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How to Buy an MP3 Player

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

Introduction

Whether you want to get your groove on while working out or would like to amuse yourself as you commute on public transit, a portable MP3 music player could suit your needs. MP3 players–available in a wide variety of styles and sizes and capable of storing thousands of songs–capitalize on digital technology to supplant traditional Walkman-style cassette-tape players and portable CD players.

The Big Picture
Today’s players pack loads of songs, and the devices are easy to manage, too. We’ll help you figure out which one is best for you. more

The Specs Explained
The storage capacity and battery life of an MP3 player can have a big impact on how much you enjoy it. We’ll explain what’s behind these and other specifications. more

MP3 Player Shopping Tips
Our advice will help you find the right MP3 player for your lifestyle without paying too much.

The Big Picture
A portable digital audio player sets your music free so you can easily mix and match songs in any order and take the tunes with you. MP3 players use one of two storage mediums: hard drive or flash memory. Hard-drive players offer the greatest amount of storage space but tend to be larger and more susceptible to damage due to the fragile nature of hard disks. For the most part, flash-memory models hold a more limited number of songs, but their lack of moving parts makes them more durable than hard-drive players.

Getting Started
Nearly all MP3 players require that you have a reasonably modern PC with a free USB 1.1 or 2.0 port. Your songs will load much more quickly with the latter. As you begin creating your music collection on the computer, you may want to upgrade your hard drive to be able to store more files.

Specialized MP3 players are not the only devices you can buy to listen to your music: You can now get mobile telephones, thumb drives, digital cameras, personal digital assistants, and car stereos that can store and play back MP3 music files. Even many pocket-size voice memo recorders can also record and play back MP3 files. But a word to the wise: Dedicated MP3 players usually sound better and often have more user-friendly controls than hybrid units, although devices like the Apple iPhone are beginning to wear this assumption down.

Key Features
Storage: The greater the storage capacity, the more songs you can take with you. Hard-drive-based players hold the most–currently, the highest capacity we’ve tested is 80GB (which can accommodate about 20,000 MP3 songs ripped at 128 kilobits per second). The latest (and most expensive) flash-based players we’ve tested can hold up to 8GB of music (about 2000 MP3 songs ripped at 128 kbps).

File management: MP3 files include ID3 tags, metadata embedded within each song file that provides artist name, song title, and album name information to the player. Working with this data, a player can organize the files for you, though each does so in its own way. Most players have a built-in LCD screen; look for one that shows the information you use most.

Transfer speed/port type: Downloading 5GB of songs all at once from your PC using a USB 1.1 interface can take all night. Almost all new players employ the much faster USB 2.0; but if speed is important, ensure that your player of choice supports the faster standard before you buy.

Software: All players come with software and drivers that allow you to download songs to them from a PC. Some units work well only with their included software, while others work with a variety of music programs. Before buying, always be sure your favorite jukebox software will work with your player of choice.

File type support: All digital audio players can play MP3 files, but your music may not be recorded in that file format. If you use media files encoded in the proprietary Windows Media file format (.wma) or the open-source Ogg Vorbis format (.ogg), your media player will be able to play those files only if it has appropriate support built in. Check the player’s specs, either on the box or on the manufacturer’s Web site, if file format support is important to you. And even if your player doesn’t support your preferred format out of the box, many manufacturers provide downloadable updates to the player’s firmware, some of which may add support for other formats.

Music service compatibility: Online music stores offer users with a broadband connection a fast, easy, and legal way to build their digital audio collections. However, not all players work with all stores. For example, Apple’s ubiquitous iPod line works well only with the iTunes Music Store. Similarly, online music subscription services (such as Rhapsody) that let you “rent” music for your portable audio player work well only with specific players that carry Microsoft’s Plays For Sure logo. If you have a favorite online music source, make sure that it works with your player of choice.

The Specs Explained
Initially only a few MP3 players dominated the market. Currently you can choose from dozens of players, each sporting a wide variety of features. (Compare prices now.)

No matter which player you pick, be sure to test it in a retail store before you buy–even if you don’t buy the model from that store. When you test a player, pay close attention to the interface you use to choose the song you want to play: Large LCD screens will let you find and organize stored music more easily than tiny ones. Also look for a player that holds the most songs in the smallest package you can afford.

