The MP3 Player 2.0

Wearables are making music as convenient as the days of the iPod Nano.

Three wearable watches.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fitbit, TomTom, Garmin, and Thinkstock.

Before there were smartphones, smartwatches, or streaming music, there were MP3 players: Small portable devices devoted almost exclusively to music playback. We loaded up our Zunes, iPod Minis, and Rio Karmas full of digital tracks. They didn’t have touchscreens or wireless connectivity (at first), but they were the perfect pint-sized vessels for playing our favorite tunes on-demand. In 2007, Apple changed the landscape by rolling an iPod, phone, and internet communicator into one device, and dedicated MP3 players slowly slipped into obscurity as the industry followed the iPhone. But now the idea of the MP3 player is returning in a fresh embodiment—as a key feature in some of today’s newest wearables.

Smartwatch and fitness tracker makers have historically focused their marketing and device functionality on two areas: productivity and activity tracking. These products augment or replicate smartphone experiences by acting as a schedule manager and a notification hub for messages and alerts. They can also document the distance and location of your workouts via GPS, monitor your heart rate, and track your sleep—accomplishing all this with or without the help of smartphone at your side.

Now, music playback is becoming a key feature in some wearables, like the recently launched Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music. The $299 smartwatch is a follow-up to last year’s well-reviewed Vivoactive 3, but it only sports a handful of additional design and activity tracking features compared to its predecessor. (Ars Technica notes an upgraded glass-like bezel surrounding its screen and advanced sleep monitoring are built-in.) Instead, as its name would imply, music storage and playback are one of its main selling points. You can load up to 500 songs on the device itself or stream music from iHeartRadio and Deezer (no Spotify or Pandora integration on the Garmin smartwatch platform just yet).

The Vivoactive 3 Music isn’t alone. Other smartwatches have also glommed onto music as a selling point, including the TomTom Spark3 Cardio + Music, the Fitbit Versa, and the Garmin Forerunner 645 Music. TomTom’s Spark3 was one of the first smartwatches to support music streaming without a phone nearby and also stores up to 500 songs. The Fitbit Versa and older Ionic smartwatches also support onboard music storage and some music streaming, from Deezer and Pandora. Other smartwatches from big name manufacturers, such as the Samsung Gear S3 and Apple Watch, also support music storage and streaming. The S3’s seamless music experience, which includes up to 4GB of onboard storage, has been called one of its “top features.” The Apple Watch Series 3, meanwhile, can pull from your entire Apple Music library for iPhone-less playback—unfortunately, you’ll need your iPhone nearby to stream from other apps.

The trend marks a changing attitude toward smartphones as our default music player: As our phones have gotten larger and more feature-packed, they’ve also gotten a little less portable. Wearable devices, meanwhile, are as portable as electronics get. It makes sense that most are enabling this capability, and some are even capitalizing on this shift by touting music playback in their names.

There are some notable drawbacks for those hoping to use a wearable as their MP3 player 2.0. First, you’ll need a pair of compatible wireless headphones or earbuds—although this is primarily only a drawback if you don’t already have a pair. (Trying to jog with earbuds plugged into your iPod was always a tad uncomfortable anyway.) Battery life is another issue: Play music for any extended period of time (particularly if it’s broadcasting over Wi-Fi or cellular) and you’ll forfeit a sizable chunk of the device’s charge. The music onboarding process and streaming app availability can also be an issue. Like the old MP3 player days, getting music onto your smartwatch can be a headache-inducing experience. In most reviews, Fitbit scored lowest on its music-downloading system, while Samsung scored quite high. But for modern listeners who abandoned their Napster-downloaded MP3 libraries years ago—or never participated in the MP3 era in the first place—streaming is where it’s at. Samsung is one of the few to work with Spotify’s offline playlist syncing, but the Apple Watch also does a good job with its music streaming experience, although you’re limited to the Apple ecosystem.

Still, wearables tout benefits over their predecessors, which some may be surprised to learn are still being produced and sold today. Internet connectivity—via LTE or Wi-Fi—and the availability of voice-based assistants enable expanded listening options and an easier means of navigation than tapping or scrolling through onscreen menus. “You couldn’t look at your iPod and shout ‘HEY IPOD PLAY GEORGE MICHAEL’ because you suddenly felt like playing something that wasn’t stored on your iPod,” the Verge wrote in one review. “With the LTE Apple Watch you can.” And then there’s the form factor: A device on your wrist doesn’t need to be held or pocketed, and it won’t accidentally be left behind on a desk or bus seat. With on-demand streaming dominating modern audio consumption, it’s a smart move for wearable-makers to pivot their strategies and services to accommodate music applications. MP3 players had their day. iPhones and smart speakers are great when you’re at home or sitting in the car. But for those on the go, wearables are making music listening convenient in a way we haven’t seen since the iPod Nano.