How streaming music and video are changing our habits
This guest article was submitted by Chris King.
About ten years ago, music lovers were suddenly presented with a new and exciting way to listen to music on the go. After many years of portable radios, cassette players, and CD players, the music industry was changed forever with the introduction of the first portable MP3 players. These tiny players, such as the Diamond Rio 300, had no mechanical parts so battery life was incredible compared to their lumbering predecessors. And by using the new compressed file format, they could store hours and hours of music in memory instead of physical media.
Now in 2009, it seems like the iPod and its kind have been around forever. Storage capacities have grown large enough to be measured in gigabytes, rechargeable batteries are now used, and color touchscreens have given us added features like video and web browsers. But even with this new abundance of storage capacity, another shift is taking place because an increasing number of people are using online streaming services. With internet access available pretty much at any time, the role of the MP3 and video-capable portable player is changing, and it should be an interesting next few years.
In this article, I'll go over some of the options out there, with comments on how I take advantage of the different services and why I really don't keep music and video stored locally on my devices anymore.
This one has been around the longest and is still the most used streaming service today, helped by the fact that it is free and easily accessible. There are thousands of stations all around the world, all of them streaming varying types of audio. Some of them broadcast in low bitrates, such as talk radio, to help lessen the need for fast connections, while others broadcast in higher CD-quality bitrates to take full advantage of WiFi and 3G networks.
SHOUTCast is probably the most well-known catalog of radio channels, while many people probably use the included links in iTunes or Windows Media since one or both are installed on most computers. While there is plenty of variety in the genres you can choose from, streaming radio is still very much like regular terrestrial radio in that you cannot choose the songs or artists to listen to.
For many people, these are the easiest streams to access from cell phones, MIDs, or UMPCs, but I personally do not use them very much anymore. There are of course a few stations I stream every once in a while, but I now prefer to have more control over the songs and artists I listen to, which brings me to the next category.
This category includes the big players like Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm. Today, the most popular handheld devices are the iPhone and its cellular-free sibling, the iPod touch. All three of the services I just mentioned are available as apps on the Apple duo, so they are the ones that are growing in usage. Plus, they are all obviously accessible on any of the popular UMPCs and MIDs today, not to mention the ever popular netbooks.
The main advantage to these services is that you can specify what artists or songs you like and they will pull similar music from their catalog and play it for you, keeping them saved as custom channels. This is definitely a step above regular streaming radio since you are more likely to hear songs that you like, similar to actually having the MP3 stored locally. But there are some snags, such as only being able to skip to the next track six times per hour, per channel. In the case of Pandora and Slacker, this restriction can be lifted by subscribing to their premium services, which run about $3 to $4 per month.
I actually use Pandora and Slacker quite a bit on my iPhone since I always have it with me, whereas I don't carry my portable computers all the time. The algorithms that these companies use to select music is usually very accurate, so I always hear something I like, plus I always get surprised with a new song or artist that I might not have ever thought of. But there are a few other services that I use even more, and I would use them exclusively if they ever made their way to the iPhone and/or Windows Mobile.
In this group, we have Rhapsody, Napster, and ZunePass. Rhapsody is the current king of this group only because it has been out the longest and has the most support on various devices, but Napster is coming on strong thanks to its acquisition by Best Buy and its low monthly price of only $5. ZunePass is priced similarly to Rhapsody, about $12-15 per month, and offers many of the same benefits with a slightly smaller library of music and without the streaming feature. Once the new Zune HD comes out this fall, look for ZunePass to become even more popular when the iPod crowd becomes aware of this feature-packed new Zune player.
Using these services is almost like a cross between personalized radio and buying songs on iTunes, except that you're not really buying the music. For example, if you have a favorite artist, you can search for that artist and add any of their available tracks or albums to your library or your play queue. This music is available to you at any time, but only for as long as you have your subscription. In addition to the music library you can customize, there are a number of streaming radio channels and playlists to choose from. Rhapsody will make album suggestions based on what you have in your library, similar to Pandora and Slacker.
Not only can you stream music from Rhapsody and Napster, which is easy to do with a portable broadband solution like the MiFi or the CradlePoint routers, but you can sideload any tracks onto your own MP3 player using the standard USB connection. From there, they are regular MP3 tracks that you can listen to anywhere, and it is very easy to setup different playlists to copy over, similar to what many people are used to with iTunes. But remember, these tracks are playable only as long as you have a subscription, which for me has been very easy to get used to. If you think about it, most of us are so conditioned to pay for cable TV that subscription music services are the same thing for music lovers.
