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. 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. Plus the software that comes with them may convert incompatible files into formats the player can handle.
Despite copyright-infringement lawsuits by the music industry, free music-sharing Web sites carry on. Online music stores, led by Apple’s iTunes, allow users to download music legally for a fee. Downloaded songs from contemporary artists typically cost less than $1 per song, or $10 for an entire album. Copy-protection measures prevent these songs from being shared with other people over a network and limits 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), and Napster (WMA), retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMA), as well as electronics giant Sony (ATRAC). 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 fees are generally lower than the ones for non-subscribers.
One caveat of these services 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 include Apple, Archos, Creative Labs, Dell, iRiver, Panasonic, Rio, Samsung, and Sony. Other, smaller brands are on the market as well. MP3 playback has been incorporated into other handheld portable products, including CD players, MiniDisc players, cell phones, and personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Flash-memory players. These are solid-state devices with no moving parts, which eliminates skipping, even on a bumpy road or during a grueling jog. They’re also the smallest and lightest category, which makes them easier to carry around. Sizes range from as small as a thick matchbook to the size of a large pocket watch. Weight usually ranges from about 1 to 3 ounces. Most of the players have 128 or more megabytes (MB) of internal memory; 256 MB can hold about four hours of MP3-formatted music (about 60 songs) recorded at a 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.
Some flash-memory players also have expansion slots to add more memory via card slots or “backpack” modules on the player. Common expansion memory formats include Compact Flash, MultiMedia, Secure Digital, and SmartMedia. Sony players may use a MagicGate Memory Stick, a copyright-protected version of Sony’s existing MemoryStick media. Memory-card capacities range from about 32 MB to 1 gigabyte (GB). Memory costs have gradually dropped.
Price range: about $100 to $200 for the player; $25 to $40 for a 64-MB memory card.
Hard-disk players. These devices have a hard drive that can hold hundreds and even thousands of songs. Storage capacity can reach 80 gigabytes (GB), enough for more than 1,000 hours of music. But often that extra capacity translates into a bulkier, heavier player. Some are bigger than a portable CD player and weigh up to a pound. Hard-disk players hold about 20 GB of music files, are about the size of a deck of cards, and typically weigh less than a half a pound. Smaller still are microdrive players, which tend to be palm-sized and weigh about a quarter-pound. Their drives typically provide about 4 to 6 GB of storage, but that’s still enough room for many hours of continuous music. Some also have memory-card slots to transfer files.
Price range: $180 and up.
Disc 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 and MiniDisc 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 a CD-quality setting. You can create MP3 CDs using your PC’s CD burner.
Sony’s MiniDisc players, the other disc option, generally have smaller dimensions than portable CD players. MiniDiscs are smaller, removable optical disks protected by a plastic case, similar in size and shape to a 3.5-inch floppy disk. They can be recorded over many times. According to Sony, models that accept a Hi-MD disk can store up to 45 hours of music.
Price range: $100 to $200 for players; 50 cents to $1 to $4 for blank CDs; $1.50 to $7 for MiniDiscs.
Software and hardware. Most MP3 players come with music management 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 music between your PC and the player via a Universal Serial Bus (USB) or FireWire connection. All players work with Windows PCs, and many 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 other audio formats and operating systems.
Display. Most MP3 players have a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen, sometimes a color one, that allows you to view 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. On some of the models you can access the player’s function controls via a wired or infrared remote control.
Sound enhancement. Expect some type of equalizer, which allows you to adjust the sound in various ways. A custom setting via separate bass and treble controls or adjustable equalizers gives you the most control over the sound.
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 allow you to view text files, photos, and videos on their LCD 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
Because digital music players are still a relatively new market, 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. Be sure your computer can handle it. Make sure any player you’re considering is compatible with your Windows or Macintosh computer (including the version of the operating system your computer uses). Keep in mind that some operating system upgrades can exceed the price of a player. Your computer must have USB or FireWire ports. 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. An older computer may not recognize the player, so you may have to seek help from the manufacturer.
Weigh capacity vs. size. Some MP3 players can serenade you for weeks without repeating a tune–a great feature to have on long excursions but perhaps not as necessary on short trips to the gym. Consider a flash-memory model 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 to expand song capacity. If you have a large music collection that you want to keep with you, determine if a hard-disk player may make more sense. However, a hard-disk player is generally 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. So-called 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 sources are limited with some models. For example, iPods and Sony players only work with one online music store. Owners of players that support the copy-protected WMA formats, like those from Creative, Rio, and RCA, have access to the greatest number of online stores, and, often, the best deals. 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. Some players won’t play any legally downloaded music. (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. Firmware is coded instructions in read-only memory. 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 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 five hours of play, while others can play music for more than 70 hours before their batteries give out. Flash-memory players tend to have longer playback times than hard-disk players. Many flash memory players use AA or AAA batteries and can accept either standard alkaline or rechargeable batteries–convenient when electrical outlets are hard to find. 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 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 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 it out when you need to access controls.
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