Entertainment to GoMusic, video, or both? We try slick new IPod rivals, the first Portable Media Centers, and other handhelds to see which pack the most fun into a portable package.
Sam Jemielity is a music editor for AOL City Guide. He is based in Chicago. Richard Baguley is a senior associate editor for PC World.
Photograph by John Kuczala
I tested a stack of audio players for functionality, ease of use, audio quality, portability, size, price, and style. Depending on the device, you can record MP3s from your favorite CDs, listen to FM radio, save your brilliant business ideas via voice recording, and keep your vacation photos handy. The Apple IPods even hold your personal calendar and address book.
But it isn't just about music anymore. Now, with the debut of Microsoft's Portable Media Center operating system, video fans can enjoy ultraportability, too. The PMC OS powers a whole array of interesting new handheld devices--from Creative, IRiver, and other vendors--sporting 3.5- to 4-inch color screens and 20GB or larger hard drives that enable you to play your favorite TV shows, personal videos, and selections from your music collection--anywhere.
The attractive design of most of these little PMC-based players is sure to make them highly buzzworthy items this holiday season. But their price (about $500) and their unresolved rough edges--which prevent watching video on the go from being as easy as listening to music--probably will keep them from emerging as bona fide hits. PC World Senior Associate Editor Richard Baguley looked at two PMC players and at four video devices that don't use the Portable Media Center OS but nevertheless seem able to play back television and music just fine. Check out "Focus on TV," his roundup of these products.
Play That Funky Music
The music players that I tested fall into three categories. Large-capacity players come with 20 gigabytes or more of storage and can hold 5000 songs (each song being a 128-kbps, 4-minute MP3 file, the standard throughout this review). This is the category you should be scrutinizing if you want to have all or most of your music with you at any time.
If you'd be satisfied to carry a skimpier collection of several hundred albums with you constantly, investigate the midcapacity players. These have between 1GB and 5GB of hard-drive space and hold up to 1250 songs. Just want access to a few hours of tunes while you jog or commute? Grab a gum-pack-size flash-memory player with 128MB to 512MB of storage and load up to 120 of your favorite MP3s.
One thing that every buyer of a new player--whether it be audio or video--should consider is its compatibility with Microsoft's new Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10 technology. Windows Media DRM 10 is designed to allow downloads from subscription-based services to move securely to portable players, which makes these services much more flexible and attractive than before. Microsoft has launched a new "PlaysForSure" campaign designed to make it easy to tell whether the player and service you want to use will work well together.
If this Microsoft technology catches on, it could mean a whole new world of legal digital content, including movies, for you to load onto qualified portable players.
Players That Loom Large
Apple's 40GB IPod (left) and Rio's 20GB Karma.
First, a look at the big guns in music players: those with hard drives. This category includes both large-capacity (20GB to 80GB) and midcapacity (1GB to 5GB) models. Even though they're based on similar technology, the two types suit significantly different lifestyles. Do you see yourself adding several new CDs to your player each week? If so, go with a large-capacity player. Even serious music collectors will take some time to max out 20GB or more of storage: The 5000-song capacity of a 20GB player translates into 500 ten-song albums.
But how often do you listen to your entire music collection? If all you need is your 20 favorite CDs, you can save up to $200 and tote less weight by using a midcapacity player. Both the Apple IPod Mini and Rio Carbon can hold 1000 or more songs. You'll appreciate having a smaller unit, especially if you carry it every day.
But large-capacity players aren't necessarily bulky. Even the player I tested that had the largest hard drive--the Neuros II, with its 80GB "backpack" clip-on hard drive attached--is physically smaller than the average portable CD player.
Apples and Others
Indeed, capacity-to-size ratio is one big reason why I chose the Apple IPod as the PC World Best Buy among large-capacity players. The $399 IPod that I tested packs a whopping 40GB into a case smaller than those of several rivals that have half its capacity, like the Philips HDD120/17 and the Rio Karma.
No player is more user-friendly. The IPod's menu selections are intuitive, and its touch-sensitive Click Wheel makes navigation a breeze. The ITunes software and ITunes online music store are easy to understand and use. On the player itself, you make a few quick clicks, and you have a playlist of your favorite songs. Creating playlists is equally easy on the Karma, but somewhat less so on the Creative Zen Touch. Other large-capacity players I tested made the task a lot more difficult.
The slightly bulkier 20GB Zen Touch also wowed me with its multiple playlist formats, FM recording, and blue-lit backscreen. The $250 Zen's one-thumb navigation system is relatively simple to use, although I suggest that you set its hypersensitive keypad to "low."
If you are a lefty, look into the 20GB Rio Karma, which gives you the option of switching to intuitive southpaw manipulation. You can navigate with either a joystick (which I found somewhat uncomfortable to use) or a wheel that functions like a scroll wheel on a computer mouse. It has a large, bright screen and simple on-the-fly playlist creation. This $300 player is chunky compared to our top two, but it does have the appealing Rio DJ feature, which enables the unit to select songs according to a few simple rules and play them back for as long as you like.
