Article by Kevin Savetz

First Published:
Date Published:
Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


You've amassed a massive collection of digital music you ripped, downloaded, or (ahem) stole from various sources. Too bad all those MP3s are trapped in your PC. When you want to kick out the jams, rock around the clock, dance the night away, or bust a move, you need a portable MP3 player.

The first consideration when shopping for a device is whether you want a unit that stores songs in flash memory or on a hard drive. Flash-based players tend to be downright miniscule in size, but they can't hold as much music as a hard drive player. Flash-based players are also more forgiving, meaning you can jostle and drop one without fear of it skipping or crashing the hard drive.

But for sheer storage, you can't beat a hard drive player. The largest flash player has 512MB of memory; the smallest hard drive players have 10 to 15GB. Of course, the amount of storage you need depends on how much music you want to carry with you. A 128Kbps MP3 takes up about 1MB per minute of audio, while WMA files are somewhat smaller. If you just want enough music to entertain you for an hour at the gym or during the drive to work, a flash player can do the trick. A hard drive player, however, can supply hours and hours (and hours) of tunes without repeating.

There are other trade-offs to consider. Flash-based players typically have longer battery life, while hard drive players often have extra features. And then there's the price difference. Flash players are often significantly less expensive.

I tested two flash-based and two hard drive-based players. All six units included ear bud headphones, but for consistency (and my own comfort), I tested the units with one standard headset. I installed all accompanying software on two Windows XP PCs, a speedy Athlon-based PC, and a budget PC with practically no memory. For Mac testing, I used a PowerMac G4 1.2GHz running Mac OS X 10.2.

I didn't test Apple's iPod (the standard against which all other portable MP3 players are measured) for this roundup. Why? We've reviewed the 20GB unit previously (readers can go to www.computerpoweruser.com/ipod), plus everyone already knows the iPod is fantastic, and we wanted to focus on other contenders in the crowded field.

Flash-Based Players

These players are flash-based, light, and ultra-portable devices good for at least a couple hours of music.

Rhomba (256MB)
$199
Creative
www.creative.com
CPU Rating: 3.5

The Creative Rhomba is a touch lighter and thinner than iRiver's iFP-390T and is available in 128MB ($149) and 256MB versions, neither of which is upgradeable. I tested the 256MB version.

For playing MP3s and WMA files, the Rhomba works well but isn't exactly brimming with extra features. You can create a basic playlist, but you'll lose it when you turn the unit off. The equalizer is limited to bass and treble controls, and the interface is simple, bordering on simplistic.

Like the iFP-390T, the Rhomba connects to the PC via a USB 1.1 connection, has an FM tuner, and can record from its tuner or a built-in microphone. FM reception is better than the iFP-390T's, but the recording feature is dismal. With nonadjustable 4-bit, 8KHz monaural encoding, recordings are unlistenable.

The Rhomba includes Windows software to rip CDs and transfer files between the player and the PC. To save space on the device, the software includes a feature to downsample music during the transfer. I could also access the Rhomba via Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player. It didn't play nice with RealOne Player or Mac OS, however.

The Rhomba can rumble for 10 hours before you need to recharge its Li-ion battery. The battery gets its charge from the PC's USB connection, a nice touch for minimizing cable clutter. However, you must wait until the unit is fully charged before you can copy songs to it.

For digital music and FM radio, the Rhomba does the job, but it's hard to get terribly excited about it. Compared with the enhanced audio features of its big brother, the Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra, the Rhomba's lackadaisical equalizer and few added features are rather disappointing.

iFP-390T
$199.99
iRiver
www.iriver.com
CPU Rating: 3.5

Weighing in at 2 ounces and the size of a thumb, the iFP-390T is a tiny player that runs for 24 hours on a single AA battery. The player has 256MB of RAM (roughly 65 four-minute, 128Kbps MP3s), which isn't upgradeable. It can play MP3, ASF, and WMA formats, and it includes an FM tuner. In addition, it can record audio via a built-in monaural microphone, stereo line-in jack, or the FM tuner.

MP3s sounded crisp, as did recordings I created with the unit. You can customize sound using the five-band graphic equalizer, but the FM tuner is persnickety. Indoors it's prone to picking up interference from PCs. Outside it plays only the strongest radio signals without interference.