As for how I use these services on the go, I primarily use the Nokia N800 as my on-the-go player for Rhapsody in the car, pairing it with the excellent Sprint MiFi that I briefly reviewed a while back. I subscribe to both Rhapsody and Napster, and I like them for different reasons. Rhapsody I can use not only on the Nokia, but also on my ibiza Rhapsody audio player. The ibiza is probably the most underrated audio player out there because not only does it have full Rhapsody support with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, but it's also the only player that can take it a step further and download any of the tracks on the go from any network and store them on its 30GB hard drive.
If I want to use Napster, I usually fire up my Fujitsu U820 in the car because there are no devices for Napster like there are for Rhapsody. But this leads me to my next category, which obviously is the easiest to use in the car and is now even easier to listen to while on the move.
Another subscription-based service, this has the advantage of not needing internet access to use; however, internet access makes it even better. Satellite radios have been out for a long time but there has been a shift in the last few years, and you can thank the iPhone for this one. While Sirius and XM have both tried their hand at portable radios in the past, they never really gained a foothold in the market because you still had to maintain a clear satellite signal, which is hard to do when moving around. They tried to compensate for this by incorporating a DVR-like feature, where channels could be recorded while there was a good signal and then listened to later like an MP3 player. The internal memory held many hours of content, but these devices were usually pretty unwieldy, especially compared to the newest smartphones.
Ever since the iPhone was released, however, people have been clamoring for a Sirius and/or XM app to take advantage of the companies' streaming services, which only add about $3 per month to a standard satellite subscription.
With the completed merger of Sirius and XM, the iPhone app was released a few months ago and it works great. Even though it also works on the iPod touch, you need 3G connectivity to take full advantage of it; when you have this connectivity, you have anytime access to over a hundred streaming channels.
This is my favorite service and it is complemented well by the other services I previously mentioned. If I hear a song or artist I like on Sirius, I can easily add it to my Rhapsody or Napster libraries or to Pandora or Slacker. Sirius is what I listen to for 8-10 hours a day on my Sonos systems at home and work, and now I have the ability to take that same music with me on the go.
Slingbox, Hulu, Netflix, etc.
While this article has focused mainly on music, there are many choices for on-the-go video as well, and this segment is only going to expand over the next year or so. There are so many options, in fact, that it is easy to have something to watch at all times. I can't even remember the last time I had to go through the tedious process of encoding a TV show or movie to work on a portable device. For me, it's like "Why bother?" when I can use my Slingbox to watch my cable box and DVR or Hulu to watch my favorite shows that I might have missed.
Right now, Hulu is only available on computers, so I use it frequently on all of my UMPCs and netbooks, but it will eventually make it to the iPhone. SlingPlayer is now available on the iPhone platform, which means that it can be used on just about every major platform (Windows, OSX, Windows Mobile, iPhone, Symbian, BlackBerry, and Palm OS).
Netflix lovers surely know about the "Watch Instantly" feature included with most monthly plans, and this works great with many portable computers. And of course, I don't want to leave out YouTube, which almost single-handedly created the online streaming video revolution. YouTube is accessible from just about any device nowadays, including non-smartphones. Because of this video overload and my mobile 3G broadband, local storage has gone the way of the video rental store for me, which is into the past.
Now I know that not all of our readers here have mobile broadband, and maybe some of them do but are in other countries where many of the music services and Hulu are blocked. But even taking that into consideration, there are plenty of us that have fancy smartphones that are becoming more and more like the promise of what the MID once was. Plus, WiFi has become so ubiquitous that it is very hard to find areas where there is no internet connectivity.
This is precisely what is driving the shift toward streaming services. Whereas before we depended on local storage for our media, it is now flying all around us in digital format, just waiting to be harnessed for our entertainment. This is what I'm now doing and I have no intention of going back to the old ways, although there are a few advantages I miss such as extended battery life. Most portable music and video devices have long battery life when using local content, compared to the power-thirsty WiFi and 3G devices. Battery technology is improving by the year, though, so eventually this will not even be a concern. Until then, I'll just have to keep my devices charged and ready to go because I am now completely spoiled by all of my entertainment choices.
How do you feel about streaming services? Chime in with how you get your media and entertainment fix on the go.
Chris King (orbitalcomp) is a long-time handheld tech user, dating back to the original Newton MessagePad and then moving on to dozens of different devices over the years. Currently, he finds himself surrounded by a multitude of touchscreen devices, including a pair of Fujitsu U-series, a Nokia N800, and an iPhone 3G.