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Downloadable Audiobooks

March 21, 2005

This shall be a column about what we know. Maybe the earth was created six thousand years ago, maybe six billion. Maybe it resulted from conscious design, maybe unconscious. I don’t care.

However, we know for a fact that the library offers downloadable audiobooks, and we’ve learned a few new things about it.

For one, the digital audio world is a variable, complicated, sometimes messy place because (i) it was not neatly designed by one intelligence and (ii) it continues to change rapidly.

That said, the idea is nifty and powerful. And it works. But the way it works varies. And so I want to revisit the service as a way to clarify it, and thereby promote it, for it is worth the effort to learn a few new things.

The library has offered audiobooks on tape and on CD. Now there’s a third option: digital audiobooks that may be downloaded via the Internet. This is a nice option for anyone with a broadband (high-speed) Internet connection at home.

We set up an account for you with NetLibrary, the company that delivers the digital audiobooks. With that account, you log in to their site, search a collection of over 700 audiobooks (and growing every month), and download books you like. You may play them on a computer or a portable digital audio player.

What’s the catch? There are a few. The books won’t play on the Apple iPod, a very popular player. The problem is with file formats and digital rights management. (Hey … I didn’t create this world.)

Early on, we emphasized that the player must play the WMA file format. Well, there’s more. Evidently, there are players that will play WMA files but not “protected” WMA files. It took many hours of trial and error, and calls to technical support, to discover this fact.

We now have from NetLibrary a list of compatible devices.

One player we encountered was advertised as having 256MB of memory. But in fact, it had 128MB plus 128MB. No, it’s not a matter of simple math. It had two separate memories of 128MB each, not one block of 256MB, which limits the file size and, thus, the choice of books.

Also, although there is a choice of downloading CD- or radio-quality files, the portable players will only play the larger CD-quality files. Surprise!

Each player we have seen is designed differently. The controls are often tiny, multi-function affairs. Most of the functions are not intuitive. Some seem deliberately counter-intuitive. This is an industry in flux. Form does not follow function. And yet … it’s beautiful.

I used a Rio Nitrus player on a drive to Arizona recently. I bought an adapter at Wal-Mart that sends the audio to your car radio so you don’t need headphones. Slick.

It pays to learn the controls. Read the manual. I stopped in Alamosa for tea and tried to pause the book in progress. I moved the button the wrong way and stopped it altogether. So I lost my place. I found it again by playing with fast-forward, but what a pain. And then … yes … I did it again.

I knew there was a bookmark function, but I didn’t remember exactly how it worked. Two painful lessons, and I pulled over to learn it.

But now I’m set. I listened to almost 20 hours of books without touching a tape or CD. So far, digital audio technology has leaned heavily toward playing music, but that is changing, too. I hope you like change.

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