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MP3 players Tunes, videos, snapshots are all in the palm of your hand
The digital music player continues its evolution from simple audio player to complex multimedia device. Most players come with color displays and the ability to show digital photos transferred from your computer, sometimes with accompanying music. Many also play back movies, music videos, TV shows, downloaded from the Web or videos taken with your camcorder. Some can make their own recordings from a TV or download and share their content wirelessly via a Wi-Fi connection.

As digital players morph, one thing remains constant: the brand name that's on most of them. Apple's iPod players still account for more than three out of four MP3 players sold. Hardware alone doesn't explain Apple's dominance. While iPods score well in our tests, so do players from other manufacturers, many of which offer capabilities and features that iPods lack. Apple's success rests in part on its creation of a self-contained digital-entertainment system. iTunes, its content-management software, works seamlessly--only with iPods. Its online iTunes store offers by far the largest library of online video content, supplementing its dominance over online music sales. Its content includes many exclusives and also offers comprehensive one-stop access to podcasts, the booming (and mostly free) online downloads that offer everything from National Public Radio broadcasts to music-preview shows to weekly self-help recordings.

Not that all innovative content comes from Apple. Other legal online content sources include BuyMusic, Yahoo! Music, Napster, Rhapsody, and conventional retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

Since 2007, EMI and other record companies have allowed portions of their music catalogs to be downloaded without copy protection from iTunes, Amazon and other online stores. These unprotected songs enable consumers to share with anyone they like, whether they have iPods or players from other brands. Another plus is that these songs are recorded at a higher bit rate than the protected versions for potentially better sound.

On iTunes, unprotected songs fetch a premium: $1.29 vs. the 99 cents for the copy-protected versions, while Amazon, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, often charge less than 99 cents for unprotected songs. Album prices are generally the same everywhere: about $10. Music videos, hit TV-show episodes, and short films generally cost $2 each, and feature-length movies cost about $10 to $15.

Renting content is another option. Some sites, such as Napster and Rhapsody, let you fill your PC and player with music for a flat $15 per month The music stops playing if you don't periodically dock your player to an Internet-connected PC to confirm that your account is in good standing. For under $5, you can rent a feature film from iTunes, Amazon, or Cinema Now. Once you open a movie file, you have several days to complete viewing before it is automatically deleted. The films delete themselves after several days once you begin watching them.

Despite these options, free online music sharing remains the most popular way for acquiring MP3 music—even though it has been driven underground by a flurry of record-industry lawsuits and a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. (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.)

Before you buy any digital player, 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. And your computer must have a USB port.

Consider high-speed Internet access if you plan to download 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 might not recognize it easily, so you might have to seek help from the player manufacturer.


WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Major brands of MP3 players include Apple, Archos, Cowon, Creative Labs, Philips, RCA, Samsung, SanDisk, Sony, and Toshiba. Brands from smaller companies are on the market as well. And 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 typically weigh no more than 3 ounces. They're solid-state, meaning they have no moving parts and tend to have longer audio playback time than players that use hard-disk storage. Storage capacities range from 512 megabytes (MB) to 32 gigabytes (GB), or about 120 to 8,000 songs. (All song capacities listed here are based on a standard CD-quality setting of 128 kilobytes per second, which requires about 1 GB per 250 songs. You can fit more music into memory if you compress songs into smaller files, but that may result in lower audio quality.) Some flash-memory players also have memory-card expansion slots to add more capacity.

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 32MB to 2GB. Memory costs have gradually dropped. Price: $40 to $280 for the player; $45 to $50 for a 1-GB memory card.

Hard-disk players. These range from palm-size microdrive players that weigh about a quarter-pound and have a storage capacity of 4GB (about 1000 songs) to bricklike bruisers that weigh more than a pound and whose 160 GB hard drives can hold up to 40,000 songs. Price: $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 discs but don't 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, about 150 to 200 songs, can hold more than 10 hours of MP3-formatted music at the standard CD-quality setting. You can create MP3 CDs using the proper software and your PC's CD burner. Price: $25 and up for the players; 20 to 75 cents 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. Sprint, Verizon, and other cell-phone providers let subscribers download music over their networks. But songs are pricey: 99 cents to $2.50 per song. Song capacity is often determined by the size of the external memory card, as well as the phone manufacturer, carrier, or music provider. Price: Free and up with a 2-year contract.

Satellite radio. Some pocket-sized XM and Sirius receivers have built-in memory for recording up to 50 hours of satellite programming, and might also let you add your own MP3 songs to the mix. Not all models let you listen to live programming on the go; some must be docked at home. Price: $200 to $400 for the receiver; about $13 a month for satellite service.


IMPORTANT FEATURES

Most MP3 players come with software to convert your CDs into an 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 Macintosh.

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 other audio and video formats and operating systems. This is important for models with video playback because of the evolving nature of video formats.

Most MP3 players have displays that show the song title, track number, amount of memory remaining, battery-life indicator, and other functions. 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.

Screens can be monochrome or color. Models with color displays also let you store and view pictures taken with your digital camera, and in many cases, video clips.

Most players with color screens can display 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 photos in slideshow fashion, complete with fade-outs, scrolls, and other transitions, as well as with music.

A growing number of players with color displays can also store and play back video. The video is in a format that compresses about three hours of video into 1GB of memory space. Popular content sources include CinemaNow and iTunes, which let you download music videos, TV shows, and short films for $2 apiece. But iTunes works only with iPods, and CinemaNow supports only players that can handle copy-protected Windows formats. Some models can connect to an external display, such as a TV, but won’t let you play DRM-protected videos on them. Some players, however, won’t play copy-protected videos at all. Virtually all video players come with software that converts nonprotected movies into a format the player can handle. Some can even record directly from a TV, cable box, or digital video recorder (DVR), either on the fly or on a schedule, usually with optional accessories.

