Digital music players range widely in size, shape, price

December 18, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

AFEW DAYS AGO, a colleague asked me what kind of digital music player he should buy for his teen-age son. And I realized there wasn't a simple answer, because these popular gadgets come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes and prices.

Collectively, they're known as MP3 players, because that's still the most popular format for digital music files that have been compressed from standard audio CD tracks and stored on a computer.

Typically, MP3 players connect to a PC through the computer's USB port, allowing users to download music files to the portable devices. Most often, listeners use headphones, although it's easy to hook a portable music player up to a home audio system, too.

To find the "right" player, consider how you or your favorite music fan wants to use it. For listening to a few tunes while you pound the Stairmaster, jog around the neighborhood or climb Mount Rainier, a small, light player with no moving parts is the ticket. But you'll have to settle for relatively low capacity - two to eight hours of music.

If you're doing less-strenuous activities and don't mind more bulk and weight, you can put a music collection on a hard disk-based model and play it while in the office, in a dorm room or on a blanket under a tree. And many choices are in between.

The real gotcha in buying these devices involves the format of the songs they'll play. All handle MP3 files, but not all can handle music stored in Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) or RealAudio format. For maximum flexibility, find one that can handle the largest number of formats.

Album tracks downloaded from legitimate online music stores such as Apple's iTunes, Napster, and MusicMatch, are particularly tricky because of copy protection and format issues. For example, the only portable player that Apple iTunes supports is (surprise) the Apple iPod. Other services use copy-protected WMA files that can stump most players.

You can get around these problems by exporting purchased music to an audio CD and re-importing the tracks as unprotected MP3 files. Just realize that the process involves extra time, a little expense, and a slight loss of quality.

That said, here's a look the types of players you'll find and their strengths and weaknesses.

Hard disk players

The stylish Apple iPod is the best known of these high-capacity players, but there are several other models, including the Creative Nomad Zen, Rio Karma, Dell DJ, Gateway DMP-X20 and Archos Gmini.

Weighing 5 to 8 ounces, they store music on compact hard drives with capacities ranging from 10 to 40 megabytes. That's enough for 3,000 to 8,000 of your favorite tunes. Some double as portable hard drives, allowing you to move files of all kinds from one computer to another.

They're a bit heavy for a shirt pocket, and their hard drives don't lend themselves to jogging, but you can take a hard-disk player for a walk, to the office or upstairs to hook it to your home stereo. Their capacity does comes at a price: Expect to pay $250 to $500, depending on the size of the hard drive.

Mini-hard disk players

New for 2003, these in-between, compact players use micro-drives that can store up to 1.5 megabytes of music, enough for at least 500 average album tracks in MP3 format. That's nowhere near the capacity of larger hard-drive models, but enough to keep you amused for 20 to 25 hours without a repeat.

About 2.5 inches square, these gadgets are no bigger than many standard players that uses flash memory, and at 3 ounces or so, they won't weigh down a pocket. The hard drives are designed for mobile use, but the jury's out on whether they will stand up to jogging or other strenuous activity.

All of these devices - including the Rio Nitrus, Creative MuVo 1.5, RCA Lyra RD2760 and iRiver iGP-100 - use the same basic 1-inch Cornice drive, so you won't find competition for capacity. Starting at $200 or so, mini-hard drive models are considerably better bargains than flash-based players in terms of capacity, although none of the first-generation models offers an FM tuner or voice recording.

But if a few ounces and a few inches aren't that important, you'll get a lot more music storage for the buck from larger hard-disk models.

Flash memory players

These were the first of portable music players, and for joggers and others who value weight and portability over capacity, they're still the best bet.

Storing music in flash memory, these devices have no moving parts, so there's no skipping and nothing to break. Short of throwing one against a wall, they're almost indestructible.

Some are no bigger than a mini-cigarette lighter, although small size has its disadvantages, too - the tiniest have display screens so cramped that it's hard to find the tunes you want.

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