Rio 600
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Feature Article
Rio 600

January 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

Back in August 2000 I wrote about building a TiVo/Replay TV device that used your own computer's hard drive. Well, some one is making it. You can read about Pinnacle Systems' PVR here. Too bad they didn't take my advise and save more money by making it an add-in (PCI) card to the computer. It would be cheaper to build, and with well written software would be even better.

MP3 Player

I finally bought a MP3 player. The one I chose may surprise you. The Rio 600 with only 32 MB of memory. I plan to tell you why I selected the Rio, as well as give you advice on which other players would be worth your consideration. Then I will tell you how I am maximizing the 32 MB of memory in the Rio. It will be very helpful for any MP3 player.

Why the Rio 600

As some of you know I have been looking for a MP3 player for some time. I wrote about players as long ago as December 1998, when a co-worker showed me his Rio 300, the first widely available MP3 player. Back then my biggest complaint about the Rio 300 was its lack of memory at 32 MB. I mentioned in that article that IBM's Microdrive would make an excellent storage device for a MP3 player.

I watched very closely as Creative Labs announced, and finally delivered, the Nomad Jukebox. I had anticipated it for many months. 6 GB of music that you could take anywhere. Images of going over a friends house and hooking it up to their stereo for hours of music for parties danced in my head. Leaving it on my desk at work and hearing nothing but music I liked without hearing the same song twice also had me all aglow.

I had already picked the Nomad Jukebox as my player of choice. But when it came out it was with batteries that only lasted 3 - 4 hours. It was bulkier than I expected and didn't seem like it was geared toward harsh use such as strapped to my waist when I am chopping trees on my land. And it was expensive at $500. (During the Christmas season I saw it for around $410-$420 online, but that was still more than I wanted to spend on a MP3 player.)

Prior to the Nomad I thought the MP3/CD player combos would make a great compromise between memory and cost. However I dismissed them. I would have to spend a fair amount of time creating CDs with the music and playlists I wanted. (I am doing that... to use in the CD drive of my computer at work to suppliment my Rio). A CD/MP3 player would only add value while on the move, and I doubt they would be as durable as the Nomad Jukebox, no less a solid state type device in the mobile environment I would subject them. In fact, as I write this I am listening to the first MP3/CD I made for use in a computer. I don't need a stand alone player for that. When at my computer at work I can use MP3/CDs, and when at home I just play off my hard drive. I need portability over sheer bang-for-the-buck in the memory department of a MP3 player.

I heard about DataPlay discs. These are small, inexpensive optical discs that store 500 MB of data in a write once operation, similar to a CD-R. When I first heard about these discs it was mentioned that BlueSonic (Formerly S3) would use this technology in its Rio 600/800 MP3 players. With 500 MB of music available I could have enough music to satisfy my appetite in a very portable player.

After doing a ton of research, I finally decided to get the Rio 600. It only comes with 32 MB of memory. I find that appalling 2 years after the original Rio 300. But I bought this device for the long term ability to add memory (hopefully) inexpensively in the future. If it turns out to be a mistake then it will only be a $164 mistake, not a $400+ mistake. If BlueSonic comes through with the DataPlay discs, or at least they supply the 340 MB expansion using IBM's Microdrive, I will be more than content with this player's memory. I made my finally decision based on the fact that the upcoming Rio 800 will share "backpacks" with the Rio 600. It is unlikely they will promote a memory expansion platform for two devices and not deliver for either.

Rio 600 Review

So how does the Rio perform? In a word... Superbly! 

The sound quality is excellent. The included earphones sound so good you shouldn't need to buy anything else. (The earphones are a wrap-around type that take a little time putting on, so I purchased a set of cheap ear-bud headphones for use work. This is purely so I can get them on and off in a hurry in a work environment.) The Rio handled every song I downloaded to it. Some songs I could hear some strange anomalies, but since this was only with a few songs I wrote it off to the level of compression I was using (more below on this topic).

I remember reading that the Rio was surprisingly loud. You can believe that. The volume scale goes from 1 to 20, but I can easily enjoy music in the 4 - 8 range and drowned out most background noise. At level 20, with the included earphones, it is so loud it will cause hearing damage. Yet the sound was always clear. Truly excellent. 

