Now that the holiday season is behind us, a lot of happy people have spanking new iPods. So recently I went shopping. My destination was the dollar store. I wanted to see how well and how cheaply I could outfit my new 5G video iPod.
Sure, I could have gone upscale. After all, iPod accessory sales have boomed. They're ubiquitous. Just look around the Macworld Expo show floor if you have any doubt. You can buy iPod-branded add-ons everywhere from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom to Target. iPod accessories include everything from FM transmitters and handmade couture-inspired cases to custom speaker systems and radio alarm-clock docks.
I set my sights lower. I wanted to see what was available at the bottom of the market where teens and housewives and retired grandparents could find some value for their buck. I decided to shop the dollar stores.
I wanted to see what cheap accessories were available and how well they worked. I wanted to know if they were suitable for my iPod, and if they could integrate properly with the equipment. Everything I bought would be tested with my iPod and evaluated for value.
Three local dollar stores. Twenty dollars burning in my pocket. Here's what I found.
Let me start with the most controversial of all my purchases: headphones. To most audiophiles, you might as well suggest that the world is flat or pi equals 3.0 before putting the notion on the table that dollar store headphones have a purpose in life.
The most an audiophile will say for dollar store headphones is that they are cheap and they produce a sound signal that you can detect with your ears.
Me? I think they're great for situations when you don't want to destroy your good headphones. Say, for example, when you're lending out your iPod to another person (particularly a kid) or when you're going into a situation where your iPod is safely tucked away but your earphones are exposed to hazards such as rain or snow. Semi-disposable headphones can save the day, or at least not ruin the day when they get destroyed.
Admittedly, I'm not crazy about listening to music with dollar store headphones but they do a job that sometimes needs to be done. Also, they don't produce the earbud signal boost that's such a danger to your hearing. (Be careful out there. Use your iPod wisely and save your ears!)
Bottom line: For a buck, they produce a good enough signal to listen to.
Of all the dollar store items I picked up, my new iPod holster is my favorite by far. It fits my 5G iPod perfectly, and has a lovely, soft protective interior and an easy-to-use belt clip. For a buck, it's a beauty of a buy.
Although it doesn't include any cutouts for the screen or navigation wheel, I can easily navigate by clicking through the case. It's a lot easier than it sounds, although I do have to pop the iPod out to adjust the volume.
Until picking this up, I'd been using the default pleatherette sack that came with the iPod. This works far better. According to the packaging, it's made of a "Leather Material." I can only guess they have hunted down the wild Naugas and harvested their Naugahyde to assemble this fine dollar store item.
Another win for my iPod holster is that it doesn't look like an iPod holster. Its iPod camouflage may deter theft. It makes me feel a little more comfortable putting it down on a table and walking away for a moment or two.
Bottom line: I love it. Great buy for the buck.
Dollar Stores are never going to be RadioShack. Selection comes, selection goes. You never know what you're going to discover next but you'll find lots of varied cables on their electronics aisle. They're not gold-tipped. They're not high-grade. They're cheap. And they work. My home is full of audio and video equipment hacked together with the wiring I've picked up at dollar stores.
For this low-end accessory expedition, I wanted to see which cables I could pick up to work with my iPod. In this case, I ended up settling on two: a signal splitter and an RCA adapter.
The signal splitter I bought is a basic Y-cable with one 1/8" male connected to two 1/8" female jacks. It allows me to connect two pairs of headphones to my single iPod.
What's great about this cable is that it lets both daughters listen to the iPod at the same time. This proves excellent while waiting at the doctor's office or driving in the car. We now use it all the time. A terrific cable: very handy and a child-management lifesaver.
The RCA adapter cable I bought also worked perfectly. Consisting of male-to-male 1/8th-inch plug to stereo RCA adapters, it serviceably connected my iPod to a pair of RCA-based speakers. The sound output was excellent, exactly what you'd expect from those speakers.
I also used this cable to connect my iPod to my TV for audio-only output. Again, it worked just fine. (Be aware that some TVs will not play through audio unless they detect a video signal as well.)
In my opinion, buying cheap cables has more to do with comfort levels than whether they'll work or not. They almost always work. And when they don't, you find that out very quickly and replace them.
Apple, of course, does not recommend you use any non-branded equipment with your iPod. Audiophiles can go on for hours about shielding and gauge and related topics.