Moving files to and from the unit requires the iRiver Music Manager utility, which is available for Windows and Mac OS. (I was unable to move files with other programs.) Using the simple drag-and-drop interface, you can copy files from the computer to the unit, but you'll need to supply your own app for ripping CDs. You can also move audio you record on the player to the computer, where it's playable as a standard MP3. In a feeble attempt to prevent music piracy, you can't copy other music files from the unit to the computer.

Playlist management is virtually nonexistent. You can create folders and upload music in those folders using the Music Manager software, but you can't move a file between folders once it's stored on the player. You can only delete it.

The unit's small screen includes a nice, bright backlight, but the interface, which consists of a joystick and three buttons, isn't always intuitive. To move down the configuration menu, for instance, you must inexplicably move the joystick to the right. Pressing it down navigates to the previous menu. In addition, the unit doesn't recharge, so when it runs out of juice, you have to replace the battery.

Two other iRiver models offer identical features but different memory amounts. The iFP-395T ($299.99) has 512MB of RAM. The iFP-380T ($139.99) has 128MB. Despite a few problems, the iFP-390T is worth a look if you need a tiny MP3 player that doubles as a tiny MP3 recorder.

Hard Drive-Based Players

If size matters, you'll want a hard drive-based player. With gigabytes of storage, you can take your entire music collection wherever you go.

Zen Xtra
$299 
Creative Labs
www.creative.com
CPU Rating: 4

Creative Labs' latest hard drive-based player is a little larger than Dell's Digital Jukebox hard drive-based player. As such, it's a bit clunky to hold and isn't as sleek looking. Once you use it, however, you'll discover plenty of great features inside.

The unit offers a variety of environmental effects that can make your MP3, WMA, and WAV music sound as if it's being played in an auditorium, jazz club, or other locations. The device's 3D spatialization effects produce a wider aural field, which can be a pleasant effect. There's a four-band graphic equalizer with presets for various types of music, and a Time Scale function can speed up or slow down audio without pitch distortion. You can save all of these settings to any of six profiles and switch among them quickly.

Although the Zen Xtra seems based on similar firmware as the Dell Digital Jukebox, it has several welcome interface enhancements. A Play Any Track function shuffles songs from the entire music library, and you can easily add a single track or entire album to the song queue. You can also choose between two tabbed and list-based interfaces, and there's a sleep timer, screensaver, and other thoughtful features.

On the PC side, the bundled Creative MediaSource software can rip CDs and export the files to the Zen Xtra. A synchronization function quickly moves tracks and playlists between the PC and portable player, and you can also access the files on the unit from within Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player. I couldn't get RealOne Player or a Mac to talk to the unit, however.

The Zen Xtra charges with an A/C adapter and runs about 14 hours on a charge. Units are available with 30, 40 ($349), or 60GB ($399) of storage. The tiniest Zen drive is 10GB larger than the largest Dell Jukebox drive. The 60GB version is 20GB larger and $100 less than the heftiest iPod. I tested the 30GB (about 8,000 songs) model.

I liked the large backlit screen, but button placement (limited to the sides of the unit) could be better. In addition, the removable faceplate feels flimsy and can pop off too easily. All in all, the Zen Xtra wins points for its handy music-management features, environmental controls, and amount of storage space for the money, but it loses points for case design.

Digital Jukebox
$249 (15GB)
Dell
www.dell.com
CPU Rating: 4

Dell's Digital Jukebox is an elegant silver unit that shares a similar interface and size with the iPod, although it weighs a tad more. The Digital Jukebox is available with a 15 or 20GB ($329) hard drive. I tested the 15GB model (about 3,700 songs).

You can navigate the unit's interface easily with its scroll barrel and large, intuitive buttons. With backlight buttons and a bright 2-inch LCD display, you can use the unit easily in a dark room.

The DJ plays MP3, WMA, and WAV files, and there's a four-band graphic equalizer with eight presets. You can manage playlists, delete music, and sort your music collection on the go, but music management isn't as smooth as it could be. For instance, adding songs to a playlist is a fussy, two-step process. The DJ is happy to play tunes from a particular artist, album, or genre, but it won't shuffle amongst all of the songs in the library unless you first create a playlist containing all the songs.

The unit runs an impressive 16 hours per charge, and you can charge it via the A/C adapter or the USB connection. USB charging doesn't work when the battery is nearly drained.