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 larger screens, up to 4 inches wide, are easier to watch for longer periods, and some come with built-in speakers.

On some models you can access player function controls by a wired or infrared remote control.

Most players have built-in song management that can be accessed via album, artist, or genre. Playlists of songs are usually 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.

Expect some type of equalizer, which allows you to adjust the tone in various ways. A custom setting through 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.

Volume, track play/pause, and forward/reverse controls are standard. Most portable MP3 players let you set a play mode so you can repeat music tracks or play tracks in a random order, also referred to as “shuffle” mode. An A-B repeat feature allows you to repeat a section of the music track.

In addition to playing music, most MP3 players can function as external hard drives, allowing you to move files from one PC to another. Some players can act as a USB host, letting you transfer images, data, or music directly from a memory-card reader, digital camera, or another MP3 player without using a computer. A few of these, however, won’t let you play or view the files you transfer. Some allow you to view text and PDF documents, photos, and videos on their display screens. Other convenient features include an FM radio tuner, a built-in microphone or line input for recording, and adapters or a line output for patching the player into your car’s audio system. Some players let you wirelessly swap music, photos and other files with similar player models. Some can also patch into wireless home networks to connect with a PC, access the Web on a limited basis, or download music and videos.


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 other considerations before you buy:

Decide whether to get an iPod. With Apple's family of players so ubiquitous, and so similar in many ways, it's worth considering the advantages and shortcomings of iPods before going further with your buying decision. iPods are easy to use, thanks to superb integration of the players and the company's iTunes software. The iTunes Store offers the largest selection of legal digital content on the Web, including virtually all the available downloads of major TV shows. iPods also have a plethora of accessories to extend their use, from boom boxes and clock radios with iPod slots to iPod cases that come in many colors and fabrics. Several other brands of players have custom aftermarket equipment (although generic gear will, for example, allow you to pipe any player into a component sound system or a car stereo).

As for drawbacks, iPods typically cost a little more than non-Apple players with comparable capacity. They also lack some of the features and accessories that many other players have, such as an FM radio, voice recorder, and an AC charger. Equipping a new iPod with some of these options can increase its price by more than $100. And iPods have some special limitations, such as the inability to easily transfer music to any other device. In addition, iPods require you to open iTunes to transfer music into the player; competing devices more conveniently let you drag and drop music files without opening music-management software.

Decide whether you’ll mostly watch or listen. Most MP3 players can handle downloaded music videos, movies, and TV programs, but some are better at it than others. If video content is going to a be a big part of your entertainment mix, make sure the player’s display is large enough (at least 2 in. measured diagonally) to let you watch comfortably for extended periods. Also think about what you’ll watch, as well how you’re going to get it. For example, some models let you record directly from a TV, cable box, or digital video recorder (DVR), either on the fly or on a schedule. Some players have Wi-Fi connections that let you wirelessly swap music, photos, and other files with other players of the same model; or patch into wireless home networks to connect with a PC; or access the Web to browse sites or to download music and videos. Just remember that these special abilities often add hundreds to the player price tag as well as introduce yet another set of considerations.

Weigh capacity vs. size. Consider a flash-memory model (4 GB can hold about 1,000 songs) if a lower price, smaller size, lighter 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 might make more sense. Players with an 80GB capacity can hold about 20,000 songs and could serenade you for months without repeating a tune. However, a hard-disk player can be more complicated to manage than a flash-memory player. For some, navigating through the menus or directories (folders) of songs might also take longer.

Hard-disk players vary in size, generally in step with capacity. Some players are about the size of a credit card, and a 6GB model can hold about 1,500 songs, whereas models with 30GB hard disks are about the size of a deck of cards and can hold about 7,500 songs.

Consider download choices. Be aware that online music copy-protected sources are limited with some models. For example, iPods are compatible with iTunes and Real. Players that support the copy-protected WMA formats, like those from Archos, Creative, RCA, Samsung and SanDisk, allow access to the greatest number of online stores, and, because of the competition, cheaper music. Another WMA-store benefit: BuyMusic, Yahoo! Music, Real, and other sites offer songs at a higher bit rate than the standard 128 kbs, which has the potential to sound better.

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, Yahoo! Music, 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 upgradeability. Regardless of which player you choose, look for one with upgradeable 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. However, note that 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 can produce near audio-CD quality music out of their headphone jacks, the headphones they come with can degrade the quality. Most perform respectably, and any performance differences might not be a bother to you in typical, everyday use. If you're particular about sound quality, it would be worth buying better-quality after-market headphones for use with your player.

Consider power consumption and battery type. With any portable device, batteries are a consideration. Our tests found a wide variation in battery life among the players. Depending on the player settings, some will run out of power after only five 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 can run down a battery in just a few hours.

Some flash-memory players use AA or AAA batteries and can accept either standard or rechargeable batteries. Other players use non-removable or non-standard batteries that charge via a computer USB port. (An AC adapter is typically a $15 to $40 option.) 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. (For advice on recycling used batteries, call 800-822-8837 or go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.'s site at www.rbrc.org. Our Web site www.GreenerChoices.org, also has advice on this topic.)

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. They typically cost $20 to $50 to replace. Many players use a non-removable 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 that is easy to read and controls 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.

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