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All about MP3 players
Shreyas Puri in New Delhi
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September 16, 2005

With Internet speeds getting better by the day, MP3 players look a lot more attractive than they've ever looked before since one can now stream digital music directly into a computer or a portable device and download full albums directly from the Internet, without having to run around searching for CDs.

MP3 players come in various shapes and sizes, and can broadly be classified as CD-based ones, flash memory-based ones and hard drive-based ones.

CD-based MP3s:

These are still preferred by a lot of people as they are comparatively cheaper (the good ones start at Rs 4,000) and also because the media (CDs) used has become dirt cheap (Rs 10 to 15 for a blank CD).

You can burn approximately 150 MP3 songs (10 albums) on one 650 MB disc. The only problem with such players are their large size, and low reliability (caused due to jolts, scratches on media and so on).

I, myself started off with a CD-based MP3 player, the iRiver iMP-550, which still beats other players hands down even after three years. It is still the slimmest player in the world with a thickness of just 13.7 mm and I bought it for just $150 in the US three years ago.

The player has no display, and all the required information is easily viewable on the four-line LCD remote provided with the player  --  keep the Discman in your backpack, and use the handy wired-remote.

As with all other iRiver products, this player is also "firmware upgradeable", which means that if there is a better format developed, or there is some new addition to the operating system of the player, all you have to do is to go to and download the latest firmware for your model, burn it on a CD and play it in the player, and the firmware will automatically get updated.

The player comes with a very cool wired-remote, charger, batteries, carrying case, cassette adaptor, lighter charger and so on  --  all the accessories you'll ever need. Some of the best MP3 CD-players in the market today are the iRiver SlimX iMP-550 ($150-$190) , the iRiver SlimX iMP-400 ($120-$160) and the Rio Volt SP250 ($180).

Flash memory-based:

The most rugged MP3 players, of course, are the flash memory-based ones, and they can handle extreme conditions (like when you drop them) for the simple reason that they have no moving parts. Best of all, they can easily fit the palm of your hand, aren't power hungry (a single AA or AAA battery lasts for 10 to 20 hours).

To transfer music onto these kind of players simply connect them to your computer's USB port and drag-and-drop all your favourite tunes on the player's memory. These players come in various shapes and sizes, have memory capacities ranging from 128 MB to up to 2 GB.

The convenience comes at a cost, these players are very expensive compared to any other type of media. A 512 MB (120 songs) or a 1 GB (240 songs) flash-based player could cost $150 and  $250 respectively. And for $150 you can get a 4 GB iPod mini, or a complete MP3 CD player package.

Hard drive-based

These are the most recent and the most popular form of MP3 players, and use a magnetic hard drive to store songs (usually a 1.8-inch hard drive). Hard drives run from 20 GB (around 5,000 songs) and up, and large players with up to 60 GB of memory capacity hold around 17,000 songs.

Disadvantages of larger hard drive-based units include the moving parts that limit physical activity and non-removable batteries that eventually wear out and need to be replaced. Luckily, many new hard drive-based players such as the iRiver H320 feature a replaceable battery and come with inbuilt ESP (electronic shock protection) for the Harddrive.

In their latest avatar, most hard drive players now come with a flashy coloured screen, so you can not only keep songs but also keep your entire photo albums along with you and some can even play videos at decent frame rates.

The most popular among the big daddies being the iPOD Photo (20 GB and 40 GB), the iRiver H320 (20GB)and H-10(20GB) and the Creative Zen Touch(20 GB). Their prices lie anywhere from $280 to $320. When sold in India, all cost a lot more because of the premiums and taxes.

Micro-hard drive players on the other hand use tiny hard drives (about 1 inch in diameter) with capacities ranging from 4 GB to 6 GB (1,000 to 1,500 songs), are really small in size and are relatively costly (in terms of Rs per MB). The most popular ones being the iPOD Mini (4GB, $170-$250), the iRiver H-10 (5GB, $ 200- $230) and, Creative Zen Micro(5GB, $200-$220).

The iRiver H320 is one of the best value-for-money packages available in the market. At around Rs 13,700 (not marketed in India yet) this includes the player, head phones, the USB host cable, an external battery pack, an external microphone (it also has internal microphone), a carrying case, and a USB cable for connecting to a computer.

The player boasts of a 262,000 colour screen, which is pleasant to view even in direct sunlight, and can even play video. The player works as a digital audio player, a voice recorder, a digital photo viewer, an external hard disk drive, an FM tuner and can also work as a USB host device, and can connect directly to certain devices like digital cameras.

An iPod Photo, which is roughly similar, costs $300 (Rs 13,500 approx), but would cost $100-120 more if bought  along with all the accessories that come as standard with the iRiver H320.

The iPod Photo, though slightly slimmer and with a better user interface, has no internal microphone, no FM tuner and the songs get converted into a proprietary MP4 format when copied to the player, which prevents them from being copied to another source.

The computer onto which the iPod is connected has to have the iTunes software to play the songs directly from the player. There are no such problems with the iRiver which, once connected, simply shows up as a removable hard drive in the computer. And the MP3 files stay the way they are. 

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