These devices let you play music you've either downloaded from the Web or "ripped" from your own CD collection. The newest show photos and videos.
Portable MP3 players store digital music in their internal memories, on removable storage media, or a combination of both. You don't buy prerecorded discs or tapes but instead create your own digital files on a computer using software often supplied with a player. You can convert music from your favorite audio CDs, tapes, and even records to digital files--a process known as ripping--or download music from the Internet. In either case you can listen to the files on your computer or transfer them to a portable MP3 player so you have music to go.
The term MP3 has become shorthand for digital audio of every stripe, but it's actually just one of the formats used to encode music. The abbreviation stands for Moving Pictures Expert Group 1 Audio Layer 3, a file format that compresses music to one-tenth to one-twelfth the space it would take in uncompressed form. One gigabyte (GB) can hold about 250 songs (or 17 hours) of MP3-formatted music recorded at the standard CD-quality setting. You can fit more music into memory if you compress songs into smaller files, but that may result in lower audio quality. Other encoding schemes include Windows Media Audio (WMA), the most widely supported; Advanced Audio Codec (AAC); and Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding (ATRAC), a proprietary format used by Sony products. Most MP3 players can handle formats in addition to MP3, typically WMA. The software that comes with them may also convert incompatible files into formats that the player can handle.
Many players now come with color displays and the ability to show digital photos transferred from your computer, sometimes while the music is playing. The newest models can also play music videos, TV shows, and short films downloaded from online sites. As with the music files, the video files are highly compressed to minimize the amount of player capacity they take up.
Free online music-sharing, still the most popular way for acquiring MP3 music, has been driven underground by a flurry of record-industry lawsuits recently buttressed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In June 2005 the justices unanimously ruled that the popular music-sharing site Grokster, as well as similar operations, could be held liable if their networks were used to illegally distribute copyrighted music. Meanwhile, at online music stores such as Apple's iTunes, customers can download music and videos legally for a fee. Downloaded songs from contemporary artists typically cost less than $1 per song, or $10 for an entire album; music videos, hit TV-show episodes, and short films cost $2 each. Copy-protection measures prevent this content from being shared with other people over a network and limit the number of times users can transfer them to MP3 players or burn them onto CDs. That limitation is typically three to 10 times, depending on the service.
Other legal online music sources include BuyMusic (WMA), MusicMatch (WMA), Napster (WMA), Yahoo (WMA), Real (RAX), retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMA), as well as electronics giant Sony (ATRAC). Although Real's RAX format isn't widely supported, its music-management software will convert RAX files into copy-protected AAC or WMA formats to accommodate both iPods and many players compatible with WMA.
Some of these sites also offer subscription-based services, typically less than $10 per month, that allow you to listen to music on your computer in real time (streaming). Downloading music that you transfer to an MP3 player or CD costs extra, but those fees are generally lower than the ones for non-subscribers. One caveat of online services of all types is that their copy-protected songs won't work with all players. Also keep in mind that managing MP3 files and using an MP3 player is still more demanding than using an audio CD player.
Major brands of MP3 players include Apple, Archos, Creative Labs, Dell, iRiver, Philips, RCA, Samsung, ScanDisk, Sony, and Toshiba. Other, smaller brands are on the market as well. Also, MP3 playback has been incorporated into other handheld portable products, including CD players, cell phones, and personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Flash-memory players. These are the smallest and lightest players, often no bigger than a pack of gum, and they weigh no more than two or three ounces. They're solid-state, meaning they have no moving parts and better withstand damage than players that use hard-disk storage. Storage capacities range from 128 megabytes to 4 gigabytes (or about 30 to 1,000 songs). Some flash-memory players also have expansion slots to add more memory via card slots on the player. Common expansion memory formats include Compact Flash, MultiMedia, Secure Digital, and SmartMedia. Sony players may use a MagicGate MemoryStick, a copyright-protected version of Sony's existing MemoryStick media. Memory-card capacities range from about 32 MB to 2 GB. Memory costs have gradually dropped. Price range: about $40 to $250 for the player; $75 to $110 for a 1-GB memory card.
Hard-disk players. There are two types: microdrive and standard hard-disk. The palm-sized microdrive players have a tiny hard drive with a storage capacity of 3 to 8 GB (about 750 to 2,000 songs). They weigh about a quarter-pound. Standard hard-disk players are about the size of a deck of cards, and they have a storage capacity of 10 to 60 GB (about 2,500 to 15,000 songs). They typically weigh less than half a pound. Some hard-disk players with video capability have relatively larger displays, and as a result, tend to be the bulkiest models. Price range: $140 and up.
