MP3 player stands out by recording

Benefit: A RipFlash can record audio from other sources in MP3 format.

March 21, 2002|By Jim Heid | Jim Heid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two years ago, the online music scene was a rowdy rave. Start-ups such as Napster Inc. were tripping on the Ecstasy of venture capital, and people who would never try to pilfer a compact disc from the local record store were downloading MP3 tracks as fast as their Internet connections would permit.

Napster's party isn't over, but it has reached the phase in which the janitor is sweeping the floor. Its days as a den of music thieves are over after aggressive pursuit by the recording industry and resulting successes in the courts.

Napster is trying to reinvent itself as a music-subscription service, but the process is going slowly. This month the company laid off 10 percent of its work force - its second round of layoffs in six months.

Meanwhile, as decentralized swapping services such as Gnutella continue to thrive, record companies are experimenting with copy-protection schemes that would prohibit music lovers from converting their audio CDs into MP3 tracks.

Their plans face opposition from consumers and lawmakers - and they may well be futile, thanks to a new portable MP3 player that can record audio in MP3 format.

PoGo Products' $198 RipFlash looks like an ordinary MP3 portable. It's petite, about the size of a half-inch-high stack of business cards. Its display screen is tiny and its menu system is awkward. This is no Apple iPod. Nor does it have the iPod's 5-gigabyte hard drive, but it does contain a generous 128 megabytes of memory and a slot that can hold an additional 128 MB.

If the RipFlash were a conventional, playback-only MP3 portable, it would be left in the dust by a half-dozen products. But what sets this device apart is its ability to record. Next to the RipFlash's headphone jack is an audio-input jack: Connect the included cable to any audio source and you can record audio in MP3 format.

Connect the RipFlash to your stereo system and you can create MP3 tracks from your favorite vinyl albums. The RipFlash even can detect the pauses between songs and make each tune an MP3 file.

Connect the RipFlash to your computer's speaker jack and you can record streaming audio programs. Take those archives of National Public Radio's Fresh Air with you on the road.

There's even a business angle to the RipFlash. The device has a tiny microphone and a voice-recording mode, so you can use it to record meetings, dictation or notes. You can listen to voice recordings using headphones or the RipFlash's built-in speaker.

So how does the RipFlash thwart CD copy-protection schemes? It lets you record the audio output of your stereo. You might not be able to record off a protected CD using MP3 software, but you can play the CD on your stereo. And if you've connected the RipFlash to your stereo, you can record your system's analog audio output in MP3 format. Once those formerly protected tracks are in the RipFlash, you can move them to a PC - and, yes, swap them on the Internet.

Audio purists might argue that the RipFlash's MP3 tracks are a generation away from the original, since they aren't created directly from the digital data on the CD. Who cares? MP3 compression results in audio degradation anyway. A track recorded using the RipFlash still sounds better than an audiocassette version of the same track.

The RipFlash includes software for Windows PCs only. The device doesn't work with the Mac operating system, although I did use it successfully with Connectix Corp.'s VirtualPC, which lets Macs run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows.

The RipFlash wasn't designed to bypass music-protection schemes. It's simply a tiny audio recorder that happens to record in MP3 format. But the fact that it can be used to circumvent protection technologies illustrates the futility of copy protection. This rave isn't over yet.

Jim Heid wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. For information on RipFlash, try www or 866-FOR- POGO.

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