Swimming with an MP3 player and some other thoughts on digital players


If you read my short comparative 4-way review of some popular MP3 players you probably know that the main reason why I kept an iPod Shuffle (won on a Pepsi contest) was for the "OtterBox" - which is a low-cost waterproof case - and now we'll take a look at that and some other - older or newer - things from the digital audio/video players area...

The OtterBox for the iPod shuffle

My OtterBox was actually bought from this internet shop since I also ordered waterproof headphones from them - and everything with the order was OK but we'll have a few words for each item on its own and only then we'll go to the full target - swimming with an MP3 player !

The OtterBox is surprisingly large - normally when you say that it adds a few millimeters on each direction of the shuffle (which is 100% to be expected) you don't also take into account the "relative extra size" - which compared to how small the shuffle is might give a surprising result - the OtterBox adds almost 50% to the length and width of the shuffle and basically makes it 300% thicker; also the box (empty) is heavier than the shuffle.

As I said - that is to be expected from a very solid enclosure - but the result is also that people looking after something very thin and light which should only give a minimal protection (like for instance against light scratches or a few drops of water) but which will be used "all day long" might want to look after something else since it is not likely that you will want to use the OtterBox all the time on your shuffle if you are NOT on the beach or at a swimming pool.

That being said the OtterBox is SOLID and does its job very well - it is certainly waterproof and probably adds some extra shockproof to the shuffle - which was already quite good at that, since there was no screen to crack :) The controls work OK - I have the newer version which also has "a thing" to also use the power switch - but that requires a lot of training so I found much simpler to turn the shuffle on before placing it in the OtterBox and then simply pause it if I don't use it.

The waterproof headphones

The nice people from waterproofcases.net have (at least) two models of waterproof headphones - a "standard model" that costs around 25 US$ and also the Swimman Hi Fi Stereo Waterproof Headphones - that costs around 100 US$ .

Both models are in-ear-canal headphones and I have to admit that when it came to the waterproof headphones I was not very tempted by the expensive model - my (dry land only) in-ear-canal Panasonic RP-HJE50 are AMAZING for a very, very decent price and I was also not expecting to need professional sound underwater, so I went for the cheap model.

The sound quality itself is not very bad - so from this point of view my choice was correct - however the cheap standard underwater headphones are VERY, VERY difficult to fit right ...

The actual swimming with an MP3 player

Well, here is the point where things are getting a little ugly - I must first say that I do about 2000 to 5000 meters (that is 40-100 one-way olympic pool lengths) front crawl style at about 1 minute/length - so the speed is not very small and there is a LOT of moving involved ... and here is where the two problems hit me ...

First of all the cheap headphones are not only difficult to fit right, but also don't stay in the right position for a very long time if you move a lot - so actually every 3-4 laps or so I was forced to stop and try to fit them back ... which at some point was too stressful ...

The second problem (and also the reason why I am not very tempted on buying the much more expensive Swimman Hi Fi Stereo Waterproof Headphones from above) is related to the "in-ear-canal" problem - if you already have such a pair of (dry land) headphones you probably have noted that you will have some sound problems when you eat, drink, speak and so on - which also on front crawl style swimming means that you will hear each respiration cycle and a lot of the water bubbling around :(

So the overall result of the entire experiment was that swimming with an MP3 player is possible on a decent budget, but is not as pleasant as I would have expected :(

The experience would probably be slightly more pleasant if you simply go "scuba diving" at a very slow speed - but here there might be a problem with the OtterBox being only guaranteed for a few meters deep or so ...

Probably the best use for the OtterBox is on the beach, near a swimming pool (or under heavy rain + dirt) - with the right headphones you can now take your iPod shuffle and enjoy your music into the most exotic places!

