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Feature Article
MP3 Players Revisited

December 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

As anyone that reads the articles on this site knows I have a Rio 600. Well, I have both loved it and hated it. Overall I regret getting it. But what could I have gotten... and what will I get. It is time to look into the MP3 player market a year after getting my first MP3 player. Will Santa be bringing me another MP3 player this year?

Rio 600

I received my Rio 600 as a Christmas present last year (December 2000). I am very unhappy to report that SonicBlue, the makers of the Rio, not only weren't able to provide the 340 MB backpack they promised me for Christmas last year, but they still haven't made it available for Christmas this year. Talk about being late with a product. Who do these guys think they are... Microsoft?

The 340 MB backpack, and the early announcements of Rio supporting DataPlay (http://www.dataplay.com) discs (500 MB write once discs the size of a quarter, more below) were the deciding factors for my getting the Rio instead of a hard drive based MP3 player. I wanted a lot of memory, and no player out in December 2000 had more than 96 MB of memory unless it used some kind of hard drive.

I love the Rio's size and sound quality. But with only 32 MB of memory I have been struggling with poor sounding WMA files just to get more than 7 or 8 songs on the device. I compressed part of my MP3 collection to WMA format at a dismal 48 kbps sampling rate. This allowed me to fit 3 times as many songs on the Rio as I could with 128 kbps MP3s. However, the WMA files do not sound very good. There are lots of strange beeps and chirps in the music. This is a problem with the compression not the Rio, but I am forced to do this to make the Rio even remotely useful.

After a while I gave up using the Rio. It became a hassle to have to try and build a decent 20 song playlist and load it to the Rio before heading out with it. So it is collecting dust.

There is a 128 MB backpack available for the Rio. But there are a couple of problems with that. 1) It would only allow me to put about 20 songs on the Rio in 128 kbps format. The idea of getting more memory was to stop using massively compressed and compromised copies of songs, and the hassle of maintaining two versions of the songs on my computer. 2) This memory cost $199. I have recently seen the Nomad Jukebox in an ad for $219. So for an extra 20 bucks I could have 6 GB of storage and a new player to boot.

Nomad Jukebox

I didn't get the Nomad Jukebox last year because it was about $500. Now that it is priced reasonably I am tempted. The Nomad Jukebox was too big and bulky for the use I had intended. I planned on hooking a MP3 player to my belt while doing construction work on my house. The 14 oz. Nomad just was not portable enough, and I was weary how it would handle a rough environment. Also, the Nomad is well known for only lasting about 4 hours on a set of batteries. This would make it a royal pain to use while working all day on my house.

Even though Creative has come out with a 20 GB version of the Nomad Jukebox (back up to the $500 price level), I can't justify getting it. I would surely use the device with the A/C adapter and headphones at my desk at work, and might even be able to use it to pipe sound though my house for long hours of listening, but the Nomad Jukebox is not portable enough in my opinion. However, I am only a month or so away from completely my house, so portability may become far less of a requirement. In the end I am hoping Creative will come out with a second generation hard drive based player that will be better than the original Jukebox in more ways that just storage space.

RioVolt SP 250

I bought my best friend a RioVolt SP 250 when he came down from New York for the second time to help with my house. His second visit was a surprise he and my wife cooked up between them. The RioVolt 250 has a couple of features that put it above other MP3/CD players. 1) It has 8 MB of memory for a buffer. This allows the unit to load an entire MP3 song into memory for skip free playing, and to spin the drive down for battery savings. 2) The RioVolt SP 250 has an FM tuner for when you get tire of the 100-200 songs you can fit on a CD.

Unfortunately there are some serious flaws with the SP 250. It's documentation says it handles M3U playlist files. Not True! I would not display or play any playlists in my testing. Strike One. The 250 is supposed to make use of the ID3 tags in MP3 files. Also, not true! The SP 250 ignored the ID3 tags in all the songs I tried on it. Strike Two. I was forced to put songs in sub-directories by artist, then rename all my files to remove the artist name from the filename. In other words... I would have to maintain two sets of files just to support the RioVolt's requirements. Strike Three.

Apple Introduces the iPod

Along comes Apple. Yes Apple... makers of those "almost as hard to use computers" as Windows PCs. Apple just introduced the iPod (http://www.apple.com/ipod/). The iPod contains a very small 5 GB hard drive and rechargeable lithium polymer battery. The entire unit is just over 6 oz, and has a battery life of 10 hours. As an added bonus the iPod uses the ultra fast FireWire port (1394, iLink, etc.) instead of the creepy, crawly USB port.

