Flash-Memory MP3 Players
When Apple's iPod burst onto the scene, many people who previously hadn't thought about buying an MP3 player snapped to attention. Flash-memory–based players had been fairly inexpensive but very frustrating to use with Macs. Now the hard-drive–based iPod and iPod mini are the best-selling MP3 players on the market. Given this new context, we decided it was time to look at the alternatives, for people who are on a tight budget and who just want to use a player at the gym or during a commute, and not for storing a huge music collection.
We tested seven flash-memory–based MP3 players: Rio's Fuse, Chiba, and Cali; Pogo Products' AudioRave; TDK's Mojo 128F; First International Digital's irock 860; and SmartDisk's Rover. Most of these devices are designed exclusively as portable audio players and recorders, and all offer extra features, such as voice-recording functions, stopwatches, FM tuners, and equalizer presets. The PoGo AudioRave and the SmartDisk Rover are both marketed as thumbdrives (or tiny USB drives) with the added ability to play MP3s. Of these players, the Rio Cali was the clear winner.
When you take your portable audio player out for a jog or a bike ride, you don't want to outlast its batteries. None of these players comes with rechargeable batteries (though all will work with them), yet each device has enough battery life for several outings. In our tests, we inserted fresh batteries, set the players to repeat, and played music at maximum volume until the batteries were exhausted. We tested each player twice and averaged the results.
Although all of the players fared well, the irock 860, which is the only player that uses a AA battery (the rest use one AAA battery), fared dramatically better than the rest, clocking 28 hours of play. The Fuse came in second, at more than 14 hours, and it was closely followed by the Chiba and the Rover, both of which lasted just less than 14 hours. The Cali came in next, at 12 hours, and the Mojo 128F and the AudioRave rounded out the pack, at 8.5 and 7 hours, respectively.
The Chiba, Cali, and irock 860 are 256MB players; the rest of the players we tested are 128MB devices. Some of these players (including the Cali and the Chiba) are available in multiple memory configurations. None will hold a full complement of songs -- in other words, you can't actually fit 128MB of MP3s on any of the 128MB players -- due to the software and settings that come installed on the players. However, these take up a negligible amount of space -- less than 1MB in most cases. For a sense of how this translates into actual music time, 128MB gives you enough storage for about 139 minutes of MP3s encoded at a bit rate of 128 Kbps, whereas you'll get about 279 minutes with 256MB of storage. That's plenty of music to get you through a morning jog and then some, but if you want to keep your entire music collection stored on your player, you'll prefer a larger-capacity, hard-drive–based player such as the iPod or the iPod mini.
The storage capacity of the Chiba, Cali, and Mojo 128F can be expanded by adding a Secure Digital (SD) expansion card. This is an easy way to dramatically boost those players' capacities; however, expansion cards are rather expensive. A 512MB memory card -- the largest the Rios can hold -- will set you back $150 to $200. At that price, the argument for buying an iPod or an iPod mini gets even stronger.
As we expected, transferring MP3s to these players took much more time than transferring music files to an iPod. We transferred 122MB of MP3s (about three albums' worth) to an iPod, which uses FireWire, and it took only 22 seconds. But transferring the same amount to the Fuse and the AudioRave took a painful 5 minutes, and they're just a small sample of the players we tested; all the flash players we tested transfer at USB 1.1 speeds.
The much slower transfer rate is a trade-off for the lower price you pay for a flash player, and it's one to consider carefully. If you're always on the go and must be able to transfer music quickly, you'll probably be dissatisfied with one of these players. And remember that because these players have lower capacities, you'll be transferring music to them more often than you would to an iPod or an iPod mini.
Installation and iTunes
Out of the box, the Rio players work with iTunes, assuming you're using a recent version of the program. The Mojo 128F and the irock 860 are also iTunes-compatible, but you have to install the drivers from the CD. Installing the software for the Mojo went without a hitch, but we had problems running the installation CD accompanying the irock. Although we were able to install the drivers, we had to do so manually, circumventing the installation program that shipped on the CD. First International Digital says it's aware of the problem and no longer ships CDs with this bug.
Neither the AudioRave nor the Rover is iTunes-compatible, although PoGo Products says it hopes to add iTunes compatibility in the future. Neither of these players requires any software installation.
The Mojo 128F has the best iTunes compatibility of any of the MP3 players. It has more features that work while the player is connected to your iTunes library, with options for erasing tracks, updating the player's firmware, and adding or removing folders. Like the Mojo 128F, the Rio players show up in iTunes as playlists, so it's easy to drag and drop files from your iTunes library to the attached device. The Rios do a better job of displaying track information -- they list the full ID3 tag information (data stored in an MP3 file, including artist, song name, album title, genre, and more), whereas the Mojo 128F lists only song names.
The irock 860 also shows up as a playlist in iTunes, but it crashed the program on several occasions when we tried to add and remove songs. First International Digital says this is due to iTunes' inability to deal with long file names and certain characters. However, we used the same playlist for each player, and the irock was the only player that caused iTunes to crash or freeze. In any case, it's unreasonable to expect users to rename all the songs in a music library to get the songs to work with a specific player. We found it easier to add and delete songs via drag and drop, with the irock mounted as a removable disk, instead of doing it in iTunes.