It still remains to be seen if the more expensive Swimman Hi Fi Stereo Waterproof Headphones from above can make a serious difference - but at this point I am not convinced, and my budget for unusual experiments is not unlimited :( - if that was not the case it might have been interesting to also test two other far more expensive alternatives - bone conduction (that is Finis SwiMP3 - quite expensive around 200 US$ for a 128MB MP3 player which can only be used under water) or something with out-of-ear-canal speakers (even more expensive overall but this will also work for deeper scuba diving).

Some other small things about the iPod shuffle

I was not able to determine what firmware my shuffle has - so I decided to download the latest firmware package from Apple (2005-10-12) - the bad news are that Apple has decided to force users to download all firmware versions for all types of ipods - 50 megabytes when the actual firmware is probably something like 32-64 Kbytes :)
I was also quite concerned that the new firmware might break the open-source iPod shuffle Database Builder but apparently that was not the case and I am still happy with it!

I have also discovered that the shuffle is maybe the worst choice to "explore new music" - if you drop 4-5 albums that you never listened before on it hoping that you will find the 2-3 good songs then you are in for a small surprise - you might eventually hear a good song but obviously you can't easily tell which is that since you don't have a display :)

A small trick that might help other people also using the iPod shuffle Database Builder from above - I place all the music on my shuffle in a top-level folder called MUSIC under different sub-folders - but since navigation is almost inexistent with the shuffle a small trick might help - I place 4-8 of my favorite songs in a folder called 1 (the numeral one, which will normally be seen first) and then I can reach those very easy by setting the shuffle in "linear mode" and then pressing 3 times on the Play/Pause button (which will take you to the first song) - the same can be used with audiobooks and generally when you want to navigate quickly to a known point...

Finally one other idea to simply improve the shuffle only based on firmware - what about a command for setting a bookmark by pressing for 3 seconds on the power-level button from the back and another command to navigate to that bookmark by quickly pressing 3 times on the same power-level button !!! My feeling is that if the firmware for the shuffle was open-source I could implement such a command in 1-2 days - but obviously since Apple is one of the most "controlling" companies around no such open firmware will ever exist and the only way to get such a small improvement would be to beg Apple to implement it :(

Other thoughts on digital players

Actually if you BUY your MP3 player (instead of getting it for free from some contest, like I got my shuffle) it will be a good idea to pick something better than the shuffle ... and it is not a bad idea to have a display and a few other things ...

Until about a week ago the only Apple MP3 player that had any technical advantage over the competition was the iPod nano - it was the flash-based player with the largest amount of memory - there were 2-3 other models with 2 GB of flash but no other decent model with 4 GB !

That has changed with the launch of the Sandisk SANSA m200 family, which not only can have the same 4 GB internal flash (at about the same price as the 2 GB nano), but will also have FM radio, voice recorder and standard AAA battery!!! Very interesting would also be if the new SANSA family has retained the SD slot from the previous Sandisk SANSA - which basically would mean that you can IMMEDIATELY transform it into an 8 GB flash-based MP3 player!!! (but that is not 100% clear right now, and also it's not clear if Sandisk has kept the better in-ear-canal earbuds from some models of the previous SANSA family).

The recently launched iPod video never had such "technical advantage" - if you really want a small digital video player there are better alternatives out there (some of them are from Archos; and Neuros might even have an open-source one!) - however what is interesting with the iPod video is the emerging of video media that you can buy and download online - but as far as I can see the Sony PSP still has a small advantage with a much better screen, a lot more titles and a better price - for instance the entire LOST season 1 in UMD Mini For PSP format is around 15 US$ at Amazon but over twice more from iTunes - actually the Apple version (at 320x240 resolution) will cost almost as much as getting the UMD and DVD versions from Amazon :)

One final nostalgic observation - right now Apple brags about a large digital players market share (maybe 60-70% from the US market) - but
a) that might only mean 20-30% of the global market share
b) there was a time around 1977-1980 when Apple also had a similar market share for personal/home computers - which in time "evolved" to the pathetic 2-3% that we can see today ... will history repeat itself?