CD players with "MP3" compatibility. Flash-memory and hard-disk portable players aren't the only way to enjoy digital music. Many of today's portable CD players can play digital music saved on their discs and may support the copyright-protected formats from online music stores. Controls and displays are comparable to portable MP3 players, and you can group songs on each disc according to artist, genre, and other categories. A CD, with its 650- to 800-MB storage capacity, can hold more than 10 hours of MP3-formatted music at the standard CD-quality setting. You can create MP3 CDs using your PC's CD burner. Price range: $30 and up for the players; 40 cents to $1 or so for blank CDs.
Cell phones. An increasing number of phones have built-in MP3 players, some with controls and features that rival stand-alone players. For $2.50 a song, Sprint subscribers can download music over the network. But the phones are pricey, and most of them can't store more than 150 songs. Price: $150 and up with a two-year contract, or $500 without one.
Satellite radio. A new pocket-sized receiver from Sirius, which has built-in memory for recording up to 50 hours of satellite programming, also lets you add your own MP3 songs into the mix. Similar-featured models are due later this year. Price range: $330 for the receiver; about $13 a month for satellite service.
Software and hardware. Most MP3 players come with software to convert your CDs into the audio playback format the player can handle. You can also organize your music collection according to artist, album, genre, and a variety of other categories, as well as create playlists to suit any mood or occasion. All come with software to help you shuttle content between your PC and the player via a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection. All players work with a Windows PC, and some support the Macintosh platform.
Player upgradability. On most models, the firmware--the built-in operating instructions--can be upgraded so the player does not become obsolete. Upgrades can add or enhance features, fix bugs, and add support for evolving audio and video formats and operating systems. This is particularly important for models with video playback due to the evolving nature of video formats.
Display. Most MP3 players have a display screen that allows you to view the song title, track number, amount of memory remaining, battery life indicator, and other functions. Models with color displays also let you store and view pictures from your digital camera, and in some cases, video clips.
Some displays present a list of tracks from which you can easily make a selection, while others show only one track at a time, requiring you to advance through individual tracks to find the desired one. On some of the models you can access the player's function controls via a wired or infrared remote control. Most players have built-in management of songs that can be accessed via album, artist, or genre. Individual playlists of songs usually get created on a computer and transferred to the player, though many let you manage the music on the player, allowing you to edit playlists and delete files.
Photo playback. Virtually all players with color screens can play JPEGs, the default photo format of most digital cameras. Some can handle TIFFs, BMPs, and lesser-known formats as well. Many let you view your pics in slideshow fashion, complete with fade-outs, scrolls, and other transitions, as well as in conjunction with music.
Video playback. A growing number of hard-drive players with color displays can also store and playback video. The video is in a format that compresses about 3 hours of video into 1 gigabyte of hard-disk space. Popular content sources include CinemaNow and iTunes, which lets you download music videos, TV-show episodes, and short films for $2 apiece. But iTunes only works with iPods, and CinemaNow only supports players that can handle copy-protected Windows formats. Virtually all video players come with software that converts non-protected movies into a format the player can handle.
As for the viewing experience itself, MP3-player screens are relatively tiny--even when compared with portable DVD players--and are hard to see in outdoor light. Players with the largest screens, up to 3 inches wide, are easier to watch for longer periods and often come with built-in speakers. But they can weigh as much a pound and are often too bulky to stuff into a shirt pocket.
Sound enhancement. Expect some type of equalizer, which allows you to adjust the tone in various ways. A custom setting via separate bass and treble controls or adjustable equalizers gives you the most control over the tone. Some players have presets, such as "rock" or "jazz," as well as channel balance control.
Playback controls. Volume, track play/pause, and forward/reverse controls are standard. Most portable MP3 players let you set a play mode so you can repeat one or all music tracks, or play tracks in a random order, also referred to as "shuffle" mode. An A-B repeat feature allows you to set bookmarks and repeat a section of the music track.
Useful extras. In addition to playing music, most MP3 players can function as external hard drives, allowing you to shuttle files from one PC to another. Some players can act as a USB host, which allows you to transfer images, data, or music directly from a memory card reader, digital camera, or another MP3 player without the need of a computer. A few of these, however, won't let you play or view the files you transfer. Some allow you to view text files, photos, and videos on their display screens. Other convenient features include an FM radio tuner, a built-in microphone or line input for recording, as well as adapters or a line output for patching the player into your car's audio system.