Across the board, transferring music to these players was simple. With Apple's ITunes, transferring songs (or one of 5000 audiobooks available for purchase at the music store) to the 40GB IPod is an easy drag-and-drop operation. The Rio Karma, Creative Zen Touch, and other non-Apple players I looked at play back standard MP3, WMA, and WAV files; with them, using Windows Media Player to load songs is often easiest.
Philips's HDD120/17 is an elegant-looking black-and-chrome unit with several handy functions lacking on the IPod, Karma, and Zen Touch. Unlike the top two large-capacity players, the Philips can encode (MP3-speak for record) voice or music without involving a PC. This is a great feature, but it doesn't overcome my sense that the player lags behind the IPod and the Zen Touch in ease of use.
Is Midsize a Compromise?
Midsize: Rio's 5GB Carbon.
Then again, not everybody feels the need to access 5000 songs at the touch of a button. Midcapacity audio players, with 1GB to 5GB hard drives, tend to be more compact than their big-gig siblings--it's approximately the same size difference as the one between a deck of cards and a business card holder. From my evaluation of the 40GB IPod, it should be obvious that I loved the $249 IPod Mini as well. Despite its waifish 3.6-ounce weight, the Mini offers a spacious 4GB of storage and the same Click Wheel I liked on the regular-size IPod. And no other player can top the Mini in sheer style, with its anodized-aluminum case, slim profile, and eye-catching color options.
Nevertheless, the new apple of my eye and the Best Buy in the middle category, is the 5GB Rio Carbon, which can hold 1250 tunes. When the first IPod arrived on the scene, conventional wisdom maintained that it was better than anything else and hence justified its higher price, while the competition was cheaper and had fewer features. With the $249 Carbon, Rio decided to go head-to-head with Apple's Mini on merit, price be damned. Though both cost the same, the metallic-gray Carbon, smaller and thinner than a typical cellular flip phone, packs a 5GB hard drive. That translates into 25 percent more space than the Mini has.
The wedge-shaped Carbon fits comfortably in your palm, has excellent sound quality, provides a bright LCD screen, and is easy to manipulate one-handed. Some users have reported that their Rio Carbons produce static when connected to headphones with a metal jack. Buying new headphones with a plastic connection or applying some electrical tape to the area around the metal jack should fix the problem.
If you want to search for your next song while the current one is playing, you'll need a player that can multitask--and not all do. Both the Mini and the Carbon, however, permit you to browse down to a song within an album or under an artist name without interrupting playback.
Though you have to buy an adapter to add voice-recording capabilities to the Mini, the Carbon works as a voice recorder out of the box (regrettably, it doesn't have a line-in jack for encoding MP3s from an external mike or CD player). And Rio's estimate of 20 hours of battery life dramatically tops the 8 hours Apple promises for the Mini. My only real disappointment with the Carbon is that you can't make playlists on the go, an attractive and easy-to-use feature of the Mini. Still, the Carbon's extra storage space and significantly better battery life make it the master of this class.
Here's a final factor to consider when comparing audio players: One increasingly popular use of audio players that have a large enough storage capacity is for playing audiobooks. After all, would you rather carry Bill Clinton's 900-page autobiography around or download it into a player for the same price? The Carbon, both IPods, and the Creative players I tested are all AudibleReady, meaning that they support the Audible digital audiobook format (not all digital audio players do, so check for this before you buy). Audible sells a huge selection of digital audiobooks at its own Web site, and a great many are available at the ITunes online music store, too.
In a Flash
Flash frenzy: From left, Samsung YP-T5V, JetAudio IAudio 4, IRiver IFP-790.
Like the idea of jogging while listening to your favorite 100 songs on a player the size of your thumb? If so, you'll enjoy an ultracompact audio player based on flash memory, which allows designers to shed more bulk from these products than Atkins fanatics shed pounds.
These diminutive units weigh only a few ounces at most, but they gain portability at the expense of storage capacity. Players I tested in this category hold anywhere from 30 songs (on a unit with 128MB of memory) to 240 songs (on a 1GB expandable model such as the Rio Forge Sport). Flash players may be small, but when it comes to finding one that fits your needs, the pickings are hardly slim. Despite their compact size, you'll commonly find additional features like storage for files other than music, FM radio, and voice recording--having multiple options makes commuting or working out less boring.
Since these players have a much smaller capacity than hard-drive-based devices do, you'll need to swap in a new group of songs when, say, you tire of the existing batch after a few trips to the gym. For that reason, ease of transfer is crucial with these tiny things. I had little trouble getting up and running with all five players that earned spots on the chart (though I opted to use Windows Media Player to work with the Yepp YP-T5V after getting frustrated with Samsung's software).
The Best Buy in this category is the $160 IRiver IFP-790, a tubular, cherry-red player that's stylish, sporty, and--most important--very substantial. The IFP-790 boasts 256MB of flash memory, and it's geared to the active lifestyle, with an included sports armband. Features such as MP3 and voice encoding, and an easy-to-read display seal the deal.
