In the beginning, there were cylinders you could insert in a machine and hear voices and music. Then came records, tape and compact disks. But I don't think anything has made as much of an impact - or caused as much controversy - on the recorded sound industry as the development of MP3 technology.
For those of you that haven't joined the movement to pure digital audio, MP3 is loosely defined as a digital audio compression technology that lets you listen to or record sounds (voice and music) but needs about a tenth of the space taken up by a standard track on a compact disk. In other words you could fit about 150 MP3 files on a CD that would normally hold 15 standard audio tracks.
With this innovation came the MP3 player - a small device with no moving parts that has quickly been replacing the older portable tape and CD players that were popular in the '80s and 90s.
Now here is where this whole thing becomes confusing. I have sitting in front of me a pile of portable MP3 players, all boasting unique features and all with the capability to make me an MP3 junkie (which I am very close to becoming). All of them work as advertised and all reproduce realistic, digital sound. So, what's a fella to do when he has to make a choice?
Fear not, for I, after extensive research, have come up with the following guide to the features of each of these digital marvels and am willing to share it with you.
SonicBlue Rio 600 ($169.95): The Rio was one of the first MP3 players to hit the market starting with the 300 in the mid '90s. You might call it a harbinger of things to come. This newer unit comes with 32 megabytes of memory (soon to be upgraded to 128 megabytes), which is capable of storing up to two hours of music (only one hour if you demand high-quality digital stereo); can play MP3 and WMA (Windows media) files; is upgradeable to accept new formats through its ARM processor; connects to any USB port on your computer so you can transfer music files about five-times faster than using a serial port; has a built-in pre-set equalizer; and has an enhanced LCD display that shows you the track, the name of the album and artist, bit rate and play time. You can purchase interchangeable faceplates, which means you can change the color of the unit as quickly as you change moods; one-hour memory backpacks; a car cassette adapter; a travel case and a remote control and FM tuner.
Nike psa play 120 ($299.95): This is another MP3 player from the developers of the Rio with a few more bells and whistles than the Rio 600. In addition to all the audio features of the 600, this one comes with 64 megabytes of memory with an expansion slot so you can add another 64 megabytes; a wearable remote control with an LCD display; it's much smaller and lighter than the 600 and can be clipped to your belt or worn on your wrist. This one was built with the jogger and exercise freak in mind.
Iomega HipZip Digital Audio Player ($279.95): This is one of the more unusual units available. It's a bit bigger than the Rio (and a bit heavier), but there's a reason: it reads small, 40-megabyte PocketZip (formerly Click!) cartridges, which can contain everything from music to data files. In fact you can hook this up to the USB port on your PC and use it as another disk drive. It has no internal memory; a large LCD readout; comes with two PocketZip disks; plays MP3 and WMA music formats and its processor is upgradeable to handle newer ones when they come out; has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery; and, the thing that makes it worth its weight in gold, additional 40 megabyte PocketZip disks cost less than $10 compared with a minimum of $54 for only 32 megabytes of memory for other players.
Digisette Duo 64 ($219.95): The unique thing about this player is that it is the size and shape of an audio cassette, which means you can download music or voice tracks to it and pop it into you car's cassette player. Among its additional features are 64 megabytes of memory, which is expandable to 128 megabytes; a rechargeable nickel-hydride battery; it's upgradeable to handle any new audio formats; it has no problem storing your favorite audio book (downloadable from www.audible.com) and can store up to six hours of dialog in audible format; and it attaches to the USB port on your computer for quick and easy downloads.
InnoGear MiniJam ($199 and $259): This MP3 player is specifically made to attach to a Visor handheld computer. It comes with either 32 or 64 megabytes of memory; it uses the Visor to display its control buttons, a playlist (so you can choose what tracks to play or delete) and information on each track; it comes with two megabytes of internal memory; memory is upgradeable using 32 or 64 megabyte memory cards; and it can be used to play music, view images or read eBooks.
Now you can see why I'm confused. Each of these has their own unique features, which make them attractive for those of us with specific needs.
The price of the Diamond Mako organizer I reviewed last week is $249, half the price of a Microsoft-powered handled PC.