The controls on the Rio itself are very easy to use, but take a bit of getting used to if you are going by feel as it is clipped to your belt. It uses a circular control pad to handle forward, rewind, stop, pause & play. A number of time when just working from touch I paused the player when going between songs. This is made more difficult when the player is in its case and you are pressing through the clear plastic.

The display on the Rio is amazing. The top line of the display scrolls the file name of the song. This is more than good enough as all my files are named with artist and song title for the filename. The display also included the number of the song and the number of songs on the device (e.g., 3/23 for the 3rd of 23 songs), the length of the track, the file type (MP3 or WMA), the sample rate, and the current position of a song. All this on a really well lit oval display. I can't image what else would be necessary to put on a display.

The software that comes with the Rio (Rio Manager) sucks. Considering I was able to play through the Rio's pre-installed music with out reading the instructions, I expected the software to be easy to use too. Easy it was not. The Rio Manager software was so difficult to use I switch to Microsoft's Media Player to download my first song to the Rio to test it out. I decided I needed to get used to the Rio Manager software and forced myself to start using it. It required me to add my songs to its library. I pointed the software at a directory of a little over 800 songs. Rio Manager hung my computer to the point I needed to do a hardware reset.

I remember reading that Music Match could download music to portable devices. A quick look through their help file told me where to go to install the portable MP3 player add-in. It took a minute or so to do the installation over the net (through a ADSL connection). Music Match will download any song in its playlist, regardless of whether the song is in its library. It was so easy to use Music Match to download to the Rio that I haven't used anything else (I did have to use Microsoft's Media Player to download a 160 kbps WMA file. I don't know why Music Match would not copy the file. It is possible that the Plus version would handle this file type.) I decided to import my 800+ songs into Music Match's library. It ate the files up easily. Now I just build and save playlists in Music Match and download to the Rio quick and easily. It takes right about 2 minutes to completely fill the 32 MB of memory in the Rio. Media Player took 4-5 minutes, and I never found out how fast the Rio Manager software was.

If you have a portable MP3 player I highly recommend you consider using Music Match. Trust me!

I read a lot of reviews of the Rio, and a number of them mentioned that it did not have a belt clip. Some articles said that it came with a neoprene case that had a belt clip. I read the contents of the box before ordering mine online. It did not mention a case or belt clip. I searched everywhere for one, and finally found a Multimedia Upgrade kit for the Rio 600 that included a carrying case and a silver faceplate. It was on backorder, but I ordered it anyway. Much to my surprise the Rio arrived and I can tell you categorically... Yes, the Rio comes with a Neoprene case that has a belt clip on it. I cancelled the upgrade kit order. As stated earlier it is a little difficult to work the controls of the Rio though the clear plastic front of the case. Other than that it is completely functional. I don't know why others are complaining.

Summary

The Rio 600 is an excellent device. The only thing I have to complain about is the abysmally low 32 MB of memory. Hopefully it will not be an issue in the long run. My Rio was a Christmas present from my wife. On Christmas day the Rio 800 was in Best Buy's ad. The Rio 800 has 64 MB of built in memory, and adds a rechargeable battery and voice recording. At about $279 it is probably worth it for its extra memory. My wife wanted to return mine and get the 800. I didn't let her. I will live with the 32 MB and hold out for the DataPlay or Microdrive backpacks. My wife liked the Rio so much she said she will probably get me the 800 and keep the 600 for herself. What better praise is that. I very well may let my wife get me the 800, but not until the memory backpacks are available.

I'll keep you posted. For the moment keep reading to see how I am getting the most from the Rio's standard 32MB of memory.

Maximizing 32 MB for a MP3 player

So you have a MP3 player, or are thinking about getting one, and find the memory too limiting. Then you should spend a little time following my lead to see if you can live with a sound quality that permits you to load more music on your player.

It is said that a 64kbps WMA file is equal in sound quality to a 128Kbps MP3 file at about half the file size. I decided to test that, and even went a step further and compressed the files to 48 & 32 kbps to see how small I could make the files without loosing too much quality.

