The year is 2021, and I was thinking about getting a device to play my music collection. I had simple requirements:
- It must be Internet-connected, so it can receive arbitrary firmware updates that risk bricking the thing “in the name of security”
- It must use that connectivity to regularly upload information of its choosing, without informing me or telling me what information, to whom it is being sent, or how that information will be used.
- It must be a vendor-tied device, that works only/exclusively with that vendor's own music catalog, purchasing system, hardware, and software. It must be crippled to the point of frustration or uselessness if the user tries to use any other system, software, or device with it.
- It must work only with my personal music collection; my wife must be obliged to buy her own device, so it can be managed with as tight a fist with no risk of any music co-mingling, sharing, or other shenanigans.
- It must play only music that has been verified and/or purchased from that vendor. If the user tries to listen to music obtained from any other source, channel, or platform, it must refuse to play it, or insist on specious “authenticity” checks that scare me into doing the right thing, which is of course, buying only from the one-approved vendor mentioned above. For bonus points, said authenticity checks should allude to but not specify various reporting scenarios or device-crippling scenarios that appear scary as hell and not worth the risk.
- Eventually, a mandatory firmware upgrade should render the device useless despite the hardware being in good shape. For example, the firmware update should require a partner software on my laptop to also be upgraded, which is impossible on my existing hardware. This scheme requires me to buy a new fucking laptop in order to update the laptop software so I can apply the firmware upgrade to the device, which probably also results in a slower, more frustrating user experience that suggests I should also buy a new device.
Instead, I bought this sweet little Chinese-made device that simply allows me to install and listen to my enormous collection of digital music. Wait, the Chinese manufacturers are supposed to be the bad guys, right? Right?
If you haven't already drowned in my sarcasm, allow me to spell it out: American consumers have gotten accustomed to the world of electronics requiring infinite sacrifices, compromises, and loss of agency, all in the name of quality, security, or trendiness. Not until you escape the bubble do you realize that one hundred fucking percent of this modern world is imposed by business –, not technical decisions. And don't even get me started on the idea of streaming music. How did we get bullied into thinking renting access to music, at terms imposed by corporations who can and will alter the terms periodically, such as increasing the price, was a good idea? It's exhausting and is making this aged nerd angry. Also a negative against streaming: watch the face of any nerd on the subway as the train goes underground/into a tunnel and the internet connection drops. Ha ha, suck it, nerd!
About this device: It came well-rated, cost about $40, and is pretty simple. You load it with MP3, FLAC, or OGG format digital music, and then listen to it. You can create playlists on the fly, sort by genre, artist, album, or song, fast forward and rewind, repeat one or all, and everything else you'd want to do. It has a wired headphone connection but also has bluetooth. And it has a few other things I hadn't expected: it can read EPUB digital books for example, and has a little calendar. You can even play MP4 videos on its little screen if you want to. I don't need any of those things. The big draw is that of the bullet list above, this little device avoids all those annoyances. A few other great features:
- The battery lasts longer than I do. I took it on a car trip and listened to music all day for four days, and the battery barely hit 85%. Not sure how long the battery lasts, but compared to my cellphone where listening to music on the airplane risks arriving at my destination with no battery, this is incredible. I'd call it world-changing, except this is the world we gave up, for fuck's sake.
- It operates off mini SD cards. It came with 32 MB but you can put in a larger one you want, and if the media get damaged or corrupted, rather than throwing out your intentionally-obsolete device, you just insert a new chip and get back to life. The amount of digital landfill waste generated by fancy American companies makes me sick to the stomach. You can actually fix this thing.
- It operates off a standard cellphone battery. If the battery stops holding a charge you can open it up and replace the battery.
- You can add songs to it by connecting it to your computer, where it opens like a standard USB stick allowing you to cut, copy, and paste. Or you can remove the chip and insert that into your computer. Whatever. Piece of cake. No fancy desktop connection software required.
- If I want to load it up for a trip with a mix of my MP3s, my wife's MP3s and my dog's OGGs, I can.
There are a few negatives, but compared to the above, I scarcely care enough to write about them. In sum: the build quality of the device is cheap. That's why it cost $40 and not $200. It's not waterproof, since the chip and headphone jacks are exposed. And the software/menus are a bit clunky by the standard of the ipod clickwheel, which truly was amazing. But I'm willing to give all that up in exchange for battery life and the long list of features above.
Finally, here's what drove the purchase: I was taking a long car trip, and my wife was doing the DJ work using my device. Of course, every time she wanted to change tracks I had to unlock the device with my fingerprint. Ridiculous. This little device solved that problem, while reminding me that most of the rest of our problems are a direct result of corporate greed. Know of any technology companies worth trillions of dollars, or CEOs/tech startup gurus worth millions? Yeah, I thought so. This angry nerd is off to listen to some sweet tunes while further planning going off-grid once and for all. Suck it, Silicon Valley (Wait, I thought California was protecting us from the evil Chinese. Right? Right?)
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