Engineers and a birthday gift…

When asked for birthday gift hints, my sister-in-law’s husband said he wanted an MP3 player to replace the outdated Walkman he runs with, and even suggested a specific model that we could all chip in on.

That should have made things pretty easy. However, because this is an electronic item, with computers involved, there was an excessive amount of enthusiasm invested by the two alpha-engineers into selecting the best model. Perhaps further adding to the pressure was our desire to make a good impression on his first official “birthday year” in the family.

I’m on the…
highway to …
the copa.

Engineer #1 spent some time online doing comparisons, concluding MP3 players are commoditized, with price bands based on minor feature differentiation. He suggested a list of choices in an appropriate price range that were technically superior to the model originally suggested. Engineer #1’s primary criterion was the total memory size, because this means you can store more tunes between reprogramming. Thus, if your mood changes mid-run from
Highway to Hell” to “Copacabana,” you won’t panic. Expandability was considered a nice plus, primarily because Engineer #1 has a music collection rivaling most radio stations.

Engineer #2 is a closet luddite because he has been burned by obsoleted technology too many times. Since all units had an acceptable base capacity of music, he thought weight and size were more important with exercise as the primary use case. He was also partial to Sennheiser headphones for quality.

Engineer #1 added new information based on further research:

I don’t think weight is going to be that big of an issue. Model 1 is 35g, Model 2 is 29g and Model 3 is 41.5g. That’s all super light. Model 4 is 140g which is mammoth compared to the rest and perhaps not that great for running.

Model 1 takes 1 AA battery – which nearly doubles its net weight. Model 2 and Model 3 take 1 AAA. I am assuming an AA is 30g and an AAA is 20g (this is what the kitchen scale said for Duracell’s after we re-zeroed it. You can try different brands if you have them handy), the net weight break down is:

Model 249.0g
Model 3 61.5g
Model 1 65.0g
Model 4180.0g

That all seems pretty light to me, I wouldnt know if it makes a difference either way.

Headphones or hairdo?

Sennheiser makes nice headphones. I use a pair for recording, but I doubt [he] would jog in them looking like Princess Leia. You’re going to get a range of 20hz-20kHz on all the mp3 players. The cheapest headphones I could find were the [Brand P] for $4.95 which had a response bandwitdth of 16Hz-22kHz – so anything other than tin cans tied to a string are going to cover the soundscape of an mp3 player.

That all said, the feature I key in on is the memory size. The average size of 250 randomly selected MP3’s I have is 4.11mb. So we’re talking about 15 songs on the 64mb. Which is certainly enough for one jog, but I’d have to replace them often and if I ended up flipping through a bunch, I could see myself with not enough to listen to.

[…]I’m happy to be Mayor Quimby and go with whatever the crowd wants since I think they’ll all work nice (except for the Model 4; the Spruce Goose of the MP3 player world).

I guess a good idea might be for sister-in-law to actually ask him what features he liked about the MP3 player and go with the features he’s looking for 🙂

I’ll now conclude the longest email ever written to discuss a potential birthday present.

And to further pummel the deceased equine, Engineer #2 wrote back:

Based on some random sampling with winamp, I see approximately 1Mb = 1 minute of playing, so 128Mb = two hours of music, or a really quick marathon. Still, Engineer #1 is right about the 64mb models offering an insufficient variety of music.

I’m still not sure about the usefulness of expansion versus buying adequate capacity in the beginning and assuming you’d just buy a new one in three years when the standards change again. I see a repeated pattern with stuff I’ve bought where the model I have is essentially obsoleted next year by something twice as powerful. For example, the memory card we have for our digital camera topped out at 128mb when we bought it, but is now available in >1Gb sizes. Even ignoring the unlikelihood that I would burn through six sets of batteries before uploading the
1,300 photos to my computer, this still seems like a lot. And for what I spent on the 3MP camera, I can now get a 8MP for life-size photo prints.

So… this really depends on what he considers most important. Given that he’s used to running with a Sony BoatAnchor with 90 minutes, the 4.9 ounces and 128 minutes of the Spruce Goose may be fine. And should he want longer, we can get him the 1Mb minidrive for Christmas 😉

So, now with the ball back in my sister-in-law’s court, she chimes in:

Okay, I wasted an hour this morning on the internet trying to figure out the “perfect” mp3 player. Sure isn’t easy.

I can ask him for a qualities list, but basically I think he’s gonna love whatever one you pick out. He’s currently running with my ancient Sony cassette Walkman after all. He thinks 64 MB is fine, but of course we just got replayTV with 40 hours recording time and he’s realizing just how much he *could* record with a larger hard drive, so I don’t think he’s real forward-thinking on how much he’d put on his mp3 player.

It’s definitely hard to pick from Engineer #1’s list. I even think the Spruce Goose would be okay, especially if it has a clock feature, as he generally runs the same route every day and then looks at my Walkman to see how long it took him. Of course, heaven forbid he run with a watch on, so the absence of a clock is not that big a deal. I’m just telling you what he does now. I can’t find anything on the internet that says the Goose has a visible clock… just that it has an internal clock for timestamping voice recordings, but I think it would be awfully stupid to have something keeping the time inside the thing and not have the time displayable on the LCD, but hey, I’m just an engineer…

Between the two MPIOs I think I would choose the Model 3 and sacrifice microsize for 1) the FM tuner and 2) the expandability.

That’s just my two cents. If I find anything else out on the net (and you know I’m gonna look), I’ll let you know ASAP.

I calculated we spent about 10x the cost of the MP3 player in lost productivity from researching and debating features. The good news is her husband was happy. In a few more years, we’ll be using gift certificates.

6 thoughts on “Engineers and a birthday gift…”

  1. For idle curiosity’s sake – what were the rough price ranges for models 1 through 4? Were they so close in price it didn’t make a difference?

  2. It’s the classic “Capacity. Cheap. Weight.” trade-off. Prices ranged from $81.38 to $133.11. This year, you can get twice the capacity for slightly less than the same price.

  3. That puts the most expensive unit at ~164% the price of the cheapest unit – quite a difference if the feature set is roughly the same, but if the “spruce goose” is something iPod-like (ie with built-in rechargable battery & hard drive) it’s not really in the same category as a lightweight MP3 player.

    As with most of these things, it’s a case of horses for courses; my iPod is great for the bus trip to and from work, and plugged into the car stereo on long trips, but is uncomfortably heavy and awkward when exercising, which is when the light-weight MuVo comes into its own.

    Which model did you end up getting?

  4. We opted for Engineer 1’s first choice, Model #3, 128Mb with an SD expansion slot. It was the second most expensive choice, at $124.33. (However, this was 2003. Current models are cheaper/more feature-laden, and there is some ambiguity with WMA as a standard.)

  5. “I calculated we spent about 10x the cost of the MP3 player in lost productivity from researching and debating features.”

    Hmm, good point. I vote next year we outsource the R&D to India…

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