MP3 Player Specs
Size and weight: Important considerations. People who plan to bring the player with them on trips or while exercising will want a smaller, lighter unit. The constant evolution of the technology means that smaller and lighter players are always around the corner. Flash memory-based players run from less than $40 all the way up to $200. These players can range from about the size of a pack of gum to a bit smaller than a deck of cards. A good flash-based player should weigh less than 2 ounces. Hard-drive-based players run from $175 to $350 and range in weight from about 0.3 ounce to just over 6 ounces.

Storage capacity (at 128 kbps): An important consideration. CD-quality MP3 music occupies about 1MB of storage space per minute, so storage capacity determines the maximum number of songs you can upload from your PC. Some flash memory devices let you put songs on removable storage cards, which can hold additional gigabytes of music. The capacity of flash-based players runs from 512KB to 8GB. Hard-drive-based players can hold from 8GB to 80GB of music.

Battery life: Somewhat important to consider. Hard-drive-based devices–especially ones that play video–chew through batteries. Flash-based players with no moving parts are relatively energy-efficient. Most devices of both types run on rechargeable batteries. Flash-based devices can support a battery life of 20 to 50 hours, according to listed specs. Hard-drive players average about 14 hours of battery life when running audio alone, their specs say; but playing video will drain the battery much faster.

Upload interface: Somewhat important to consider. The faster the player’s interface is, the faster you can load music onto the device. Some players let you transfer songs via removable storage cards. Speed is less important on players with smaller storage capacity, which is why larger hard-drive devices support faster interfaces (USB 2.0 or FireWire). If you want to view video on your player, make sure that you have the fastest interface you can afford.

File format support: A minor consideration (but make sure that the player you like can deal with the file formats you adopt). Among the most common types of audio file formats are AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, ASF, Audible, FLAC, MP3, MPEG4, OGG, WAV, WMA, and WMA Lossless. If your player has video capability, you’ll need to work with files saved in another array of formats. Some of the most common video file formats are DivX4, DivX5, H.264, Motion JPEG, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, WMV, and XviD. And if your device can display photographs, check to confirm that it can handle the format your photos are in; the most common of these are BMP, GIF, JPG, and PNG.

MP3 Player Shopping Tips
Choosing the right MP3 player isn’t that difficult, but one player does not fit all. People will want different things from their players.

Think about how you’ll use the player. Joggers will almost certainly want a lightweight, flash-memory-based device, since hard drives don’t react well to the shock of bouncing around all the time; audio aficionados who want lots of music at their fingertips should keep their eyes on the highest-capacity hard-drive models. And if you want to view video or photos on the device, the quality of the screen is an even more critical consideration.

Try your favorite before taking it home. We can’t stress this enough. Make sure you can use the on-screen display to navigate to a specific song, and ask a clerk to show you how to transfer music to the device, if possible. Always bring your own set of headphones to listen to the sound quality of each unit you’re interested in.

Get the largest-capacity device you can afford. Whether you buy a flash- or hard drive-based MP3 player, make sure to choose a model with the largest storage capacity possible. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it now, you will probably be happy to have it later.

Pay close attention to the user interface. Does the player’s menu system make sense to you, and is the interface easy to use? If you can’t find the songs, artists, or albums you want to play quickly and easily, keep looking.

Mind your power options. Although some flash-based portable players use replaceable alkaline batteries, most hard drive-based units feature a built-in rechargeable battery that cannot be easily removed. While these devices can keep going for tens of hours, if you’re not going to be somewhere near a power outlet or a computer with a USB port, you might find yourself out of juice with no way to charge the player.

Look for wide file format support. All players should support the MP3 format; but if you prefer WMA, AAC, or Ogg Vorbis, make sure your player of choice can handle the files.

Consider a player with an FM tuner. This feature isn’t essential, but it’s nice to be able to listen to the radio–especially if you grow tired of your recorded music.

Do you need a carrying case? Some players come with a small carrying case; others don’t. The more expensive and more fragile the player (hard-drive devices are the most delicate), the more likely you’ll want a custom-fitted case to protect it. Even if the drive mechanism isn’t delicate, you should take into account how upset you would be if your new possession were to get scratched.

Shop around, online and offline. MP3 players are widely available in almost every consumer electronics outlet, and their prices fluctuate. You can check prices from a variety of sources before you buy.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.
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