Why Modern MP3 Players Suck


Why modern MP3 Players Suck…

So why is this true?  I think there are two reasons.  1. Most people want shiny tech but don’t know or care that it doesn’t work until they buy it, and 2. The designers are trying to make one tool do too many jobs.  Since I can’t help the first problem, I’ll do my best to explain the second.


By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

People want an mp3 player to do two or three very different jobs. 1. pop music, 2. classical music (or music, other) 3. podcasts  (possibly) 4. audiobooks.

Frankly, I think the latter three have more overlapping concerns than the first. If you are listening to a lot of short works, you don’t really care where inside those songs you happen to be, nor do you want to relisten to a section of a given work.  You want them readily accessible, you want to put them in playlists.  You want to categorize music by variety and have little pictures associated with it. (I guess, some people do.) But you want to search by genre, artist, and playlist. A little place loss is no big deal.

HOWEVER, with a podcast, classical music, OR an audiobook, losing your place is nigh catastrophic. Chances are, it’ s not even near the beginning or end of a recorded unit. It’s right there in the middle. Worse yet, you very much care about how much time has passed, and the ability to move forward and back, even skipping through it at quarter to half speed.  Most players don’t even bother with this. I only know it is handy because I remember the analog days. Also, I’ve used audio/video editing software, and more than once have wished I had it handy.

Thirdly, you want to organize all the things in three out of four ways.

1. For classical music, by artist, period and  record number, plus numerical order. Which is yet again different from pop music, where album order is nice, but only really important to a few people.

2. Podcasts you want to organize by producer and number in a series, and accessed by topic. This doesn’t necessarily mean you want to PLAY them in that order.

3. Your audiobooks you want to be organized by author, genre, chapter, optionally volume (which is different). In classical and audiobooks, numeric order is paramount. It may or may not matter with podcasts.

Generally speaking, everybody wants to determine how to organize their own, and in what order to play them.We can just assume that everybody wants playlists, except possibly for audiobooks. Frankly, I’ve used playlists to MAKE SURE I’m listening to my chapters in order. Seriously, one of my vaunted MP3 Players actually forced everything to be listed in alphabetical order, and the ONLY way to change the play order was to use playlists.

Why cant’ you have all at once? Because it’s about architecture. Imagine if you asked a library to archive different kinds of books differently. Retrieving the books suddenly becomes an operation, and you have to translate from one system to another across the whole. This becomes one big snarl on the back end, and causes no end of problems. Software isn’t as smart about this as librarians, either.

If that weren’t enough, podcasts became video enabled, and folks get upset if they can’t listen to their audio podcasts AND watch their video podcasts on the same device. This has morphed into bloatware that can’t decide what it’s supposed to do, demands the resources of your entire computer to function, and once there, does so without doing anything very well. So there’s yet another complication. With music, audio podcast and audiobook player, you don’t CARE if you see video or not. Frankly, I’d prefer to use a tablet or a computer for video media, but I’m not a hipster.

By Clément Bucco-Lechat (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This has a lot to do with the difference between a tool and an endless array of features.  A swiss army knife is not the best knife. If you really NEED a knife, but you also need a bunch of other stuff in a small space, a Swiss army knife will save your life.  But if you need to carve yourself some flatware, or saw down a tree, you WILL find some other way to do it. Yes, it can be done, but I guarantee, by the end, your hands will be a bloody mess. That it makes it possible is a win, but no lumberjack would use it for that purpose.

It’s another engineering problem. And programmers who ignore engineering are as bad as architects who ignore engineering.  Fewer people die, naturally, but… still. Though the building may stand and remain stable, that may mean it does things like leak in the rain, or require millions of dollars to make it last more than a few years.

In case you are wondering, that is why I have a picture of the Air Force chapel up there. That is a building that was built as a rebellion against engineering. Unfairly enough, the architect laughed all the way to the bank. He was able to make millions off his hapless customer thanks to his own sloppiness.  The thing still leaks every bit as badly as you’d think it would.

Second, (Getting back to MP3 players) I hate to say it, but there are intrinsic problems with touch screens that don’t scan well with small devices like this.  If the world ever returns to sanity again, buttons will return as a having durability and utility. We will once again choose the best tool for the job, rather than thinking that the latest thing is always best.

We can but hope.

I’m not saying that innovation isn’t awesome, or that experimental work is a bad idea. FAR FROM IT. I’m quite happy that we’ve managed to beat back polio and…ALMOST got rid of smallpox forever.  And, I like my tablet for what it does… surfing the web and watching videos. That’s great. But my tablet will never be a kindle. And the kindle app proves this admirably.

MP3 players should be sold by utility– some for those who want primarily a music player, and some for those who want an podcast/classical/audiobook player. It should be sold by functionality, not by trying to do everything and failing all equally.

Also, it’s possible you’d be happy with a pop music player for your podcasts and audiobooks. I can see that. But we should have the choice of a better interface for how we work, rather than a schizophrenic whole trying to make everybody happy.

[EDIT: Good news everyone! I found out that the Air Force Cadet Chapel pictured above was used by Bruce Sterling in The Twilight Zone as a tribunal chamber for an oppressive dictatorship.  WIN! PPS, in case you wonder about my snarky comments about the architect, I read about it in a relatively recent copy of Architectural Digest. Ironically this in a special anniversary article defending Modernist Architecture. Go figure.]

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