Smart Shopping: MP3 players

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The digital music player continues to evolve from simple audio player to complex multimedia device. Most come with color displays and can show digital photos. Many also play movies. Some can record directly from a TV or download and share their content over Wi-Fi. Use our MP3 player guide to help you pick the right one to meet your needs

GETTING STARTED When shopping for an MP3 player, first decide how much you're willing to spend on a unit you might want to replace in a year or two. Then decide whether the player you want will be an iPod or that of another brand, which might not be as popular but might offers useful features that iPods lack. You also should weigh your download options because copy-protected content available from online stores work only with specific players. Also decide whether you'll mostly watch videos or listen to music. Most MP3 players can handle downloaded music videos, movies, and TV programs, but some are better at it than others. A rising number of MP3 players now offer built-in support for optional wireless Bluetooth headphones for tangle-free listening, and even Wi-Fi capability for downloading music directly from online stores, browsing the Web, or sharing music with nearby players.

iPod or not?
With Apple's family of players so ubiquitous, and so similar in many ways, it's worth considering the advantages and shortcomings of iPods before going further with your buying decision. iPods are easy to use, thanks to superb integration of the players and the company's iTunes software. The iTunes Store offers the largest selection of legal digital content on the Web, including virtually all the available downloads of major TV shows. iPods also have a plethora of accessories to extend their use, from boom boxes and clock radios with iPod slots to iPod cases that come in many colors and fabrics. Several other brands of players have custom aftermarket equipment (although generic gear will, for example, allow you to pipe any player's music into a component sound system or a car stereo).

As for drawbacks, iPods typically cost a little more than non-Apple players with comparable capacity. They also lack some of the features and accessories that many other players have, such as an FM radio and an AC charger. Equipping a new iPod with some of those options can increase its price by more than $100. And iPods have some special limitations, such as the inability to easily transfer music to any other device. In addition, iPods require you to open iTunes to transfer music into the player; competing devices more conveniently let you drag and drop music files without opening music-management software.

Consider download choices
To discourage piracy, much of the content downloads available from iTunes and some other online stores is copy-protected using a technology called digital rights management (DRM). But DRM has one very inconvenient aspect: It locks content to specific players. For example, iPods can only play copy-protected songs and videos from iTunes and Real, while players from other makers like Archos, Creative, RCA, Samsung, and SanDisk have access to a wider selection of online stores that include Yahoo Music, CinemaNow, and Napster.

Downloading "free" unprotected music from such online sources as peer-to-peer Web sites is one way to get around the inconveniences of DRM. But you risk a copyright-infringement lawsuit by the music industry. You'll also increase your exposure to a host of computer viruses and spyware programs that tend to hitch rides on songs swapped on those sites.

Fortunately, DRM seems to be fading. EMI and other record companies have allowed portions of their music catalogs to be downloaded without copy protection from iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Walmart, and other online stores. Those unprotected songs enable consumers to legally play their music anywhere they like, whether they have iPods or players from other brands. Another plus is that some of those songs are recorded at a higher bit rate than the protected versions for potentially better sound.

On iTunes, unprotected songs are 99 cents, the same price the service charges for DRM-encoded songs, while Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart often charge 99 cents and less for unprotected songs. Album prices are generally $7 to $10. Music videos, hit TV-show episodes, and short films generally cost $2 each, and feature-length movies cost about $10 to $15 to buy, and less than $5 to rent.

Renting content is another alternative. Some sites, such as Napster and Rhapsody, let you fill your PC and player with music for a flat $13 to $15 per month. The music stops playing if you don't periodically dock your player to an Internet-connected PC to confirm that your account is in good standing. For less than $5, you can rent a feature film from iTunes, Amazon, or Cinema Now. Once you open a movie file, you have about a day to complete viewing before it is automatically deleted.

Music, movies and more
If video content is going to be a big part of your entertainment mix, make sure the player's display is large enough (at least 2 in. measured diagonally) to let you watch comfortably for extended periods. Also think about what you'll watch, and how you're going to get it. For example, some models let you record directly from a TV, cable box, or digital video recorder (DVR), either on the fly or on a schedule. Some players have Wi-Fi connections that let you wirelessly swap music, photos, and other files with other players of the same model, or patch into wireless home networks to connect with a PC, or access the Web to browse sites or to download music and videos. Just remember that those special abilities often add hundreds to the player price tag and introduce yet another set of considerations.

TYPES

Flash-memory players
These are the smallest and lightest types of MP3 players, often no bigger than a pack of gum, and they typically weigh no more than 3 ounces. They're solid-state, meaning they have no moving parts and tend to have longer audio playback time than players that use hard-disk storage. Storage capacities range from 512MB to 32GB, or about 120 to 8,000 songs. (All song capacities listed here are based on a standard CD-quality setting of 128 kilobytes per second, which requires about 1GB per 250 songs. 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 memory-card expansion slots to add more capacity. These typically use Secure Digital cards, though some Sony players use MemoryStick media. Memory-card capacities range from about 32MB to 32GB. Memory costs have gradually dropped. Price: $40 to $500 for the player; $15 to $30 for a 1GB memory card.

