but nothing beats an iPod for the moment.

the westciv-css-guide for iPod is really nice. learn css while being on the move ;-)

oh by the way, i just installed linux on my iPod: http://ipodlinuxinstl.sourceforge.net/

gtreetings

tini

Trinity says:
December 21, 05h

As a 16 year old in Melbourne, Australia pricing probably becomes a larger factor than for me than it might for others. However, I think that the Ipod has evolved into a status symbol - it has reached the highest echelons of popular culture. Those who ever had a Sony Walkman would remember that all portable tape players were referred to ask “Walkmen” regardless of the brand. Apple has established a first-class product that has been turned into everything from a fashion accessory to a business tool. It’s not hard to guess whats at the top of my christmas list this year.

alicia says:
December 21, 05h

true talent coming from the <3 of canada…i’ve been inspired to visit again!happy holidays

December 21, 05h

Speaking of interface design, how do people compare the G3 (4 buttons above the scroll circle) to the G4 (4 buttons integrated into the scroll circle)? While I’ve never used a G4 iPod, I get the impression, purely from looking at it, that one could be scrolling through a list and accidently press the “play” or “next” buttons when a thumb passes over them.

In terms of aesthetics, I prefer the all white of my G3 iPod. That gray scroll circle on the G4s just bug me for some reason. And why couldn’t the black iPod have been ALL black?

December 21, 06h

I’m gonna agree with Matt #12 on this one, the creative isn’t the same size as the iPod, you have been a bit unfair with the setup of this post. All the features Matt mentions are extremely useful, especially the simple ability to change the battery. The fact that Apple think their customers are too stupid to change the battery, is, quite simply insulting to you all, and hopefully they’ll change this for their next big thing. Another point is that thing in the middle isn’t a button, it a scroll bar, works the same, move you finger up and down sort of thing ( i think? ). Seems to make more sense to me as well, as in , you only want to up and down the menus, don’t you?

On the point of quality, are you really getting the best with an iPod? sure its popular, sure it looks nice. But having to send the thing back to apple and waiting to get its faulty battery changed?

Just becasue Steve Jobs hasn’t told you all to go and buy one, doesn’t mean it’s a bad product.

tini says:
December 21, 06h

I prefer the G3 iPod.

I adore the red lights in the buttons.
concerning usability, the 4 buttons above the wheel don’t bother me at all.

I think the clickwheel is a step back, because of the mechanical buttons combined with the touch-sensitive wheel.

I just tried the clickwheel on the iPod of a colleague at work, but I’m not really convinced…

26
Joe Ennis says:
December 21, 06h

It seems like a lot of people are convinced that the ipod is the cream of the crop (probably because they bought one), which i’m having trouble grasping. The better sound quality, better battery life, line out, driver letter capability, lcd remote, included leather case, and cheaper price of my iriver h120 begs to differ. The iAudio M3 mentioned earlier is another example of a much superior product. If you are only concerned with looks, then the ipod is for you (i find the m3 much sexier anyways). Otherwise, theres a lot of better options out there.

Also, creative isn’t the greatest company to compare against. They have pretty poor products aside from their high-end multimedia speakers.

27
Conan says:
December 21, 06h

The iPod wins on interface hands-down; but the evangelism of the product from pro-Mac camps is not justified in putting blinkers on people who might otherwise investigate other players better suited to their needs.

In spite of its interface misgivings, the portable-player I lumped-for in the end was an iRiver H340:

http://www.iriver.com/html/product/prpa_product.asp?pidx=42

Actually, the interface — although hardly intuitive — is pretty easy once you get to grips with it (you have to read the manual I’m afraid.) But it beat the iPod on sound-quality, portability, features, battery-life, and (at the time I bought it) hard-disk size.

The features that made me choose it over iPod were:

1. USB-On-The-Go: I can plug my Digicam into it and pull off the pictures without a PC.

2. It’s a USB Mass Storage Device, so I have a portable hard-drive and I don’t need an application like iTunes to upload my files.

3. SRS-WOW dynamic equaliser — The sound-quality is just incredible.

4. 16 hours of battery-life.

5. An FM tuner (which you can record to MP3.)

In defense of iPod, here are some H340 drawbacks:

1. Viewing by Artist/Album/Genre requires software to update the player database. The supplied software sucks royally, but fortunately a great alternative is available:

http://www.redchairsoftware/irivium/

2. Enabling database-mode adds seconds to the startup time. Just how many seconds depends on how much music you have, but it is something that really needs addressing in a firmware update.

3. Considering the player has a better colour-screen than iPod Photo, the picture-browsing mode seems like an afterthought. Files with EXIF information are mysteriously bordered, and you can only view 4 thumbnails at a time. Again, a firmware update is all that is needed to fix this.

So it has its own set of problems, but most of these can be worked-around. Surely Mac-puritans will shudder at the phrase “work-around”; but for those who are comfortable taking a bit of time to get to grips with an iRiver H300, I think you will be quite satisfied that a slightly better interface is not much compromise over the features iPod doesn’t have.

