On the Road With MP3

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While driving from San Francisco to LA to visit my family over Thanksgiving, I kept fumbling with CDs in an attempt to spice up my boring trip with good music. It was when I found myself wedged between two semis (one with the words "bone shaker" prominently displayed on the grill) that I became convinced there had to be a better (and safer) way to listen to music on a long car trip. One that didn't involve taking my eyes off the road for any extended period of time.

Of course, there are those lucky souls who have CD changers built into their cars, devices that can hold five or six compact discs (more or less sufficient for the jaunt from Northern California to SoCal). But you still have to load up the changer in the trunk or glove compartment before you get going for it to be of any real help. Even then, it's not like six discs is a big selection. What if your mood changes while you're lost somewhere amid the cattle in central California?

It dawned on me that something that could hold tons of tunes would be ideal. Needless to say, I wasn't the first person to have such an epiphany. Several companies have begun to experiment with the idea that the small size of MP3 files makes them the perfect fit for car stereos, where ambient noise would cover up any flaws in the compressed music files.

Of course, you could simply take your Rio 500 or other portable MP3 player and plug it into your car tape player via an adapter, but that still wouldn't get you more than an hour and a half of music. Adding steam to the notion that the south shall rise again, Atlanta-based i2Go.com has created a portable player similar to the Rio called the eGo. The eGo player has no on-board memory and uses Compact Flash memory for storage. Unlike the Rio, however, it will allow to use any CF cards you already own, and you can purchase a model without any onboard RAM for $190. Because CF memory is currently limited to only 96MB per card, the player can also use up to two (with an optional expansion slot) IBM Microdrives in capacities of 170 or 340MB each (a player with 340MB of storage is $650)--lots of room for many joyous hours of music. No Macintosh software is currently available, but the player does offer a USB connection and the company hopes to make it Mac-compatible by early next year.

For those who are into really long drives--and we're talking really long here-- empeg of Cambridge, England has come up with a remote controlled pull-out car radio known as the empeg car. The stereo is actually a Linux-based computer with a 220MHz processor that can play MP3 files and tune in FM radio stations--and the high-end model offers 28GB of storage space! That's more than 450 hours of MP3 music (nearly three weeks) on a single device. To put it another way, you could drive from California to Maine and back (obeying all traffic laws, of course) without a single repeat or need to reach into the back seat for your music collection. That is, assuming your CD collection is big enough to fill that space.

As with the eGo, the empeg car does not support the Mac yet. (In fact, it's still in beta testing right now.) But it has both USB and serial connections, so Mac support shouldn't be that big of a problem. A 4GB version of the player will cost about $1,100, according to empeg.

Pine Technology takes another approach to this musical quandary with the soon-to-be released Dmusic portable MP3/audio CD player. This player is about the size of a Sony Discman, but it can play both audio CDs and CD-Rs burned with MP3 files, and should cost about $300. And like a portable CD player, it can be attached to a cassette player with an inexpensive adapter. Since a single CD-R can hold about 12 hours of music, it's perfect for those treks in the car.

Although Mac users will probably have to wait until next year to put any of these players onto a holiday wish list, they will be a great way to keep your ears happy and your eyes on the road--and isn't that what's important in life?

Macworld Assistant Editor JONATHAN SEFF specializes in multimedia, storage, and--you guessed it--MP3. You can e-mail your comments to jseff@macworld.com.

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