Non-iPod mp3 players + iTunes

My son turns 10 today. I want to get him an inexpensive mp3 player because he’s become very interested in them lately. He says he wants an iPod, but I told him I will not spend $200 on a tiny piece of equipment that he’ll likely slam in a car door. I have one of those RCA ones that takes an SD card to expand the memory. Right now I have a 1GB card in it. It’s all I need, and until he gets older, it’s really all he needs.

The last time I downloaded music, Napster was free, so I don’t have a huge library of single songs. I usually just borrow CDs or just use the ones I own and love. My son, on the other hand, wants all kinds of current hip-hop that I don’t own. I told him that I don’t want to buy him the CDs because I don’t think he’s old enough for uncensored hip-hop/rap. It would be better if he could download songs with my approval one at a time, that way he might get mostly radio versions (that’s what he’s used to anyway…).

If I get my son an mp3 player today that isn’t an almighty iPod, will he be able to use iTunes if I get him one of those iTunes gift cards? Does iTunes download music to the computer or directly to the music player? What about all those accessories like iHome and all of that? And if all the iAccessories are compatible with other mp3 players, why is there an “i” on all of them?

iTunes downloads the music to the iTunes app on your computer, then it’s trivially easy to drag them from your library to your iPod. Unfortunately, when you purchase songs, there is the big ugly issue of Digital Rights Management. The songs are encrypted and can only play on players that are set up to decode, and have the correct license info. As far as I know, the iPod-brand players are the only ones that can play iTunes downloads. A cheapie MP3 player definitely won’t.

Other MP3 players may have Microsoft’s implementation of DRM, which of course can’t be played on an iPod.

What you can do is to download songs on iTunes, then burn those songs to an audio CD (audio CDs are never encrypted), then import that CD to your music library in unprotected MP3 format. It can be a pain if you plan on doing that frequently.

So what other legal download options do I have? Is it worth getting an mp3 player for my son if it isn’t an iPod?

What are some of the better ones out there that I don’t have to spend a fortune on?

Alternatives to iTunes include:

MSN Music:
Yahoo Music:
Napster: (now a legitimate music download store, no longer in any way connected to the file-sharing software that made the Napster name famous)

And all the music from these sites can be played on anything?

I think you’d want a player that supports the WMA format (which is lots of them nowadays)

All of the services listed by Mangetout will not paly with ipods because they have the early version of microsoft’s DRM and I beleive that they encode with windows media format and not mp3 or ACC that Ipods can use. has plain mp3 that should play on almost any player. also has palin mp3 files.
Unfortunately the above services don’t have a lot of music by big popular artists although emusic seems to have some. lists the napster compatible devices. I did not see any rca players that worked. looked like it had a few RCA models.
the microsoft site did not immediately have a list of compatible devices.

Alternatively, the iPod shuffle holds 1 GB and only costs $79.

I’ve lost my new schuffle twice already because it’s so small. It has no weight to it, so you don’t realize it’s missing until you reach for it. I still like it and it may be your best and least expensive choice.

Those links are for subscription-compatible players, which isn’t necessary if the OP just wants his son to be able to ‘buy’ some napster songs, or get him a gift card that’s valid for songs, the same way itunes works. (Although you’d need to make sure not to buy a card that’s “three months free subscription” or anything of the sort.)
Even their wider list of DRM devices is not very complete because there are so many different models of MP3 players around, I know that a lot of cheap RCA players do support it.

The napster and napster-to-go subscription plans, (and, AFAIK, the yahoo unlimited ones,) work a bit differently - you pay a monthly fee, can download as much music as you want, but you can only play them on up to three computers, or certain models of subscription-capable MP3 players if you have the -to-go subscription (which is a higher monthly fee.)

I’ve found I like working with a mix of the two schemes… go on subscription, try out a lot of music, figure out what songs I like, then buy them, burn them to CDs, and go back off subscription.

No. Generally, there are two kinds of legal download places:

Set one is where you “buy” songs, and they’re copy protected to only work on either Apple (iTunes) or Microsoft-WMA (everything else) players.

Set two is where you buy a “subscription,” that generally gives you access to either the whole library or some large number of songs per month. These have the same copy protection as set one, plus you don’t get permanent access - once you stop paying for the subscription, all of your purchased music stops working.

There’s a third possibility - sites that sell unrestricted music, but unless you like independent music and can live with NOTHING from the major labels, these sites don’t have the selection most folks want. The major record labels are unbelievably paranoid about having folks share their music with a few million of their closest friends, so they all insist on copy protection (or “DRM,” which means basically the same thing).

Without sounding too much like an Apple promoter - Apple owns 75% or more of the MP3 player market with it’s various iPods. They’ve got the same sort of vendor lock on this market as Microsoft has in Operating Systems – you can get something else, but you’ll always be a niche player, and have a much greater chance of what you get just not being supported one day (Microsoft’s already abandoned the “PlaysForSure” folks once). This may (probably will) change over time, but right now, if you want to do the legal download thing, iPods are your best bet.

You can certainly use iTunes to purchase music for your son’s MP3 player. Unless iTunes has changed recently, it requires a few “extra” steps, but in the end, it should be fine.

  1. Buy the song from itunes
  2. Burn the song to CD
  3. Create an MP3 from the CD copy of the song.
  4. Transfer the MP3 to the player.

A bit of a pain, yes, but this is a good way to get the song without a lot of the DRM stuff on it, and is Apple’s own instructios for how to use iTunes with non-ipod players.

Go to It’s a site where you can search for a suitable store based on the features you want (ex: subscription, offers gift cards, parental control of explicit material etc.). The page also has a list of mp3 players that are guaranteed to work at all the stores listed on the site. When you go to choose a player, just look for the blue “plays for sure” logo on the box, and you won’t have to worry about compatability issues with any of the listed stores.

We got one of those cheap RCA Digital Audio Players for Christmas. First thing I checked: will it work with iTunes? Answer: no.

But happily this RCA player comes with a coupon for 100 free mp3s (from

I plan to try the workaround crazyjoe suggests.

Remember that music doesn’t have to be purchased to put it on a player. An existing library of CDs that you “rip” to MP3 in iTunes will do just fine.

I use a program called CDEx to rip CDs to MP3 files, that’s the best legal way to fill up a MP3 player.

Beware! While Microsoft PlaysForSure is a certification by Microsoft that a device will work with content providers, Windows Media Player, and all the jazz, Microsoft’s own Zune device doesn’t work with PlaysForSure.

Making audio CDs from your purchased music, then using the same program to import unprotected MP3 files to your library, is possible with other download services besides iTunes. I’ve used MusicMatch to do the same basic thing. However, there were limitations with MusicMatch on how many CDs you could burn, and iTunes was much more flexible.

Also, someone suggested an iPod shuffle. My ten year old son got one of the new tiny ones for his birthday in November, and I realized that I wouldn’t want one for me, because of the inability to select which track you’re listening to (other than indexing one at a time through the whole list).

I think your best options are either to get a less expensive MP3 player and just plan on doing the audio CD burning/importing steps anytime you purchase music, or to spend $150 on the 1 GB iPod Nano.

Actually, I think the deal is that the Zune isn’t compatible with the same PlaysForSure that Napster, Yahoo, etc. use, but it does work with the latest version.

Also, I did the Napster To Go (monthly subscription) + Dell MP3 player deal for a while. Let me just say it wasn’t nearly as seamless and hassle free as I’d have liked.