As portable players go, newest Rios are grand

Music: A few quibbles with the middle model aside, testing the easy-to-use MP3/WMA storage devices makes one digital skeptic change his tune.

November 20, 2003|By Kevin E. Washington | Kevin E. Washington,SUN STAFF

I must admit that I am a late adopter of digital audio technology. Between the free music grab on the Internet and the slightly lower fidelity of MP3s, I just wasn't impressed.

But the MusicMatch and iTunes services have gotten me downloading more and more music - thanks to their 99 cents-a-track policies - and I needed to find something to do with all these songs besides listening while tethered to my computer by headphones.

To that end, I have taken a look at Rio's latest line of MP3/WMA players and fallen in love with the simple-to-use devices that provide tunes wherever I don't feel like lugging dozens of compact discs and a CD player.

I took a look at Rio's Karma, Nitrus and Cali - all players in the more expensive price range, but all players that tackle the task at hand with aplomb.

The Rio Cali 256 ($200) is the next step up from the entry-level flash player in Rio's line called the Rio Fuse ($129 with 128 megabytes of flash memory). The Cali, with 256 megabytes of onboard memory, stores up to four hours of MP3s or eight hours of WMA (Windows Media format) songs. Users can upgrade with a SecureDigital or Multimedia card for an additional 512 megabytes of storage.

Because the Cali is a sport player, you get an FM tuner and stopwatch functions, both of which worked really well. The hold button keeps the other buttons from accidentally changing all of the settings except for the volume rocker. The interface is simple and while there aren't lots of features here, you can scroll through song listings and use playlists.

I'm no runner, but I enjoy a good walk in the woods with music, so the carrying case with arm band makes for solid hands-free enjoyment. The Cali will give you 18 hours of continuos playback powered by an AAA alkaline battery, making this one of the better players on the market for the sports-minded set.

For all of the players I tested, you'll need a Windows PC running 98 Second Edition or later. You'll need 35 MB of free hard drive space and 64 MB of RAM on a 233 Mhz Pentium II machine or better. But only the Cali will work with a Mac running OS X. The other two only work with Windows.

If you opt for the Rio Nitrus 1.5 ($300), you'll get 16 hours of playback on a rechargeable lithium ion battery and 1.5 gigabytes of hard drive space - somewhere in the neighborhood of 375 MP3s, according to Rio, which is far more than I've bought or created from my music collection at this point.

Sennheiser MX300 earbuds come in the box. I'm not a great fan of earbuds in general and these aren't particularly good. I almost always wear full earphones when listening to music.

Sure, you could do some light working out with the Nitrus, but it's not a fantastic player for heavy exercising. The Rio Cali covers that territory.

The masterpiece in the line is the Rio Karma ($400), a true challenger to the Apple iPod. The Karma has a 20-gigabyte hard drive for hauling around complete music collections (Rio says that's about 5,000 MP3s.)

You can use Universal Serial Bus standard 2.0 to download songs to the device and get 15 hours of continuous playback on the rechargeable lithium ion battery.

In addition to WMA and MP3, the Karma offers another music format that you can play back: the open source Ogg Vorbis format.

An Auto-DJ feature can locate and create playlists. In addition, the docking station with an Ethernet port is a work of art; an Ethernet cable comes in the box.

Of course, with the larger capacities of these players, you aren't limited to just music storage. You can use the Rio software on the installation disk to move files onto the players for transfer between computers. but you'll need to install Rio's software on any computers where you want to transfer files - a small hitch, in my opinion.

The only downside to these devices is that depending upon which music service you use, you may not be able to download songs from your computer to the MP3 player. Novices should be aware of which services will allow them to do what.

For example, if you have iTunes, then you're out of luck with these MP3 players; it won't allow you to send tracks to any recorder except the iPod.

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