If you need them of course. :)

dave says:
December 21, 07h

I think a big advantage that the iPod has is it’s build quality. I was at Best Buy looking at mp3 players. Most of the competitors are made of cheap plastic and feel like they are designed to break after a few months of use. The iPods feel so solid (especially the 3G iPod which has only one moving part on the outside.)

For reference I owned a Creative mp3 player before I had an iPod. This was several years ago, but It was awful.

In response to Phil (#21.) I have a first generation iPod which has been used heavily and have not had the need to change the battery. I don’t belive the battery is as much of a problem as many people seem to think it is. I also don’t find 35 hours necessary. It’s nice, for sure.

Things I’d like Apple to change about the iPod:

1. They scratch so friggin’ easily. Fix the problem or give everyone a case.
2. Shuffle is too much trouble to turn off and on.
3. Make them cheaper.
4. Stop being Microsoft and open the iPod up to other music services (and while you’re at it open the iTunes Music Store to other devices)

Dave S. says:
December 21, 07h

re: photo

Hmm, I’m not sure what I was on last night, I thought that WAS proportional. A little closer now, I think.

re: changable batteries

“…which leaves features, or price.” — clearly the former. I’d hate to be the company that has to try and win on the fact that I get to carry an extra battery around with me if I want, but it seems to be the more popular argument against the iPod these days. Since 8+ hours of play time just simply isn’t enough.

December 21, 08h

A local newspaper had a big review section of a bunch of small MP3 players, including the iPod Mini. They had a picture with all of them lined up.

My initial thought was “Wow, what do they need all those buttons for?”

The iPod Mini has perfected the minimal user interface. The rest of the players in the article were clunky, unwieldy and filled with buttons in comparison.

December 21, 08h

re: Matt

Quality of sound is certainly a major issue. There seems to be some interest in the iRiver for this reason: http://www.iriveramerica.com/ (although as a student on a budget, I can afford neither)

32
David says:
December 21, 09h

I agree with your statement about the interface on the iPod being difficult to operate through a jacket. While I was running over the weekend I actually had to unzip my coat pocket and reach in to operate the controls on my iPod. ;-)

December 21, 10h

“I’d hate to be the company that has to try and win on the fact that I get to carry an extra battery around with me if I want, but it seems to be the more popular argument against the iPod these days. Since 8+ hours of play time just simply isn’t enough.”

Yeah, that’s called ‘product differentiation’ and “hate it” or not, that *is* how companies compete. They differentiate their products based on niche markets. The iPod appeals to you and others for your reasons. Other products appeal to others for other reasons. They are different niches, but because you exist within one doesn’t mean that the others are somehow less valid or meaningful or that the companies appealing to those niches are somehow short-sighted.

Apple has rocked the UI and cachet of its product. Good. That’s something that has differentiated them. No company would deny envying the product loyalty and ingenuity they have.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other valid products produced by valid companies that are *better* solutions for some people. What if I’m a Forest Service worker who goes on week-long backcountry trips? Do you think battery life or swapping would matter to me then? What if I’m a runner to whom a lightweight player and handy remote are the most important metrics?

Now perhaps you are berating companies that are attempting to hit the same niche that Apple is hitting with the iPod. In that case, I think you’re right, it’s some tough competition. They just simply got it right with the iPod.

Dave S. says:
December 21, 11h

re: Forest Service workers

I wish Creative Labs the best of luck capturing the lucrative “away from power for weeks at a time” market.

You’ll note in the original article I said that what’s left to compete on are price and features. I didn’t say that the iPod is untouchable. So I’ve left sufficient room for all counter-arguments to remain perfectly valid within the context of the article.

But my point remains: a kludgy interface isn’t going to win anyone market share. The best anyone can do is imitate at this point, and anything less than the minimal functionality of the iPod looks diminished and cheapened in comparison. The Zen Micro is just a particularly hideous example of this.

Mike says:
December 21, 12h

Dave S, did you use the Zen Micro?

I was skeptical until I went into a CompUSA and tried it out myself. Having owned a G1 iPod long ago, I remember the ease-of-use associated with the product. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a high-end MP3 player and am in the market again.

The Zen Micro is actually terribly intuitive. After playing with the new iPod, I found the click wheel to actually be a bit cumbersome — the distance your thumb needs to move from wheel to center button, the slight hesitancy I felt when scrolling around then moving my thumb to press a button on the other side of the wheel (worrying that it was going to botch my selection).

The Zen Mirco’s vert. scroll is more natural for the limited up-to-down scrolling through menus. And to select, you simply tap wherever your thumb already is (just like a touchpad on any laptop).

Frankly, I found it quicker to move around through the on-screen interface (which, I might add, is practically identical to the iPod).

But we’re also comparing two different classes of MP3 player here. You should be comparing it to the iPod Mini since it’s at the same pricepoint and capacity (1GB smaller). There is a larger Zen Touch model (20 and 40GB) that hits the same pricepoint as the iPod itself, but that one’s been hard to find in stores; so I can’t vouch for it.