The package includes MusicMatch 8.1, which is decent PC software for ripping CDs, managing playlists, and transferring music to the DJ. A Sync button automatically loads the DJ with new music you've added to the PC's music library. The DJ is also compatible with Windows Media Player and RealOne Player but not Mac OS. A simple utility for moving data files to and from the unit is also included. Music and data transfers are swift thanks to the high-speed USB 2.0 connection.

The unit's built-in microphone lets you record meetings, instantly jumping to a Record mode by pushing one button. However, you can't change the record-quality settings or convince MusicMatch to copy recorded files to the PC.

The Digital Jukebox looks and sounds great and, despite a few disappointments, is a fine choice for budget-minded buyers who want the capacity of a hard drive player. The unit is available directly from Dell.

Rio Chiba
$169 (128MB); $199 (256MB)
Rio Audio
www.digitalnetworksna.com/rioaudio
CPU Rating: 4

As our January issue went to press, and frankly as I had given up hope of finding a flash-based player that I could whole-heartedly recommend, the Rio Chiba landed on my doorstep. It is the best of this batch of flash players.

Available in 128 and 256MB versions (I tested the 256MB version), you can add an SD or MMC card to increase its storage by 512MB. You do have to remove the battery to swap the memory card, which is a minor annoyance. The unit runs up to 18 hours on one alkaline or rechargeable NiMH AAA battery, but you can recharge the battery in the player.

The player is light and small, fitting nicely into your palm for one-handed operation. The interface is particularly pleasant and intuitive thanks to the multi-line display and tiny joystick you can control with a thumb. The unit plays MP3 and WMA files and has a FM tuner with decent reception and five-band graphic equalizer.

On the go, the Chiba is a joy to use, but it's the Rio Music Manager software makes the player shine. In addition to ripping CDs and copying songs to the player, the software does wonders by letting you give up control of the player's music mix. For example, you can let the software automatically delete a certain percentage of stored music to make room for more each time you sync. The software does this by removing the music that you've played least often, most often, or most recently. Then you can use the software's DJ function to select and upload new tracks based on album, genre, artist, and other criteria. By making music rotation so simple, the software makes the most of the Chiba's limited (relative to a hard drive-based player) storage.

The Chiba also works with RealPlayer and Windows Media Player. One of the player's few disappointments is its support for playlists, as you can't create or edit playlists from the unit. Instead, you need to create playlists using the PC software and import them into the player.

The Chiba is Mac-compatible and works directly with iTunes. You can copy music to the player, format the memory, even upgrade the firmware. However iTunes' playlist management is meager compared to the Rio Music Manager on Windows--a disappointment because the player relies on the computer to organize songs.

TDM Mojo 128F
$139.99 (128 MB); $189.99 (256MB)
TDK
www.tdk.com/cdmp3
CPU Rating: 2

After the Chiba, a final portable player, the TDK Mojo 128F, arrived. But the Mojo has no mojo.

The 128F has 128MB of flash memory and runs on one AAA alkaline battery. A similar model, the 256F, has twice the memory. Both versions are upgradeable with an SD or MMC card to add an additional 512MB. In addition to playing MP3 and WMA files, the Mojo has a built-in FM tuner.

The primary problem with the player is the interface, which is simply unintuitive. The menu's choices aren't always clear, and even after two days of using the Mojo I was fumbling with buttons to perform basic functions. The UniFi Windows software is no better; it will transfer music to the Mojo, but you'll need to provide your own software to rip music from CDs. There isn't any playlist management to speak of in the Windows software or from the player itself. In addition, you can't even delete songs using the player.

The Mojo can record audio from the built-in monaural microphone or from the FM tuner, and you can record at 32 or 89Kbps. (Why 89Kbps? I don't know.) Recordings are imported to the PC as WAV files; if you want MP3s, you have to convert them using third-party software. You can't copy other music files from the unit to the PC.

The Mojo claims to support Mac OS with an iTunes plug-in, but this didn't work on my system. Not only did iTunes fail to recognize the Mojo, but the unit also locked up when connected to the Mac. I had to take out the battery to wake it from its stupor.

There were other niggling problems, but I won't harsh your mojo by relating them all. Suffice it to say, this isn't the player to choose.

Name That Tune

All of these players have their own plusses and minuses, but none stole the show. Of the bunch, the iRiver iFP-390T and Dell Digital Jukebox might be the best bets. They're both quality, affordable players with interface quirks potentially bettered through firmware upgrades.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz