Transferring music to your player can be a pain in the rear bumper sometimes, especially if you require special software to do so. There are currently three methods used by various companies to transfer content, and a lot of people are unaware of the differences between them and what the pros and cons of each are. The MTP vs MSC debate is pretty heated in the forums where most here prefer MSC for its simplicity, but there are still legitimate reasons to use MTP or software. This article explains the different methods of transferring media and the features of each protocol.
MSC (Mass Storage Class) and UMS (Universal Mass Storage) are two different names for the exact same thing, and is basically just a fancy way of saying “flashdrive mode”. A player that connects using this method will show up on your computer as an external drive, complete with drive letter if your OS uses such things and without any bells or whistles. This is the old fashioned way of transferring content, and the method that some people still swear to. When using MSC, you can basically use the device with anything that supports USB drives, be it a Windows computer, a Linux computer, a USB enabled car stereo or a USB enabled portable DVD player for that matter. This means excellent compatibility with everything, and you never have to find yourself in a situation where you can’t connect the device to the computer you have at hand. This has lead people to mistakenly believe MSC devices don’t need drivers, which isn’t true as everything connected to a computer needs drivers, but the drivers are already on the computer to begin with and so you don’t need to install anything.
On the downside, MSC’s simplicity also means it doesn’t do anything media-specific. It pretends to be a removable drive, and that’s it. All the fancy stuff you get with MTP (see below) you won’t get with MSC because the computer has no idea the MSC device connected is a media player and so doesn’t treat it as one. MSC is a transfer protocol that will let you transfer data, nothing else.
MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) is a transfer system that is predominantly used by Windows, though can be used on other OSes if you manage to find drivers or software to recognize the connected device properly. The MTP drivers in Windows are part of the WMP install, which means you should update WMP to version 11 or 12 before using a MTP device, but you don’t actually have to run WMP to connect a MTP device. This means that as with MSC you do need drivers, and those drivers are already in place on most computers running Windows XP or later, but in order to make sure everything works properly and all new features have been implemented you should make sure your WMP installation is up to date.
MTP is often thought to mean that you have to use Windows Media Player to transfer content, which is wrong. You can either use Explorer, where you’ll find the device listed under “devices” with a picture of it and the name instead of a drive letter, or use any MTP compatible music software such as those applications I’ve reviewed on this site over the past few months.
While MTP isn’t as universally compatible as MSC, generally speaking requiring Windows to work, it has a lot more to show for itself in terms of functionality. MTP devices will let the computer know what file formats it support, and pop up a warning if you try to transfer files that aren’t supported. Granted this feature is flaky when used on devices with support for “exotic” formats (such as the Archos 5 Android which can read just about any video file, yet transferring said formats pops up messages at will), but it’s still useful as it will et less advanced users get past manually converting AAC (or other) files when buying a new player. MTP also has much better playlist support as it will let you create playlists directly in Explorer (requires WMP11 or above) or using software. You can still create playlists for (most) MSC players, but it’s a less automated process as the software doesn’t know that “flash drive” over there can read playlist files.
Furthermore, MTP is required for PlaysForSure files, which is a DRM technology. This is less critical these days as most major digital music providers sell DRM-free files, but for services like Rhapsody you still need to be able to use MTP. Amazon Unboxed also uses PlaysForSure for its video offerings, so it’s not a dead system quite yet. MTP also has more interaction with the computer, beyond just a picture and a name in the device list. In Windows 7, most players will have a device page which can list a variety of things from battery status and links for making playlists, transferring content etc to user manuals online or accessory links etc. You could of course put files on a MSC device and use autorun to accomplish something like the same thing, but it would be clumsy and vulnerable to formats. Again it’s about the computer knowing it’s a media player, not a random flash drive.
Beside the iPod, only the Zune uses mandatory proprietary software these days, which says a lot about how far we’ve come. Sony was one of the last to go, leaving its Sonicstage in favor of transfer protocols that are more universal. Still, many companies produce proprietary software and bundle it as an option rather than a requirement for many players, though that misleads a lot of people into thinking that you need to use that software to manage your player. While it may not be necessary to load media onto the player it may be required for additional functionality. For instance, in order to sync your contacts with a Creative X-Fi, you will need to use Creative’s software but can still sync your media with any MTP based media player. Similarly, Samsung players need Samsung’s software to sync RSS feeds to the player.
The rule of thumb is that if your player isn’t from Microsoft or Apple, the included software is optional. It can be a full software package completely with playback features, audio and video converters and so on or as simple as the tiny pop-up content transfer window that Sony is currently using for their players, but in any case it isn’t absolutely required to use the player’s basic features.
While many people hate proprietary software, it’s not all bad- especially not for advanced players like the iPod touch or Zune HD. MTP can handle a lot or things that might come it’s way, but features such as apps, play count scrobbling, player backup, calendar/notes/etc sync, video tags and so on aren’t standardized and so can’t be done using any software. Giving people the option to severely limit the abilities of their media content manager is a good thing in theory, but it would lead to massive confusion among those who aren’t all that tech savvy and would definitely lead to a call or two to tech support when Mrs. Wonderbaum from Tennessee can’t find out how to put a Facebook app on her Zune HD using Winamp. I’d still prefer the option to choose for myself, even if I had to dig up the option from a hidden menu or something, but the manufacturers that still use mandatory proprietary software both have massive control freak issues. Either way, the point is that some players can never drop proprietary software completely as the standards that exist today simply can’t handle some of the features on more advanced players on the market. This also goes for some players with optional proprietary software, as such software often contains firmware updaters, video convertors etc that need to be included with the package so that those who don’t know anything about video formats and video conversion have an easy option to get it working out of the box. Until the day when a truly universal transfer protocol exists, proprietary software is a necessary evil whether we want it or not.
There will always be people who swear to MSC; who hate proprietary software, or who can’t get over the fact that MTP isn’t all that straight forward outside Windows. However, it’s important to try to see beyond one’s own usage patterns and acknowledge the fact that some people have other priorities. The bottom line is that while three different methods for content transfer isn’t ideal, none of the three methods can fully replace any of the other two. Be aware of the differences between
them, and the strengths and weaknesses of each method, so that you don’t run into any unnecessary problems. A lot of players today can run in either MSC or MTP mode, and many of them come with proprietary (yet not mandatory) software as well. This gives you the ability to choose based on your own need for features and your own preferences, and this is definitely the most diplomatic approach to the transfer protocol issue.