The Zen Micro feels very solid and is IMO a better size than the iPod mini (which is too tall to be called a “mini”).

The downside in my opinion is its lack of support (to my knowledge) for iTunes. That alone would have me purchasing an iPod in moments. I can’t live without my iTunes.

Who else has actually _used_ a Zen Micro?

December 21, 12h

If your article and comments were meant as “all else equal, the better user interface wins”, then I agree. But that’s not really what we’re dealing with here. All else is not equal. There are pros and cons to different products.

As you said, it’s all about price and features. But that’s what any product market is about. That’s what differentiates products.

“I wish Creative Labs the best of luck capturing the lucrative ‘away from power for weeks at a time’ market.”

That was an example, intended to be illustrative of the point I was making. But since it seems to have fallen on deaf ears, how about the “wow, having a longer battery life is such a convenience that it may just make my decision” market? Or the “really into athletics and desirous of something tiny and light” market?

There are large markets to which the iPod simply does not appeal. If I were to seek out a target market, it would be one of those.

But again, those companies that choose to compete against Apple’s target market have quite the mountain to climb.

Peter G. says:
December 21, 12h

Mike makes a good point; you should be comparing the Zen Micro to the iPod Mini. And yes, I know they’re almost identical, but at least update the picture in your article.

cam c. says:
December 22, 02h

I mentioned the Creative Nomad II in my first comment on this article… I actually just pulled it out and am busy uploading to it… (if you must ask, Enya tunes for my wife’s upcoming stay in the maternity ward… :) )

I’m still impressed with the design of this 4 year old player… the thing looks as good as a lot of the players coming out today, the interface is fairly intuitive, and it’s pretty easy to use in the dark. The other cool thing about the Zen was that after I had it for about a year, I was able to upgrade the firmware to support WMA audio (which does get better compression than MP3, a big deal when you’re limited to 32mb SmartMedia :) ).

If only there was a way to hack this thing to work with 256mb cards… I’d probably be good for another 4 years for all I ever use an Mp3 player.

Nathan says:
December 22, 03h

My my we designers can be a little prissy on these matters sometimes…

I work with PC’s at the moment but would love to work on a Mac, not for it’s performance though… Oh no but for it’s style of course.

Now really I have to ask myself why I think this way especially considering I am so not a pop culture person, what is it about a Mac that oozes quality over the PC world?

As far as it go’s for the I-pod.. on a personal level I really don’t see the point of spending “that” much on an I-pod as opposed to any other worthy music player just for the fact it’s trendy, especially considering the fact it’s in my pocket for 99% of it’s life cycle.

However the fact is I love I-Tunes but it’s way too propriortized (if that’s a word) for my liking.

Why can’t I use I-tunes with other Media Players? That would be a start..

Sorry but apple has cut me off for the time being.

December 22, 07h

iPods should come built with a sound that announces “iOverrated!” when you turn them on.

December 22, 08h

I own a Zen Micro for a week now, and I’m a very happy user.

The reasons I took it instead of an iPod Mini are:

- I find it more beautiful
- The second battery gives me 24 hours music
- I find the vertical touch pad more user friendly than the circular one of the iPods
- It is less hype (We see iPods everywhere, it is becoming a nightmare! ;) )

42
Sebastian says:
December 22, 09h

I seriously wonder how much you and some other popular “bloggers” are paid to praise Apple products…

December 22, 10h

iPod is definately the easiest to use, but that doesn’t bother me.
Ease of use isn’t an issue I worry about too much. As long as it works, all is well.

The reason I won’t get an iPod but probably will get a Zen Touch or iRiver are as follows:

1) Music compatability. I use WMA, as they are superior quality for the same bitrate / filesize as an MP3.
I don’t want to use iTunes codec, because it means re-coding all my current stuff, of which there is 25Gb.
I’d use OGG if I could figure a decent way to rip to OGG on a Windows box.

2) I have no interest in using iTunes to buy, download, play or organise low quality music. I’ll rip my own. (see 1)

3) You get more storage for less money.

4) You get longer battery life too. Which is nice.

I also dislike the digital rights etc that Apple enforce. If i own my music i should be able to copy it to and from wherever i like, how ever many times i like, so i can listen to it however or wherever i like. I don’t want to be nannied thank you. I pay for the right to listen to the music, not for the media it’s stored on, or a copy of that music.

Dave S. says:
December 22, 11h

Well, since usability is an obvious stepping stone to product comparison, I suppose it was inevitable this thread would turn into what it has. I’ll be closing comments now.

For those calling my impartiality into question, I’ll simply submit that I have never taken money for product placement, and don’t plan to (the one exception being the Amazon referral links in the “Recommending” section). And I’ll refer you to this article from last year where I related a miserable Apple experience: http://www.mezzoblue.com/archives/2004/01/02/a_third_stri/index.php