Windows Media Devices have been getting a whole lot of really positive press lately. CNet stacked the Clix above the iPod on their must have list, and in a recent review of the new Toshiba Gigabeat device, Cnet said: any advantage that the iPod/iTunes ecosystem had over its WMA competitors has been wiped out by the Gigabeat S and WMP 11. Big words. I’m told the the Creative Zen Vision M provides a similar experience to the Clix only with a hard-drive based device.

I’ve spent the past few days playing with an iRiver Clix device along with Windows Media Player 11 on Windows Vista Beta 2, and I have say I’m really impressed. I’ve blogged about my woes with another PFS device, the Rio Carbon on several occasions in the past, so as you may have guessed – I went into this experience with some healthy skepticism.

That said – Sean’s excitement about the work going on with the Clix, WMP 11, and URGE made me want to give it a try, and after a few days of using it, I think there might be some hope for Windows Media devices in the long term.

Here are some of the highlights…

  • Packaging – I realize for some, this is kind of a superfluous thing, since you will likely see the device in a display case or as a floor model, but I think it still matters. The package was a clean white box, with no stickers and relatively little random print, and no excessive feature-lists or tables. Sean has posted a great video of the out-of-box experience with the Clix. A welcome departure from somewhat cynical (and a little bit true) pattern that Microsoft products have set in the past. Y’all have probably already seen the Microsoft/iPod parody on YouTube which illustrates this pretty well. Inside the box was the player itself, along with a neoprene case, an installation CD, and of course the requisite white earbuds.
  • The device itself is very clean – from the front it’s just a simple screen with a black bezel around it – the entire surface is a flat clear plastic material, so there are no bumps or ridges around the edges of the screen. The sides and back of the device are smooth, glossy, white material. There’s a headphone jack on one side, and requisite volume and power buttons on the other sides. The back is devoid of the logo & serial number fever that many other devices have, just the name of the device, and a couple tiny logos at the bottom. The device is really light (I didn’t weigh it), and small enough to put in your pocket – about the size of a mini-DV cassette.
  • Syncing the device was a breeze. After having an iPod for almost a year now, you hope to be able to take this for granted, but anyone who’s used MTP devices with WMP10 in the past knows that most of the time this is far from a simple experience. With the Clix, all those troubles are gone. I made a playlist, dragged it over to my sync list clicked start sync and it just worked. Unbelievable. The best thing was that I was able to do this with songs that I downloaded from URGE (there’s a free trial available that I’ve been using). This was really great – being able to just pick any song I wanted, download it, and put it on my device legally was really nice. The library of available songs on URGE was really rich. It even had my two litmus-test bands, Too Much Joy, and Johnny Socko.
  • The user interface of the device is really slick. It looked and felt a lot like some of the early Aero concepts we did when we looked at design directions for Windows Vista. The UI is super easy to use – it really didn’t take any thinking or guess-work to navigate around. The navigation mechanism on the Clix is really very clever- the screen is essentially a four-way rocker switch, so you just push on the side of the screen that has what you want, and it takes you there. Really nice. Another nice touch is that the volume buttons work even when the key-lock is enabled – I’m constantly fumbling with the key lock on my iPod just to turn it up or down when I’m running. The one nit I have is that when you’re playing the device, the screen turns off to save battery (which is good), but then when you click to wake up the display, it process the click as if you knew what you were doing. Not a huge issue, but a little frustrating at first.
  • In terms of feature set- the device is really great – apart from simple music playback, it also stores and plays photos, 15FPS video, and has some interesting flash games installed as well.

The one glaring thing missing from the Clix+WMP+URGE trifecta is a nice end-to-end story around podcasting. You can get a podcast subscription up and running using the RSS + Auto Playlist support in Windows Vista, but it’s not nearly as simple as it could be.

Engadget has a great review round-up of other peoples opinion’s of the Clix if you want to read more about it. So is this good enough to replace my iPod Nano? It’s very close - I just need to find a belt-clip or armband accessory for it when I go running and then it’s pretty much a done deal. I had this thing before the iPod, I never would have switched away from it the way I left the Rio Carbon. If you’re looking for a media player, and want to use a subscription media service – this is definitely the only way to go.