A close second is JetAudio's $220 IAudio 4, which packs 512MB of memory into an elegant silver unit. Treadmill regulars will appreciate the IAudio 4's sleek, comfortable armband setup. It has the basic features covered (MP3 encoding and so on) and offers great sound quality. I got a little frustrated with the JetShell software, and the unit's small buttons can make adjusting on the fly difficult, but those are minor quibbles.
Not far behind is Samsung's Yepp YP-T5V. The size of a small lipstick case, the $150 YP-T5V has an exceptionally user-friendly design. Its intuitive joystick navigation means that you don't even need to look at the player to skip through songs or adjust volume. The sleek blue player's cheap plastic carrying case seems chintzy, however, and the lack of a sports armband is a drawback for the athletically inclined. Samsung does include a leather strap for hanging it around your neck.
Gym rats might also consider the $200 Samsung Sports Yepp YP-60V, a model that missed the chart because it sacrificed music options in favor of sports and fitness features. The YP-60V's heart-rate monitor, stopwatch, calorie counter, and exercise progress tracking--with music thrown in--will appeal to some users.
The $160 Rio Forge Sport has an easy-to-read screen, and its ergonomic design lets you manipulate the device with one hand. For about $100 you can buy an SD Card or MultiMediaCard that expands the Rio's capacity from 256MB to 1GB. The company says that it hasn't received any complaints from users about the Sport slipping out of its armband while in use, but I had difficulty getting mine to stay put.
At Home in the Office
One player not aimed at the Stairmaster set is Creative's elegant $110 MuVo Slim, which would be more appropriate in the boardroom than in the weight room. Packing 256MB of memory into an ultraskinny, credit-card-like design, the MuVo Slim comes with a leather carrying case. Figuring out its folder/subfolder navigation of music and other files takes a while, and people with large hands may find that manipulating its tiny buttons is a problem. But if your latest brainstorm catches you without pen and paper handy, you can use the MuVo to record and play back voice memos almost effortlessly.
Focus on TV
Want to take video with you? Portable media players let you enjoy both video and audio.
Video-centric devices that sport large color screens and big hard drives have arrived; some of the very latest are based on Microsoft's new Windows Portable Media Center operating system. The PMC OS interface is the same one that a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC uses. This simplifies matters--particularly if you already own such a computer--since they're designed to work in tandem. The players rely on Microsoft's Windows Media Player 10 software to sync the devices with digital media stored on the Media Center PCs. Here, in descending order of how much we liked them, is PC World's take on six video players--two PMC-based and four that use a variety of non-Windows operating systems.
Preproduction unit, not rated
The IRiver PMC-120 has the best design of the models we tested. Its side grips fit naturally in the hands, and skipping over recorded TV ads is easy. The 3.5-inch screen is bright and the unit's battery is removable. On the downside, we heard a slight but annoying noise during hard-drive accesses, noticed jerkiness in some videos, and could barely hear the built-in speaker over ambient noise while in a car on the freeway. Nevertheless, the PMC-120, which runs the Windows PMC OS, was our favorite of these six video players.
Creative's Zen Portable Media Center.
Creative Zen Portable Media Center
This Windows PMC player has the largest screen of the devices we looked at, but it's also the biggest (at about 6 by 3.2 by 1.1 inches) and the heaviest (at 12 ounces). The Zen's 3.8-inch screen looks great, and I could see it in all lighting but the brightest direct sunlight. My test videos played back with only very occasional jerkiness. But this device is a little bit awkward to hold, and could cause discomfort in your hands when you're watching longer shows.
The Apex MP-2000 is, at 0.8 inches thick and 8.5 ounces, among the thinnest and lightest players I tested, and it fits well in the hand. However, it lacks video-conversion software, so you'll need to use a program like Dr. Divx. The MP-2000's 3.5-inch screen displays strong, deep colors, but an obvious grid pattern overlying the image makes it look grainy. On-screen menus are adequate, but there's no help menu and the manual is rather poor. The MP-2000 does not use Microsoft's operating system.
Archos's Gmini 400n.
Archos Gmini 400n
The Gmini 400n, another non-PMC OS device, is small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, yet it has a 20GB hard drive, the ability to record MP3 audio, and a CompactFlash slot. It can copy memory card files to its hard drive, so you can back up your digital camera. A remote control with an FM radio is available, as is an adapter that adds Memory Stick and SD Card slots. But I found that extended television viewing on its 2.2-inch LCD screen became wearisome.
Archos's Pocket Video Recorder AV420.
Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420
The 20GB AV420 is more than just a media player--it records video, too. It also lets you control another device, such as a cable box, while it serves as a VCR. This means you can record TV without having to use a PC, but you can't use the device while recording. The screen is large enough for comfortable viewing, though it isn't particularly bright. Video played back smoothly, but the colors looked flat. The AV420 doesn't use the Windows PMC OS.
The Zvue Player.
Price: $220 ($150 for the player, $70 for a 512MB SD Card)
The Zvue uses SD Cards; one 512MB card holds up to 8 hours of content (versus 80 hours for a hard-drive device). Not a PMC, the Zvue has no video inputs; its maker offers free downloadable software that converts video from a variety of formats. The Zvue's screen is small, and the video produced by the software looks blocky. Its display is bright, however, and the color is decent.