Over the past year, I have gotten some inquiries about people who want to load music on a new music player that they bought using one of our Public Access Computers. My answer had always been no because:
1. We didn't want to support iTunes--which isn't meant for public use anyway (in regard to the iTunes store)--nor provide software support on our PACs for every major music player manufacturer.
2. There were legal concerns about music downloads, what services can be used, etc.
3. I wasn't sure if you could plug a music player into a PAC and transfer anything to it without requiring additional software.
So, to answer this question and to satisfy my own curiousity, I purchased three portable MP3 players from three different manufacturers out-of-pocket. They are:
1. A reconditioned Apple iPod Nano 2nd Gen, 2GB silver from newegg.com
2. RCA OPal 8GB from Wal-Mart
3. Creative Zen Stone 1GB also from Wal-Mart
Each of these players have USB 2.0 connectivity, and I found that each one can be mounted and used as a regular USB flash drive. Music can be transferred to and from the latter two players without any additional software needed. The iPod Nano did require iTunes to initialize it, but you only need to perform this step once. For future transfers, you can use a piece of freeware software called SharePod, which can stay on your iPod, is small, lightweight, and can be run on any Windows Computer with .NET 2.0 framework (which all our computers have).
As for legal music services, the iTunes online store was out because the only way to purchase music is through the iTunes software; plus you have to authorize a computer and sign in. On a computer used by a single user or a family, this isn't a problem. On a publicly accessible computer where you have multiple visitors a day, it can be a major problem.
So, I came up with three alternative music services which are all legal, do not require any additional software to run, and have no DRM. They are Amazon.com MP3, Magnatune, and eMusic. So far, I've bought music from the first two services, downloaded and transferred music to each player without any problems.
What a user needs to watch out for is on Amazon.com, you must sign off when you're done and be sure to clear out the files you downloaded after transferring them to the music player. Otherwise, other people could use another user's account to buy music.
So, part of this working is going to require trust and responsibility from our Patrons. As for concerns about files remaining on the computer, this isn't an issue. After the computers shut themselves down or reboot, any activity or saved data is wiped. So, after purchasing music online, it is recommended that a computer be restarted to wipe the data.
As for what music player I'd recommend, I could sum it up with this rule of thumb:
1. If you want a music player that's well-made, has an intuitive user interface, and you don't mind paying a premium for it, Apple's iPod is an excellent unit.
2. If you want a music player that is simple and just works for a lot less, look elsewhere. The Creative Zen Stone is a barebones simple media player that has decent sound quality and just plain works. The same goes for the RCA OPal, which has a color display and four times the storage capacity of the iPod for far less money; though the user interface isn't as good as the iPod's.
I paid $101.98 shipped for my Nano, while the other two I bought locally cost me $40 (for the Zen) and $70 (for the OPal) respectively. Another good media player to look at are the Sandisk Sansa units, which offer a MiniSD slot for more storage. There are also units from iRiver, Archos, and others that are worth a look.
Another possibility is to use a PocketPC, Palm or Nokia PDA, which supports not only music and video, but other software functions. I use a Nokia N800 for my music, videos, web browsing, remote administration, e-mail on the go, GPS navigation, and most recently OBDII diagnostics. Of course, everyone is going to have different requirements.
As for upgrades, regardless of what price point you choose, I strongly recommend buying a new pair of good-sounding headphones. The ear-buds that are included with most media players won't do their sound quality justice; lack of bass and highs and they can easily fall out of your ear. The exception are the ones included with the RCA, which include silicone plugs and sound pretty good. Personally, I use a pair of Sennheiser PX100 headphones that sound great, fold to a compact size, and are relatively inexpensive at $35-40.
As for legality, I'm going to make myself as clear as I can on this: we will allow people to come in, purchase music from an online store with their own money, and transfer it to their music player on their own initiative. We will not allow people to use our equipment to illegally share music (by making multiple copies of music, or our own items) or use P2P networks (which we do not provide software or support for); if we catch you, we will ask you to stop and leave the library.
For the RIAA and law enforcement, I want you to know that we are acting in good faith, and do our best to obey local, state and Federal law; if the law changes, we'll change with it. If we find that there's a problem, we'll solve it. Our intention is to provide our patrons with as many services as we can, not invite them to break the law.