Rio Riot: Big Music for Big Pockets

SonicBlue's pricey new digital audio player offers capacious hard drive storage, an integrated FM tuner, and long-lasting rechargeable batteries--but it faces stiff competition

If you can't bear to be away from your music--any of it--consider SonicBlue's Rio Riot, a new digital music player with a 20GB hard drive that can squeeze in about 5000 4-minute MP3 songs (encoded at 128 kilobits per second). Unfortunately, I had trouble squeezing the 10-ounce, 5.4-by-3.6-by-1.4-inch player comfortably into my pocket--unlike the 6.5-ounce, 4-by-2.4-by 0.8 inch Apple IPod, which sells for a buck less than the $400 Riot. In exchange for its bulk, however, the Riot offers four times the storage and a couple of features the IPod lacks, including an FM tuner, support for Windows Media Audio files, and compatibility with both PCs and Macs. Long-Playing Battery

In our tests, the Riot--with its included headphones--delivered powerful, rich sound with good range, and we could further refine the tones by adjusting the player's two-band equalizer. We were able to play music continuously for about the 10 hours that SonicBlue says the built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasts between charges. Like the IPod and other hard-drive players, the Riot plays music from a buffer, which prevents the songs from skipping if you shake or drop the unit.

For the best experience, however, you'll want to buy your own headphones or earbuds. The flat foam pads on the headphones bundled with the Riot didn't sit on my ears comfortably, and the flimsy plastic band failed to hold them on snugly.

SonicBlue provides several applications for organizing music on Macs or PCs and loading it to the Riot (using a USB 1.1 port and included cable). Apple owners get the wonderfully intuitive ITunes software. PC folks can choose the full-featured RealJukebox, or they can download a funky program called MoodLogic. The latter includes a refreshable database of songs classified by genre and "mood," so you can choose the right music for how you feel, or how you'd like to feel. Users voluntarily profile music (for example, rating where an "alternative" song falls on a continuum from "Not Brooding" to "Very Brooding") and submit it to MoodLogic in exchange for credits to access the profiles other users have entered in the database. MoodLogic can also clean up a song's more mundane ID3 cataloging information, such as title, artist, and album. SonicBlue includes a link to MoodLogic from its driver CD, but you can also download the software to use with any other music player. Nice Design, but Not Perfect

The matte-black Riot has an hourglass figure that makes it easy to handle. Grip it by the waist, and it fits comfortably into your hand. You can also slip it into the included soft carrying case and clip it to your belt. Hold it horizontally with two hands, and your thumbs have easy access to its cleverly designed controls. A jog wheel on the right side allows you to scroll smoothly through clearly labeled menu items on the large, clear LCD screen. A button above the wheel lets you select items, and a button below takes you back one level--sometimes. After you've drilled down to the lowest level in the menus, such as selecting a song to play, the "back" button will no longer get you out. For a moment, I feared I'd be trapped in an endless loop of Fat Boy Slim's "Funk Soul Brother," until I located the silver Menu button on the left side of the player that provided the only way back to the opening screen.

More troubling, though was the Riot's tendency to lock up if I moved too quickly through the menu options. If that happens, you must insert a tack, or a straightened paper clip, into the reset button on the back of the unit to bring the Riot back to life. After another reviewer and I noticed this problem, SonicBlue delayed shipping the Riot until the company had time to study it. However, SonicBlue admits that the shipping version of the Riot may still freeze up briefly, if (for example) you try to program a play list while a song is playing.

In contrast, the IPod didn't crash once in the two weeks I tested it. And the svelte IPod was much easier to carry. The IPod's hard drive is smaller, but the thousand-plus songs it'll hold should still be enough to keep most people entertained. If you own a Mac, the IPod offers a better package for your considerable investment. If you own a PC, you may want to wait a few weeks to check out MediaFour's upcoming Windows-based IPod software called XPlay. PC owners who don't feel like waiting--and who don't mind a player that isn't easily pocketable--should enjoy the copious, high-quality sound from the Rio Riot.

By Sean Captain,

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