Feature Article
MP3 - What's the deal?

December 1, 1998
By Scott Lewis

MP3, or MPEG-1 Layer 3, is a file format used for recording music. It compresses songs to around 1/10 their original size (on CD). It does this through MPEG compression and eliminating some of the sound from the recording. Supposedly this is sound outside the human hearing range, similar to what the Mini-Disc does started years ago.

Using MP3 you can store about 1 minute of music in 1 MB of space. Until recently you needed a computer to play MP3 files. A program like WinAmp decodes and plays the song. It is a neat utility for playing music.

Diamond Multimedia is releasing a device called the Rio PMP300. Rio is a Walkman like device that has 32MB of memory that can hold up to 60 minutes of music in MP3 format. (I don’t know how they do their math, but at 1 minute to 1 MB I calculate a little more than half-an-hour of music.) You can get flash memory cards to increase the versatility of the device.

The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) tried to sue Diamond Multimedia for violating the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act. Part of the act requires manufactures of digital recording equipment to take certain steps to prevent pirating. Fair enough, but the Rio is not a recording device. RIAA is forcing the issue since the Rio ships with a CD-ROM that has shareware software to allow you to make MP3 files from your own CDs. The RIAA is worried that once enough people can make their own MP3 files, and play them without a computer, that people will pirate music over the Internet.

Fortunately, the RIAA lost its initial battle to stop Diamond from selling the Rio. I doubt it is over. In fact, my guess is that the battle has just begun. I will be watching this issue over the coming months.

The Rio’s limited 32 MB of memory will probably keep it from taking off. When they come out with another device that holds more music, I may jump in. If Diamond really wants to piss off the RIAA, they should build a version of the Rio with IBM’s latest hard drive. This thing is tiny, and could increase the capacity of the Rio 10 fold. Unfortunately, that would defeat one of the features of the Rio - no moving parts, so no skipping. Using a hard drive would also decrease its durability, I would assume.

I personally like the MP3 format. On my resent trip to Oracle’s Open World conference, I loaded about 550 MB of music in MP3 format to my laptop. All the music came from my own CD collection. It would have been impossible for me to bring the dozens of CDs necessary to duplicate the quantity of music I had with me. Basically I turned my laptop into a giant Walkman.

I was thinking about getting a Mini-Disc recorder. The disks are tiny (2.5"), and they hold up to 74 minutes of music. You can record over them again and again. I understand the quality of the recordings has improved over the years, and should be as good as the MP3 format at near CD quality. Currently, this is a more practical, and economic, solution. Mini-Disc blanks hold an hour of music and cost around $5 each. The Rio’s flash memory cards are priced at around $50 for 16 MB. That is steep.

What is needed is a Discman that plays MP3 files from a CD-ROM. I could burn a single CD-R with close to 200 songs in MP3 format, and play them anywhere, anytime. Now that would be cool. Sony, are you listening?

What do you think? I would like to here from you on the subject. Send me your comments.