Compressed audio formats like MP3 files, and the devices that play them, allow people to take huge music collections virtually anywhere. But the very portability of an MP3 player can be its undoing — too often, the pocket-size gadgets are dropped, scratched, drowned, or exposed to extreme temperatures.
"I've dropped my cellphone a dozen times, but if you drop your iPod once, you've got to send it in for repair," says Ryan Arter, whose company iPodResQ (ipodresq.com) receives around 1,200 iPods for repair every week.
About half of the iPods have broken L.C.D. screens, which often results from people doing with the iPod what comes naturally: putting it in their pockets. "If your jeans are at all tight, and you sit down, it's going to bend your iPod," Mr. Arter said. The ultrathin iPod Nano is especially susceptible, he said.
IPods, which account for 69 percent of the MP3 player market in the United States, according to the NPD Group, are not alone in suffering injuries. Other brands need repair, too.
Willie Jefferson of Albuquerque, N.M., runs a small business called Madskillz (madskillz.com) that repairs and resells Creative and Dell players as well as iPods, which he says are especially delicate. He finds on eBay used players with all kinds of ailments, including broken screens, frozen hard drives, and detached headphone sockets.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent damage before the music stops.
The most important tip is to cover your player.
First, there are clear plastic film covers that protect against scratches. Jeremy Horwitz, editor in chief of the iPod-oriented Web site iLounge (ilounge.com), recommends a product called the Invisibleshield from theinvisibleshield.com , because it covers the entire iPod ($25 for the full-size iPod). The company also sells film covers for the screens and sometimes the bodies of players from other companies including Archos, Creative, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. But the film is not entirely clear, Mr. Horowitz says.
For greater transparency, he recommends Power Support (powersupportusa.com), which sells Crystal Film covers for the iPod's screen and its click wheel ($16).
Protection against drops requires a thicker sheath, like Power Support's Silicone Jackets or covers from iSkin (iskin.com). Both sell protectors for iPods ($35 at iSkin; $30 at Power Support) and the Sony PSP game console; iSkin also provides a cover for iRiver's H100 series.
Electronics stores like RadioShack also sell screen-protector film that can be cut to fit various devices.
Ultimate protection comes from a hard case, and Mr. Horowitz says his readers have done best with Otter Products (otterbox.com), which makes clear OtterBox cases ($50) to protect iPods against hard jolts and submersion in shallow water.
A case will also keep dirt out of the device, which Mr. Arter of iPodResQ said is another common hazard.
Soft and hard cases are available for other player brands, but the selection is limited.
Vendors like Belkin (belkin.com), BoxWave (boxwave.com), Case Logic (caselogic.com), DLO (dlo.com), Rivet (rivetnow.com) and Vaja (vajacases.com) offer generic cases and some made specifically for players from Creative, Dell, iRiver, Samsung and Sony. Manufacturers often provide cases with their players or sell them as extras.
"Unfortunately, you do not see the same third party support for non-iPod players due to simple economics; non-iPods lack an economy of scale," said Grahm Skee, whose Web site, Anything but iPod (anythingbutipod.com), picks up where iLounge leaves off.
Extreme temperature is another peril. Freezing temperatures, for example, can crack an L.C.D., Mr. Arter said.
Mr. Jefferson of Madskillz said wrapping the headphone wire tightly around the player can put tension on the headphone socket, causing it to break loose. And he believes that players with solid-state memory like the iPod Nano and the Samsung YP-T7JZ can better withstand jolts at the gym than can hard- drive-based devices like the full-size iPod and the Creative Zen Sleek Photo.
Even the best care can't save a lemon, as Leah Kennedy of San Francisco learned when she purchased an iPod three years ago.
When the buttons stuck, she took the device to her local Apple Store. "Their response was that some of them have defects, and it was just born that way," Ms. Kennedy said. She promptly received a replacement, which she put into an iSkin case. The player has had no functional problems since.
Ms. Kennedy's service experience seems to represent what people can expect from Apple, though it wasn't always that way. Problems with short-lived batteries in the first three generations of the iPod prompted a class-action lawsuit that Apple settled in late 2005. "I think when they were successfully sued and forced to settle," said Mr. Horwitz of iLounge, "they modified their behavior and became more responsible."
Apple, like many manufacturers, offers a one-year warranty and also sells extended coverage. Beware of fine print, however. Creative, for example, doesn't charge for parts during the one-year warranty, but it bills for labor after 90 days. And warranties cover only defects, not clumsiness or abuse.
For removing scratches, Mr. Horwitz recommends using Ice Creme polish from RadTech at radtech.com. It can also be used on acrylic, polycarbonate plastic or unpainted metal on many types of gadgets.
More significant damage probably requires professional help. Player manufacturers often handle repairs. And iPod owners can also choose from plentiful independent services, including iPodResQ, iPodMods (ipodmods.com), TechRestore (iPod.techrestore.com) and iPod Mechanic (ipodmechanic.com). All have roughly similar prices. IPodResQ, for example, charges $129 to replace the screen in the fourth-generation iPod, $115 for a Nano's screen and $95 for a Mini's. (Fees include overnight shipping.) A 20-gigabyte hard drive replacement costs $160, and iPodResQ can try to copy music from a malfunctioning player onto CD's.
The procedure costs $42.50 an hour at iPodResQ, and Mr. Arter said it usually takes an hour if it is possible at all. (Ten CD's are included. Additional CD's, and shipping, cost extra.) For a seriously damaged drive "it's very difficult to do at a reasonable price," he said.
Battery replacement is a common repair for players over about two years old. In many players, batteries can be removed without tools. For example, $40 buys an easily replaceable battery for Creative's 4-, 5- and 6-gigabyte Zen Micros or for iRiver's 5- and 6-gigabyte H10 players.
Gaining access to an iPod battery, however, requires disassembling the device. Owners can purchase a battery and kit to do the replacement themselves. Mr. Horwitz recommends two companies, FastMac (fastmac.com) and Newer Technology (newertech.com), which sell kits starting at about $20.
Full service is also available. FastMac, for instance, charges an extra $19.95 for overnight battery installation. Replacement batteries sold by independent companies often have higher milliampere-hour ratings than the original batteries in new iPods, allowing them to hold a charge longer. But Mr. Horwitz said that the difference was less pronounced with current iPod models.
Though almost anything can be fixed, replacing multiple major components — like the L.C.D. and the hard drive — may not be economical, Mr. Arter said. Besides, for technophiles, a broken part may be just the excuse to upgrade to the newest model. "The life of an MP3 player is not a matter of durability but a matter of lifestyle," said Mr. Skee of Anything but iPod. "Consumers want the latest technology."