The ABCs of MP3

So much music in so little space-and soon, easy video, too.

If a quick glance around my gym is any indication, Apple Computer's (AAPL ) sleek iPod remains the undisputed king of the digital-music-player market. Every few feet, I notice the telltale white headphone cords leading to an iPod clipped on a belt or a pocket.

For the uninitiated, digital music--or MP3--players let you download audio files you've stored on your PC. You can mix and match your tunes any way you want, then carry them with you. The standard used to be devices that looked and worked like a portable CD player except they could decode the compressed MP3 files. Today, other types have become more popular, largely because their smaller size makes them more convenient to carry.

Players such as the iPod, about the size of a deck of cards, have their own hard drives for storing music files. They have enormous capacity--the iPod can store up to 4,000 high-fidelity tunes--but they also have equally enormous price tags, starting at $300 and going as high as $500. Their batteries are built-in and can last as long as an impressive 12 hours before requiring a recharge.

Even smaller models--some as tiny as an inch on a side--store songs on built-in memory chips or removable cards, similar to the way a digital camera stores snapshots. At around $150 or so, they're relatively cheap. But they typically hold only a CD or two's worth of music, and the cost of owning one creeps up when you have to shell out $50 or more for extra memory, not to mention replacing their throwaway alkaline batteries.

In the hard-drive category, the best choice remains the iPod. Even after nearly two years on the market, it still wins hands-down because of its simple, intuitive interface, elegant styling, lightning-fast download speed, and great sound. And Apple really sewed up the market in August when it began selling ones that work with Windows-based computers in addition to Mac-only versions. Apple sells 5-gigabyte ($299), 10-GB ($399), and 20-GB ($499) models. If you're into music and can afford it, buy the bigger size. I found myself quickly filling up the smaller hard drive.

If you want a little more versatility, try Creative's Nomad Zen. This 20-GB iPod look-alike sells for $299 and has similar features, but it can hook up to either a Mac or a PC. (You have to choose one or the other with the iPod unless you buy special software.) You also can organize your songs into playlists directly on the Zen instead of doing it on your computer before loading them into the player. But the Zen lacks the intuitive operation that has made the iPod so successful, and Creative's software lags in ease of use compared with Apple's iTunes software for Macs and the popular MusicMatch software included for use with many Windows-based players.

For neophytes, the biggest drawback of MP3 players is mastering the software that lets you transfer songs from your PC. The iPod, for instance, is easier to use with a Mac because they share the same music software. With PCs, different manufacturers use different music software and, if you have an older computer, you may even need to buy and install a universal serial bus (USB) or FireWire card that allows faster downloads.

The next generation of hard-drive players, due out this spring and summer, should be much easier to use. And they'll have some nifty new features. You'll be able to take songs directly from a CD player, for example, bypassing the computer completely.

Meanwhile, if you're at all uncomfortable around computers, look for a player that connects to the computer's USB slot. My favorite is Creative's Nomad MuVo ($130-$160). The size of a pack of chewing gum, the MuVo simply plugs into the computer, which sees it as an external storage device, much as it recognizes a digital camera. Then, you just drag and drop music into it the same way you move document files between folders, and off you go. The downside? With a maximum memory of 128 megabytes, the MuVo holds only about 30 songs. I also missed having a display that says what's playing, or that I can scroll through to find out what's up next on my playlist.

Another good choice is SONICblue's (SBLU ) Rio S35S ($180), which packs a load of features into a tiny package. Built for the sports enthusiast, it has a rubberized grip to help keep it from slipping out of sweaty hands. It comes with 128 MB of memory, good for up to two hours of music, or four hours in a lower-quality mode. You can double that by picking up an extra memory card for about $40. The S35S also includes a stopwatch and FM tuner, and its single AAA battery lasts for about 15 hours of play.

If you're really looking for cool, wait a few months. A hot new category this year will be "media players" or "portable entertainment consoles." They will download video as well as music. Load up your favorite episodes of The Simpsons or that movie you've been meaning to watch and take it on the plane. Or fill it with cartoons to entertain the kids on your next road trip.

Right now, the Archos Jukebox Multimedia 20 ($399) is the only game in town. It sports a tiny 1.5-inch liquid-crystal display and plays back only video that has first been encoded in one of two different formats on your computer. That means you have to preprocess your video files before you load them, and the download itself takes forever unless you spring for add-ons, such as a FireWire adapter ($50), to speed it up.

I'd wait for the next generation. In July, RCA will start selling its $399 palm-size Lyra Audio/Video Jukebox. It has a much more enjoyable 3.5-inch widescreen LCD. Better yet, it includes all the connections you need to record directly from your television--up to 80 hours of shows.

Oh, yes--it plays your music, too. All for the price of today's iPod, and in a package that's not much bigger.

By Cliff Edwards

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