Finally... a hard drive based player that has all the right features:

1) Small size - 6 oz, about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
2) Good battery life - 10 hours to last all day at the job, in the field, etc.
3) Lots of storage - 5 GB to hold and estimated 1000 songs.
4) Fast transfer speeds - Firewire instead of USB. (Though USB 2.0 is about as fast, it just isn't readily available... yet. I expect other MP3 players to start going toward USB 2.0 even though Microsoft didn't see fit to support it in Windows XP. Keep in mind that USB 2.0 is backward compatible with USB 1.1... what we have now. So a USB 2.0 MP3 player could be used with today's computers at the slower rate, but kick butt paired with a computer equipped with a USB 2.0 port.)

Apple's iPod throws in a neat feature... synchronization. The iPod syncs up with its iTunes 2.0 software on your computer (Mac, yuck!) like a Palm device. Put the iPod in its cradle, which also charges the battery, and any changes to your songs, playlists, etc. are transferred to the iPod. Say goodbye to maintaining separate playlists and songs just for your portable device.

Leave it to Apple to build a MP3 player that uses something as "simple" as synchronization to add that last bit of usability to a market full of "not so simple" designs. In fact, this simple feature really makes the iPod a true second generation MP3 player. I hope all hard drive based MP3 players start going this way.

DataPlay

I briefly mentioned DataPlay above. This company won a best product award at Fall Comdex 2000. DataPlay is a small 500 MB disc, about the size of a quarter, that has some intelligence built into its "case." The disc has a built in buffer and can "power down" the spinning disc when not in use. With a buffer large enough to store a MP3 song or a few pictures before the reading or writing needs to take place it is perfect for MP3 players and digital cameras.

DataPlay promised that it would be in production buy this fall, in time for products to be available for a Christmas 2001 shopping season. Now their web site says they will be available at retail in Q1 of 2002. They blew it. Maybe they had problems with the failing economy. I don't know. Whatever the reasons, they missed the boat. They generated huge excitement over their product and then didn't deliver. In a press release late last year Rio announced it had planned on using the DataPlay discs in its Rio 600/800 line. However, about midway through the year Rio was no longer listed on the DataPlay site. I assume they decided not to work with DataPlay anymore.

A year after DataPlay came out with an award winning product they have no product to buy. I have not been able to find a single player... and I have looked hard for even off, off names to build something. I don't know if DataPlay will ever be a popular product or even a product. I had very high hopes for it last year, but I think it may fail now because they let too much time go by. Who needs a DataPlay disc anymore? Without the MP3 and digital camera market building their devices to use DataPlay discs there will not be a DataPlay market.

Is It Time To Buy

Will I buy the iPod? Not yet. There are a few stumbling blocks. For starters, the price. At $399 it is expensive. With other hard drive systems now selling for under $300 it makes it a tough choice. But that actually doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that it only works for the Mac... which I don't have. And even though I will be building a new PC soon, I will not be building a Mac. I have no intensions of buying a Mac just to act as a Jukebox with a portable connection.

When/If Apple makes a Windows PC version of the iPod I will jump all over it... unless someone comes out with something sooner. I have heard that Creative Labs was supposed to be coming out with a smaller hard drive based system. I seem to remember 6 or 8 oz in size and in a rectangular shape. That news was many months ago, but was in a press release about them coming out with a 20 GB player as well. They have the 20 GB version of the Nomad Jukebox, so hopefully they will have a small form factor 6 GB player soon.

Ideally it will use USB 2.0 for a massive speed boost. After all, USB 1.2 is fast for 32 - 128 MB. But when you have to ship multiple gigabytes of files through a wire... USB is no longer speedy. When I build my next PC I plan on getting a USB 2.0 port on it, and possibly a FireWire port as well. Iomega already makes an external CD-R/W that uses USB 2.0 to write CD-Rs at 24X. Finally a fast external CD-ROM/R/RW drive that will allow me to truly put my computer under the desk and out of sight. But that is another article.

Conclusion

The challenge has been dropped. Apple has the best player on the market... it just happens to be exclusive to the Macintosh platform. Can anyone make a comparable player for the Windows/PC market before Apple adapts the iPod to that platform? Time will tell. In the meantime I am waiting with cash in hand.

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