I loaded my Rio with Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run (my favorite rock and roll song). I encoded it in a slew of bit rates (160, 128 and 64 kbps MP3 as well as 160, 128, 64, 48 and 32 kbps WMA) The 160 & 128 files where all so close to each other that I could not tell a difference with my ear. The 64 MP3 file sounded like crap. It was so muffled I would not use it. The 64 WMA file on the Rio sounded almost exactly like the higher bit rate files. In fact it was good enough I can now believe all MP3 players when they say they hold an hour of music in 32 MB. The trouble with this thinking is still that 128 kbps files are so common it is a de facto standard. To be able to use 64 kbps WMA file in a portable device means investing in the time, effort and storage to keep multiple copies of songs on your hard drive.

The 48 kbps WMA file had a slightly muffling sound to it. Bumping up the volume a notch or two helped it out. The 32 kbps WMA file sounded only slightly better than the 64 kbps MP3... in other words it sounded like crap. I found the 48 kbps files to be acceptable to my untrained ear. So much so that I decided I would try to use this format with the Rio.

You should know that I am not an expert on music, or sound. I simply know what I like and what I don't. If the music is clear, clean and loud enough then I will like it. If you can hear a difference between a 64 kbps and 48 kbps WMA files, you will have to decide if that difference is worth putting up with.

The 48 kbps files play very well in the Rio. In fact, It sounds as good, or better, then the  CD changer in my car running though a FM Modulator. Not bad indeed.

Microsoft Media Player with Bonus Pack

I initially installed Microsoft's Media Player 7 and its new Bonus Pack. The Bonus Pack includes a MP3 to WMA converter. I converted a file from my MP3 collection. I set the compression to 64kbps and the results were very good. But the converter is from a third party and is only a lite version (Audio Converter 3.0 Limited Edition). It will not compress files to below 64 kbps. I almost paid the upgrade fee on the spot so I could compress my music to the lower levels I wanted.

Music Match to the Rescue

I decided to see what the latest version of Music Match had to offer. As luck would have it Music Match has a file conversion utility built in. It will convert between any file of MP3, WMA or WAV format. Music Match's conversion utility is not as easy to use as Microsoft's "borrowed" lite utility at batching up files to convert, but it worked for my needs.

I began converting directories full of MP3's to WMA files. I have a 60GB drive that holds my 12+ GB MP3 collection. Compressed to 48kbps that collection will only take up about 1/3 that size. Not a problem. I compressed about 900 of my favorite songs wasting a little more than a gigabyte of disk space. I won't even notice the drive space used. This is the only consideration you really have to make. Can you live with duplicating some of your music on your hard drive. If not then you better find a player that has more memory.

Music Match does such a good job for me I plan on purchasing the Plus version. If for no other reason then to make sure they keep improving the software.

For those of you that have 32 and 64 MB players, you can get good enough sound with 48 kbps WMA files that provide 90 minutes of play time in 32 MB, or 3 hours in 64MB. This information should come as a huge boon to those that buy the HipZip drive with its PocketZip discs (claimed 40MB each). You should be able to fit about 106 minutes on the actual 38 MB of the PocketZip disc with 48 kbps WMA files.

A Better MP3 Player

If you don't care about expandability and think a 64 MB MP3 player has enough storage I would not buy the Rio 600. The Rio 500 (at $179 on Rio's own web site) is a better choice. Compaq's iPaq player is also very good. It is smaller than my pager, and is available with a rebate that brings its cost to $200. Of course there is now the Rio 800 with 64 MB of memory, but it is pricey at around $280. Next I would consider the Nomad II or Nomad II MG. These are also a bit pricey, but if you value their features (FM Tuner and voice recording) they might be worth it. The Nomad II MG is very sleek in style, but places its buttons on the side of the unit making it a less usable device with a smaller screen. Form is ahead of function here. If you really want style there is the Nike psa[Play. The Nike is basically a Rio 500 in an ultra sleek $300 package. If you don't mind spending a bunch on PocketZip disc the HipZip or Rave mp:2300 are worth considering. Personally I feel they are too big and expensive. At $300 with 80 MB of memory, and another $100 for a 10 pack of PockitZip discs you are into the Nomad Jukebox price range.

Conclusion

If it was my money on the line for a 64 MB player that had little to no expansion I would probably get the Compaq. I could fill it with 3 hours of "good enough" music, and it has the belt clip built into the body of the player.

I made my decision to get the Rio 600 based on the promise of memory expansion that will eventually blow away any solid state player.

Time will tell if it was worth it. For the moment I am enjoying my Rio 600 with 90 minutes of music at a time.

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