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Portable MP3 Players

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The MP3 craze is transforming the way people buy, sell, steal, and play music--more and more music lovers are not only playing MP3 tunes on their computers but also taking their favorite tracks on the road with portable MP3 players.

Until recently, the selection of Mac-compatible MP3 portables has been sparse. Now, several portables are vying for your shirt pocket. We tested three: Creative Labs' Nomad II, S3's Rio 600, and I-Jam Multimedia's I-Jam. All three have unique strengths, but the Rio 600 is the pick of the pack.

All three players rely on USB for transfers from the Mac to the player's memory. But transfer speeds vary widely--in our tests, the Rio 600 handled transfers three times as fast as the Nomad II and more than four times as fast as the I-Jam player.

Each player includes Casady & Greene's SoundJam MP software for encoding MP3 tracks from your CDs and organizing them into playlists. After 14 days, the version of SoundJam MP bundled with the Nomad II and Rio 600 turns into a shadow of itself, disabling many features unless you pony up $19.95 (for the Rio) or $29.95 (for the Nomad II).

With the Nomad II and Rio 600, you use SoundJam MP to transfer tracks to the player and to delete them from its memory. The I-Jam appears as an icon on your Mac's desktop--you transfer and delete tracks using the Finder.

All three players let you adjust

a track's bass and treble. Both the Nomad II and Rio 600 also have presets for common musical styles, but the Rio has the larger selection.

The amount of memory in an MP3 player determines how much music you can take with you. The Rio 600 contains 32MB of internal memory--enough to store about 30 minutes of near-CD-quality music (specifically, MP3 encoded at 128 Kbps). You can expand the Rio 600's memory by replacing the player's back cover with one that contains expansion memory. S3 calls this scheme a backpack; by the time you read this, a backpack containing 32MB of additional memory should be available. Another forthcoming backpack will contain a 340MB IBM MicroDrive hard drive, which will accommodate more than five hours of 128-Kbps MP3 music.

MP3 Players Compared

Creative Labs Nomad II 35 mice $219(32MB); $329(64MB) 800/998-5227 36 Seconds Includes FM tuner and voice-recorder mode; good LCD display Bundled software requires upgrade to keep all features.
I-Jam Multimedia I-Jam 30 mice $270 847/839-1233 50 Seconds Includes FM tuner; mounts on desktop. Transfers require separate hardware; poor LCD.
S3 Rio 600 40 mice $170 800/468-5846 12 Seconds Innovative expansion scheme; easiest to use; excellent LCD display. Bundled software requires upgrade to keep all features.

The Nomad II lacks internal memory, relying instead on flash-memory cards that slide into the player's battery chamber. Our review unit included a 64MB card, which sells for $199; a 32MB card sells for $89.

The I-Jam marches to its own memory beat, and it's not a very appealing rhythm. For starters, the player uses 16MB memory cards, giving it half the capacity of the competition. To transfer files, you must remove the memory card from the I-Jam and insert it into the included Jam Station flash-card writer, which is larger than the I-Jam itself.

First-generation MP3 players were one-trick ponies, but the latest models go beyond just playing back MP3 tracks. The Nomad II and I-Jam players also contain FM radio tuners (an optional tuner for the Rio 600 has not yet been released). In our tests, the Nomad II did a better job of picking up weak stations. The Nomad II also has a unique voice mode for recording dictation. It's handy, but switching the Nomad II to voice mode requires a trip into the menu system, so it's not ideal for spontaneous note-taking.

Designing a user interface for a device that has a tiny LCD screen and minuscule buttons is a challenge, and the Rio 600 does the best job of meeting it. Its LCD shows more information than the other players about each track as it plays, and the display is attractive and easy to read.

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