Even in an era of multipurpose smart phones, there's still good reason to buy or gift a media player that lets you carry your music in your pocket.
Media players, especially music-only models such as the iPod Nano and Philips GoGear Raga, can be smaller and cheaper than a phone. And the bigger, more versatile ones—notably the iPod Touch and its competitors, including the growing family of Samsung Galaxy Players—cost less than a phone and increasingly offer practically all the same capabilities, except phoning and texting. As a bonus, there's no monthly fee for cell service.
Here's a rundown of some great choices in players this holiday season, based on our own evaluations and tests conducted by ICRT (International Consumer Research & Testing). Models are listed in alphabetical order within groups.
Like smart phones without the phone, these players offer not only music capability but also have large screens for viewing videos and using apps.
Apple iPod Touch (5th generation)
32GB, $300; 64GB, $400
This model looks like an iPhone 5 twin; it has the same 4-inch Retina display, a dual-core A5 chip, and iOS 6. It also gets iPhone's Siri voice command, complete with new capabilities to control apps, including allowing posts via voice to Facebook and Twitter.
The new Touch is just 6mm thick, less than a quarter of an inch, and weighs 3.10 ounces. The headphone jack and speaker are situated on the bottom of the device, as is Apple's new Lightning USB connector—a thinner plug that replaces the company's 30-pin connector. The Touch also has a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus, support for 1080p video recording with video image stabilization, face detection, and an LED flash. The FaceTime HD camera supports 1080p video. Also, the Maps application has a new feature called Flyover that lets you view the structures and streets of several large cities in 3D from multiple angles.
Highs: The Touch's Retina display produces sharp images with rich colors. The front-facing camera facilitates FaceTime video chats with other devices. The rear-facing camera can shoot pictures and capture 1080P video.
This model has very good ease of use, very-good-sounding headphones, and a generous 57-hour playback time for music. It also has very-good-quality still-picture and motion video, with generous 10-hour playback time for video. The Touch includes a Web browser, an online music shop, slideshow with simultaneous music, video playback, a text viewer, one built-in speaker, phone calls via FaceTime, Genius, localization & navigation, e-mail, a camcorder, a digital camera, Game Center, voice control, volume limiter, and Mac support. And it comes with EarPods, new earbuds that are designed to fit a wide range of ears.
Lows: The Touch is one of the priciest players on the market. Its Lightning USB port requires you to get an optional adapter to work with older iPod docking stations and other accessories. Its built-in speaker is fair. Its battery is not user-replaceable. The AC adapter is not included. And you can't delete music files on player.
Apple iPod Touch (4th generation)
16GB, $199; 32GB, $249
Compared with its newer sibling (above), the fourth-generation iPod Touch is thicker and heavier and has a smaller (3.5-inch) screen and lesser camera. And it lacks a 64GB option, the Siri voice-activated assistant, and advanced 3D-mapping features. It uses the older 16-pin Apple connector (though that does mean you can use it with older iPod cords and chargers).
But it shares with the newer Touch an ultra-sharp Retina display and fast hardware, as well as the ability to use the iPod's Wi-Fi connection to sync with your iTunes account and receive software updates. You can also share or sync photos and other content with other Apple devices on your account, as well as back up text messages, e-mail, and Apple iWork documents (Keynote, Pages, and Numbers) to the remote-server-based iCloud service. The Touch lets you multitask too: For exampe, you can check e-mail or browse the Web while streaming tunes from Slacker or Pandora.
Highs: Like its successor, this model's Retina display produces sharp images with rich colors. The front-facing camera facilitates FaceTime video chats with other devices. It has very-good-sounding headphones and generous 53-hour playback time for music, as well as very-good-quality still-picture and motion video with generous 8.5-hour playback time for video.
Lows: The rear camera has only a 0.7-megapixel resolution. It has a fair built-in speaker, and the battery is not user-replaceable. The AC adapter is not included, and you can't delete music files on the player.
Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 (YP-GI1C/NA)
Closely resembling Samsung's Galaxy smart phones in appearance, this player has a 4.2-inch LCD touch screen, albeit one that lacks the resolution of the company's best phones, and excellent options for accessing its content from other devices. It features a 2-megapixel rear camera and a front-facing camera for self portraits and video chats.
Highs: You can expand the Galaxy Player's capacity by up to 32GB via a microSD card, which costs about $20. That option would allow you to own a 40GB player for around $30 less than you'd pay for a 32GB iPod Touch, whose storage can't be expanded. The ability to video chat using the Galaxy Player's two cameras is a fun and compelling way to enjoy a media player.
This model has excellent still-picture and video quality, as a media player goes. It has good-quality stereo speakers and can play WMA and FLAC files. The Galaxy player can be used to store data, and you can drag and drop music files without the need to install any software. It has excellent compatibility with TVs and other video equipment, including wireless sharing and the ability to read almost all video formats.
As with the iPod Touch, the Galaxy PLayer's Wi-Fi connection gives you access to your calendars, e-mails, and social-network accounts; GPS navigation; and ThinkFree Office, as well as plethora of apps and other downloadable content from the Android Market.
Lows: This player is thicker than either generation of iPod Touch, and its screen is lower in resolution than those of the Touches.
Lacking apps capability and a built-in content store, and with smaller screens than the full-fledged players, these less-expensive players are primarily for music listening.
Apple iPod Nano (7th generation)
This latest version of Apple's midsized player is a return to the rectangular shape of the 5th-generation Nano and before. The screen has been enlarged to a 2.5-inch multitouch display.
Highs: One of the slimmest iPods ever, the Nano comes in a choice of eight colors. It offers a solid 37 hours of music playback time. You can count on a very fast start-up time and very good video picture and sound quality via the included headphones. And it's easy to use.
Lows: The new Nano has the Lightning USB port, which will require you to get an optional adapter for it to work with older iPod docking stations and other accessories. Its built-in speaker is fair. The Nano has a non-user-replaceable battery, and the AC adapter is not included. You can't delete music files on the player.
Sony Walkman NWZ-E475
16GB, $ 110
The Walkman's Play/Pause button is centered within the directional rocker pad, which is flanked by a Back button on the left and an Options button on its right. You also get an FM tuner and a user-customizable equalizer.
Highs: This Walkman doesn't have a touch screen, but its controls are simple and intuitive. Audio playback was an impressive 49 hours, and video playback was a very good 8.5 hours.
Lows: Video and pictures didn't look very impressive on this player's low-resolution 2-inch screen.
Philips GoGear Raga (SA4RGA04KF/37)
This diminutive player measures 2 x 1.7. x 0.5 inches and weighs less than an ounce. Storage is 4GB, compared to the Shuffle's 2GB. Other features include a display (0.5 x 0.9 inches), an FM radio, equalizer, and volume limiter to protect hearing—all things the Shuffle lacks.
Highs: The GoGear Raga comes with an adjustable fabric armband that easily straps the player to your arm. Sound quality was very good.
Lows: Headphone performance was only fair. The player's controls, while simple, are a tad sluggish.