Hard-disk players
This type of MP3 player ranges from palm-size microdrive players that weigh about a quarter-pound and have a storage capacity of 4GB (about 1,000 songs) to brick-like bruisers that weigh more than a pound and whose 160GB hard drives can hold up to 40,000 songs.

Cell phones
An increasing number of phones have built-in MP3 players, some with controls and features that rival stand-alone players. Sprint, Verizon, and other cell-phone providers let subscribers download music over their networks. But songs are pricey: 99 cents to $2.50 per song. Song capacity is often determined by the size of the external memory card, as well as the phone manufacturer, carrier, or music provider.

Satellite radio
Some pocket-sized XM and Sirius receivers have built-in memory for recording up to 50 hours of satellite programming, and might also let you add your own MP3 songs to the mix. Not all models let you listen to live programming on the go; some must be docked at home.

FEATURES

Common MP3 player features include the ability to play music, video and show photographs. Some can also be used to surf the Internet, check email and play games. Look for the features that really matter to you before choosing an MP3 player.

Software
Most MP3 players come with software to convert your CDs into an 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 content between your computer and the player via a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection. All players work with a Windows PC, and some support Macintosh.

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 and video formats and operating systems. This is important for models with video playback because of the evolving nature of video formats.

Volume limiter
Many players in our MP3 Ratings (available to subscribers) have built-in volume limiters that take the guesswork out of safe listening. Some models have a preset safety level, which can be activated via the player's menu or an on/off switch. All iPods and some Creative models allow you to custom-set the volume limit, as well as protect the setting with a pass code--a nice touch for concerned parents. We recommend setting the maximum volume between 1/2 and 2/3 of the volume bar's full setting. But be aware that the loudness of individual songs can vary significantly, depending upon music genre, equalizer setting, and how the song was recorded.

Display
Most MP3 players have displays that show 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.

Screens can be monochrome or color. Models with color displays also let you store and view pictures taken with your digital camera, and in many cases, video clips.

Most players with color screens can display JPEGs, the default photo format of most digital cameras. Some can handle TIFFs, BMPs, and lesser-known formats as well. Many let you view your photos in slideshow fashion, complete with fadeouts, scrolls, and other transitions, as well as with music.

Video playback
An increasing number of players with color displays can also store and play back video. The video is in a format that compresses about three hours of video into 1GB of memory space. Popular content sources include CinemaNow and iTunes, which let you download music videos, TV shows, and short films for $2 apiece. But iTunes works only with iPods, and CinemaNow supports only players that can handle copy-protected Windows formats. Some models can connect to an external display, such as a TV, but won't let you play DRM-protected videos on them. But some players won't play copy-protected videos at all. Virtually all video players come with software that converts unprotected movies into a format the player can handle. Some can even record directly from a TV, cable box, or digital video recorder, either on the fly or on a schedule, usually with optional accessories.

As for the viewing experience itself, MP3-player screens are relatively tiny, even when compared with portable DVD players, and are hard to see in outdoor light. Players with larger screens, up to 4 inches wide, are easier to watch for longer periods, and some come with built-in speakers.

Controls
Most players have built-in song management that can be accessed via album, artist, or genre. Playlists of songs are usually created on a computer and transferred to the player, though many let you manage the music on the player, allowing you to edit playlists and delete files.

Expect some type of equalizer, an MP3 player feature that allows you to adjust the tone in various ways. A custom setting through separate bass and treble controls or adjustable equalizers gives you the most control over the tone. Some players have presets, such as "rock" or "jazz," as well as channel balance control.

Volume, track play/pause, and forward/reverse controls are standard. Most portable MP3 players let you set a play mode so you can repeat music tracks or play tracks in a random order, also referred to as "shuffle" mode. An A-B repeat feature allows you to repeat a section of the music track.

Additional MP3 player features to consider
In addition to playing music, most MP3 players can function as external hard drives, allowing you to move files from one computer to another. Some players can act as a USB host, letting you transfer images, data, or music directly from a memory-card reader, digital camera, or another MP3 player without using a computer. But a few of these won't let you play or view the files you transfer. Some allow you to view text and PDF documents, photos, and videos on their display screens. Other convenient features include an FM radio tuner, a built-in microphone or line input for recording, and adapters or a line output for patching the player into your car's audio system. Some players let you wirelessly swap music, photos and other files with similar player models. Some can also patch into wireless home networks to connect with a PC, access the Web on a limited basis, or download music and videos.

On some models you can access player function controls by a wired or infrared remote control.

BRANDS

Apple
MP3 players have been on the market since the mid 1990s, but nobody really listened until 2001. That year, Apple's iPod took the music world by storm, and soon displaced the Sony Walkman as the portable music player of choice. The company now commands 70 percent of the digital music-player market. Apple's success rests in part on its creation of a self-contained digital-entertainment system. iTunes, its content-management software, works seamlessly-only with iPods. Its online iTunes store offers by far the largest library of online video content, supplementing its dominance over online music sales. There are four iPod lines: The iPod Classic hard-disk players, the Nano flash players, and the Touch, a flash player with a large touch screen, full Web browser, and the ability download content wirelessly via its Wi-Fi connection. There's also a tiny belt-buckle-like Shuffle, a flash player that lacks a display.