If you're going to go for the cheap, you have to feel comfortable with their level of quality control and the sound they produce. Comfortingly, Googling for "cheap cables" horror stories produced very few relevant hits.
Bottom Line: I've found that dollar store cables are a great buy for the money.
When shopping for music at a Dollar Store, set your sights low. Top 40 hits aren't on offer. Top 500 hits aren't either. Or Top 1,000. (I could go on, but I expect you get the point by now.) You'll find music that never sold very well, packaged into minimalist cardboard envelopes rather than more expensive jewel cases. Their chief attraction? They can be bought in bulk and sold for a buck apiece.
So what do you find for your dollar? In my shopping extravaganza I encountered perhaps a dozen or two titles per store, nearly all of them in the "mood music" category of tinkly, nature-inspired stuff. This is the kind of music you expect to hear playing softly in the background when getting a facial or a massage. (That's the girl-style, pretentious, low-lights-and-aromatherapy massages, mind you. I have no clue what sort of music they play in so-called "massage parlors.")
Think of Yanni on Quaaludes. Or Kenny G having a really bad day. Candlelight Piano, Body & Soul Deep Sleep, and Panpipe Moods didn't last very long on my iPod. There's just so far one can be willing to go in the name of journalism, and I hit my limit within the first tinkling, panpiping hour.
Bottom line: Spend your dollar at the iTunes music store instead and you'll buy something you'll be willing to listen to more than once. You can also pick up some cheap used CDs at Goodwill, flea markets, or garage sales. Skip the dollar store.
Not all dollar store music is worthless in iPod terms. Music CDs aimed at kids is a pretty good buy for your dollar. I picked up a few child-themed CDs, loaded them onto my iPod and tested them on my kids. They were a huge hit.
I'm not saying the music was particularly well done, or educational, or even worth listening to on adult terms. The Old MacDonald Nursery Rhymes I bought were sung with strong New Jersey accents. They had a sense of timing that would send music teachers to their graves with tension-induced trauma. The accompaniments made MIDI files sound brilliant by comparison. But my younger kids loved 'em. And listened to them for hours on my iPod, over and over and over. With earphones. So I didn't have to suffer and listen along.
I'm pleased to say that the good Lord does endow children with the ability to appreciate normal music. It seems to kick in around age 7 or 8. Somewhat. My 8-year-old couldn't stand the "baby music" on offer, preferring to listen to her American Idol recordings instead.
Bottom line: Whether these qualify as value for your dollar or not depends on how well you appreciate a 3-year-old demanding full-time access to your iPod.
When it comes to video entertainment, dollar store DVDs shine. Old movies and TV shows are ubiquitous: there are often hundreds to choose from. You can find classic John Wayne movies, old-timey serials like Flash Gordon, and early episodes of your TV faves including The Beverly Hillbillies and the Stooges (love them!).
If your iPod video horizons begin and end with Lost and Desperate Housewives, you are so missing out on excellent classic entertainment. This isn't to say there aren't a lot of crap DVDs at the dollar store. There are. But there are many really, really good classic items there as well.
And the really good part is that practically none of them use any encryption or copy-protection schemes, so you can easily load them onto your video iPod.
Personally, I use HandBrake to rip 'em and convert them to MPEG-4 video and AAC audio. They then transfer easily through iTunes onto the iPod and I'm good to go.
Bottom line: Dollar store DVDs rule. They're a fantastic buy, particularly when you choose a quality show or movie to watch.
If you do not own a small make-up case, stop reading now and run out immediately to your local dollar store. Cases come in a variety of sizes and colors and you're sure to find one that fits your style as well as your earphones and iPod perfectly. Don't let these float around your briefcase or purse getting tangled in everything and picking up extra scratches.
Bottom line: Keeping a small carry case on-hand makes it much easier to keep your iPod stuff organized when not in use. (And yes, there are times your iPod won't be in use.)
People too often get hung up on branding. They forget that no-name items can work as well as high-end specialty choices. And although some name-brand items are worth the extra bucks, buying an iPod shouldn't send you to the poorhouse when trying to accessorize it.
In this article, you've seen a bunch of low-end accessories that can be used right away with your iPod as well as ways to "shop different." I like shiny and white just as much as the next guy or gal, but I like to watch my pennies, while getting the most out of my iPod.
Erica Sadun has written, co-written, and contributed to almost two dozen books about technology, particularly in the areas of programming, digital video, and digital photography.
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