HOW TO CHOOSE
New portable models with more features and greater capabilities are continually coming out. Decide how much you're willing to spend on a unit you may want to replace in a year or two. Here are some considerations before you buy:
Be sure your computer can handle it. New computers shouldn't be a problem, but make sure any player you're considering is compatible with your older Windows or Macintosh computer (including its operating system). Keep in mind that some operating-system upgrades can exceed the price of a player. Your computer must have a USB port. Consider high-speed Internet access if you plan on downloading much of your music. Also keep in mind that getting started can be tricky with some players. Even if compatible with the player, an older computer may not recognize it easily, so you may have to seek help from the manufacturer.
Weigh capacity vs. size. Consider a flash-memory model (holding up to 1,000 songs) if a lower price, smaller size, less weight, and long playback time are more important to you than a vast selection of tunes. Look for flash models that can accept external memory cards if you want expanded song capacity. If you have a large music collection that you want to keep with you, a hard-disk player may make more sense. Such players can hold up to 15,000 songs and so could serenade you for weeks without repeating a tune. However, a hard-disk player can be more complicated to manage than a flash-memory player--and more vulnerable to damage if dropped. For some, navigating through the menus or directories (folders) of songs may also take longer.
Hard-disk players range in size, generally in step with capacity. Microdrive players are about the size of a credit card, and a 4-GB model can hold about 1,000 songs, whereas models with 20-GB hard disks are about the size of a deck of cards and can hold about 5,000 songs.
Consider download choices. Be aware that online music copy-protected sources are limited with some models. For example, Sony players only work with one online music store, while iPods are compatible with iTunes and Real. Players that support the copy-protected WMA formats, like those from Archos, Creative, RCA, and Samsung, allow access to the greatest number of online stores. Some players won't play music purchased from any online store. Downloading "free" music from such online sources as peer-to-peer Web sites is another option. But you risk a copyright-infringement lawsuit by the music industry. You'll also increase your exposure to a host of nasty computer viruses and spyware programs that tend to hitch rides on songs swapped on these sites.
Also, note that with most players, you have choices when it comes to software for recording (ripping) music. You can use the software that comes with your computer or player, such as Apple iTunes, MusicMatch, Napster, or Windows Media Player, or download other freeware or shareware applications. If the program has the software plug-in for your player, you can transfer the music to your player directly; otherwise you'll need to use the program that came with your player to perform the transfer.
Ensure upgradability. Regardless of which player you choose, look for one with upgradable firmware for adding or enhancing player features, as well as accommodating newer encoding schemes or variations of compression. This is particularly important for models with video playback due to the evolving nature of video formats. Upgrading firmware can be a time-consuming and sometimes risky process. MP3 players use several methods for upgrading; one method, which executes the upgrade file on the computer while the player is still attached, can cause permanent damage to the player if there's even a slight interruption during execution. Upgrades can be found at the manufacturer and music-management software application Web sites.
Consider headphone quality. While many players produce near audio-CD quality music out their headphone jacks, the headphones they come with can degrade the quality, though most perform respectably. These performance differences though may not be a bother to you in typical, everyday use.
Consider power consumption and battery type. With any portable device, batteries are a consideration. Our tests found a wide variation among the players. Depending on the player settings, some will run out of power after only six hours of play, while others can play music for more than 50 hours before their batteries give out. Flash-memory players tend to have longer playback times than hard-disk players. Playing videos, on those players with such capability, can run a battery down in just a few hours.
Many flash memory players use AA or AAA batteries and can accept either standard or rechargeable batteries. You can expect a bit longer playback time using standard batteries, but purchasing a charger and using rechargeable batteries will be more cost effective in the long run as well as being more environmentally friendly. (To find a store that will recycle a used battery, call 800-822-8837 or go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.'s Web site at www.rbrc.org.)
Other players use a rechargeable nonstandard "block-" or "gumstick-" shaped nickel metal-hydride (Ni-MH) or lithium-ion (Li-ion) removable battery, which is both more expensive and harder to find. Many hard-drive players use a nonremovable rechargeable battery. When the battery can no longer hold a charge, the player has to be sent back to the manufacturer for service--a costly procedure if the product is no longer under warranty.
Consider ergonomics and design. Whichever type of MP3 player you choose, make sure you'll be comfortable using the device. Look for a display and controls that are easy to read and that can be worked with one hand. Because sizes and shapes vary widely, check to see that the player fits comfortably in your pockets, and that it's easy to fish out when you need to access controls. Accessories that may be important to you may not be included, such as an AC charger, protector cases, or belt clips, a consideration to you in the overall cost of the player.