Archos
This French company, which introduced its first MP3 player in 2000, has become one of the best-known players in the PVR (personal video recorder) market. Its devices can record video and other content from a variety of sources, including cable and satellite. Archos players handle music, video, photos and storage, as well as data. This MP3 player brand makes flash and hard-disk players, some with GPS navigation and Wi-Fi capability for Web surfing and synching with computers.

Cowon America
Cowon America is a division of Korean-based Cowon Systems. Its iAUDIO line includes hard and flash drives. Some of its players now have Wi-Fi capability for wirelessly synching with PCs.

Creative Labs
Creative was one of the first companies to introduce MP3 Players. Its high-end Zen players have a full complement of controls for playing back music, videos and photos. Its MuVo line of players are somewhat more compact and have fewer features.

Insignia
Insignia is Best Buy's house brand, sold exclusively by the retailer. Insignia's flash players, which are made overseas by contract manufacturers, offer a fair number of features, including Bluetooth stereo support, at modest prices.

Microsoft
Microsoft introduced the Zune in 2005, along with the Zune Marketplace to compete with Apple's iPods and iTunes. Zune flash-memory and hard-disk players have the ability to wirelessly share their content with other Zunes (albeit with many restrictions), as well as wirelessly synch with PCs. The Zune Marketplace is an online store and a social network, with ties to Microsoft's Xbox gaming platform. You need to buy Points, Microsoft's own currency, to pay for songs on the Zune Marketplace -- a restriction some users may find confusing.

RCA
RCA sold its MP3-player business to Audiovox, though players continue to bear the RCA logo. All of its players -- the Pearl, Opal, and Jet -- store their content in flash memory.

Samsung
Samsung offers a full line of MP3 players -- all of them flash -- with leading-edge technology, such as the ability to use Bluetooth technology to answer cell phones. Some of its players also have built-in speakers.

SanDisk
This flash-memory-card maker, which introduced its first MP3 player in 2004, is now the No. 2 MP3 player brand, behind Apple. Not surprising, most of its Sansa line of players have card slots for expanding storage capacity using SanDisk's microSD cards.

Sony
Sony is the best-known consumer electronics brand in the United States, practically inventing the portable-music product category with its Walkman tape and CD players. Like iPods, Sony players often have volume limiters to protect hearing.

Shopping Tips

Weigh capacity vs. size
Consider a flash-memory model (4GB can hold about 1,000 songs) if a lower price, smaller size, lighter 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 if you want expanded song capacity. If you have a large music collection that you want to keep with you, a hard-disk player might make more sense. Players with a 160GB capacity can hold about 40,000 songs and could serenade you for months without repeating a tune. But a hard-disk player can be more complicated to manage than a flash-memory player. For some, navigating through the menus or directories (folders) of songs might also take longer.

Be sure your computer can handle it
New computers shouldn't be a problem, but make sure any player you're considering is compatible with your older Windows or Macintosh computer (including its operating system). Keep in mind that some operating-system upgrades can exceed the price of a player. And your computer must have a USB port.

Consider ergonomics and design
Whichever type of MP3 player you choose, make sure you'll be comfortable using the device. Look for a display that is easy to read and controls 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 out when you need to access controls. Accessories that might be important to you might not be included, such as an AC charger, protector cases, or belt clips, a consideration to you in the overall cost of the player.

Consider headphone quality
While many players can produce near audio-CD quality music out of their headphone jacks, the headphones they come with can degrade the quality. Most perform respectably, and any performance differences might not be a bother to you in typical, everyday use. If you're particular about sound quality, it would be worth buying better-quality after-market headphones for use with your player.

Consider power consumption and battery type
With any portable device, batteries are a consideration. Our tests found a wide variation in battery life among the players. Depending on the player settings, some will run out of power after only nine hours of play, while others can play music for more than 60 hours before their batteries give out. Flash-memory players tend to have longer playback times than hard-disk players. Playing videos can run down a battery in just a few hours.

Some flash-memory players use AA or AAA batteries and can accept either standard or rechargeable batteries. Other players use non-removable or nonstandard batteries that charge via a computer USB port. (An AC adapter is typically a $15 to $40 option.) You can expect a bit longer playback time using standard batteries, but purchasing a charger and using rechargeable batteries will be more cost effective in the long run and more environmentally friendly. (For advice on recycling used batteries, call 800-822-8837 or go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.'s site at www.rbrc.org. Our Web site www.GreenerChoices.org also has advice on this topic.)

Other players use rechargeable nonstandard "block" or "gum stick" shaped nickel metal-hydride (Ni-MH) or lithium-ion (Li-ion) removable batteries, which are more expensive and harder to find. They typically cost $20 to $50 to replace. Many 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.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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