NEW YORK – When Marybeth Miller decided she wanted a digital player to carry around music from her massive collection, she had one important rule: no iPod.
"Everyone has an iPod. For some reason, I would rather find and purchase the 'hidden gem' MP3 player that is less popular," said Miller, a Wilmington, Del.-based musician. "I don't like the idea that nearly everyone has an iPod. I feel this way about other things, too. I appreciate obscurity."
The good news is that for those wanting to steer clear of the legion of white headphones, there are several solid alternatives, from names such as SanDisk Corp. (SNDK), Sony Corp. (SNE), Creative Technology Ltd. (CREAF) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT).
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Like "Livestrong" bracelets or Beanie Babies before them, iPods are everywhere — Apple Inc. (AAPL) has sold more than 100 million. But it's just that ubiquity that makes some people want to avoid its digital bandwagon.
What is more, three out of four households still do not own a portable media player, studies show. That is why Apple rivals plan to take a bite out of the company's 70 percent market share.
"Apple will continue to hold a leading position during and beyond this holiday season, but you can't sell other vendors short," said IDC analyst Susan Kerkorian.
As the holidays approach, four brands likely to gain prominence are Sony's once-mighty Walkman; Sandisk's Sansa line; Zune, the new-kid-on-the-block from Microsoft; and the underdog, the Creative Zen line.
"We are now going to offer something that many people would love to have in their hands, an alternative [to the iPod]," said Steve Haber, a vice president at Sony Electronics."
Styles and colors abound with digital media players, but perhaps their most important characteristic is size and, more specifically, storage capacity.
Higher capacity hard drive players range from $200 to $350. An 80-gigabyte drive can hold more than 20,000 songs and more than 20 full-length DVD-quality movies.
For example, the Creative Zen Vision W holds 30 gigabytes of media, which can show dozens of hours of lower-quality video on its 4.3-inch wide LCD display.
Microsoft's current Zune also comes in a 30-gigabyte model and has a 3-inch LCD screen, but boasts up to 14 hours of battery life.
Players with flash memory are tinier since, unlike hard drive models, they run on a solid type of memory with no moving parts, making them harder to damage if dropped.
Most flash- based players come in a range of 2 gigabytes to 16 gigabytes, cost less, $50 to $200, and hold less content, although several have a slot where one can add a memory card.
Flash is where most rivals have focused their attack on Apple, but Apple has counterpunched by adding a video screen to its popular flash- based player, the iPod Nano.
"To maintain a 70-plus market share after almost 6 years is almost unheard of," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "The challenge is to be where Apple isn't."
Perhaps with that in mind, Sandisk remodeled its Sansa View, a thin, candy-bar shaped device with a 2.4 inch screen that holds about 4,000 songs in its 16 gigabytes of memory, double the biggest iPod Nano.
At about $200, the same price as the most expensive iPod Nano, Sansa View has a bigger screen and more storage, and a slot that lets users add a memory card to expand its size. Plus, it and other devices also have FM tuners and a voice recorder.
Sandisk sells a plethora of models that compete with the iPod Shuffle, including the Clip and the Shaker, which looks like a classic salt shaker, but in pink.
Sony bounces back into the digital player market this holiday season with two versions of its Walkman line and Microsoft adds 4- and 8 gigabyte flash players to its Zune line.
Using built-in Wi-Fi, the Zune can automatically update its music, phones and videos when placed near a user's PC.
Look past the iPod displays and there are many other players from brands such as Toshiba, Archos, Cowon and Samsung.
But there are a few important caveats.
The greatest attribute of the iPod, fans say, is the simplicity which it works with iTunes, the digital download software and service. Other players work with their own software or Windows Media Player, but not with such harmony.
Marybeth Miller found another wrinkle. When she finally bought the player that best suited her, she learned that gadget stores are on the iPod bandwagon, too, making it hard to find non-iPod accessories.
"I have a Creative Zen Vision M, 60 gigabytes," she said. "It held the most music at the time I purchased it, out of all the players. I like it a lot, but I still can't find a case for it."