We vastly prefer players that work with iTunes, for several reasons. First, it's easier to organize music files within the iTunes music library itself than to hunt for them in the Finder. Second, when you drag and drop files to the Trash from the Finder, they remain locally on your device until you empty the Trash. Because the Trash folder is hidden on removable devices, this can baffle first-time users and leave them wondering where all their drive space went.
Rio released the first portable MP3 player on the market, and the company's long experience shows in its players' user interfaces. Rio says it aims to produce a product that's so easy to use, customers can throw away its instructions. We did, and we were able to operate the Rio players without a problem.
An MP3 player is a consumer audio device and should be no more complicated to use than a portable CD player. We asked several average users to try out each player in this review without looking at any instructions. Everyone chose the Rios as the easiest to use. These players have the best button placement, and they operate as users expect them to.
The Mojo 128F was another favorite among our testers. Although it doesn't have as many functions as the Rio players do, the Mojo 128F performed its tasks quite well, and our testers didn't have problems accessing even some of its more-advanced features, such as equalizer settings. Likewise, the irock 860 has a straightforward, easy-to-use interface. However, a couple of testers accidentally set the irock to FM Tuner mode and had trouble switching it back (to do this, you have to hold down the Menu button). We didn't consider this a major problem. The AudioRave was also easy to use, but it wasn't as intuitive as the others.
The Rover is the only player with a poor user interface. It doesn't display ID3 tags; rather, the Rover displays the file names of songs being played. So if you have several songs with similar file names (as is often the case with songs from the same artist and album), finding the right one can be difficult. In addition, the Rover's Menu button, located on its side, is flimsy, sensitive, and very awkward to use. We also had a great deal of difficulty accessing menu functions and navigating between songs on this player.
Most of these players have equalizer presets, typically programmed for a specific genre of music (jazz, rock, vocals, and so on). The Mojo 128F has the most presets -- seven -- plus a user-configurable setting. The Rio players have six settings, as well as the ability to adjust bass and treble. The Rover and the irock 860 have five equalizer presets, while the AudioRave has none.
All of these players are quite compact, and any will work well for exercise. The Rio Fuse manages to pack Rio's gold-standard user interface into a minuscule package -- it will easily fit in the coin pocket of a pair of jeans. We also liked the irock 860, whose ability to hold a AA battery seems like sleight of hand. The Chiba and Cali have similar designs, but the Chiba is slightly squarer than the rounded Cali. We preferred the Cali because it comes with an armband, which securely attaches it to your body.
All of these devices do more than just play MP3s. Our favorite extra feature is the built-in FM tuner, which is in all of the players except the Fuse and the AudioRave. The FM tuner on the Rover, however, is built into the included headphones, which means that if you want to use a different pair than the ones that ship with the player, you lose this function. The Rover's FM tuner also requires an additional battery.
Another feature we used extensively was the stopwatch built into all three Rio players. For using an MP3 player while exercising, we found the stopwatch with a lap timer to be a fantastic addition. The belt clip and armband that come with the Cali made it great for exercising, as did the belt clip for the irock 860.
The Mojo 128K and the Rover have built-in voice recorders. Although this seems to be a novelty, we could imagine several scenarios in which it could be useful. Both players have sufficient audio quality for recording and playing back voice memos, but we wouldn't want to record music with either one. Since voice memos are recorded in WAV rather than in MP3 format, they take up more space, but not significantly more. A simple 30-second voice memo takes only about 128K of space in the Rover. The Mojo 128F has two settings: the low-quality setting takes about 120K for 30 seconds; the high-quality uses 330KB. At these rates, even the high quality setting on the Mojo will allow more than three hours of voice recording time -- plenty for classes or meetings.
Although these players' low prices and extra features may be attractive, none matches the value of the iPod mini ( ; May 2004). And while some of the flash players are very good products, the only reason to purchase one is if you can't justify spending $70 to $150 more for an iPod mini. If you can afford the mini, you'll get about 16 times the storage capacity, blazing fast FireWire transfer speeds, perfect iTunes integration, rechargeable batteries, and the excellent iPod interface. The mini's storage space translates to about 99 albums' worth of MP3s (encoded at 128 Kbps), as opposed to about three or six albums on a flash player; its transfer rate is only seconds whereas a flash player's is minutes; its rechargeable battery will save money compared with replaceable batteries; and its intuitive interface means less hassle. The mini is a lot more for just a little more money.
There's a perception that hard-drive–based players such as the iPod are more easily damaged than flash-memory players. For this reason, users with active lifestyles often want a flash-memory–based player for exercising. But the reality is that the better hard-drive–based players spin up so infrequently that this concern is negligible for the vast majority of users.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The Rio Cali is our favorite player of the bunch -- hands-down. This player is especially appealing for its great functionality and excellent interface design.
The Cali works flawlessly with iTunes out of the box and comes with a handy armband, making it the player of choice for über-portability. If you're more concerned about price, the best player for around $100 is the Rio Fuse. And if you prefer a USB thumbdrive that also plays MP3s, go with PoGo Products' AudioRave. l
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