The MP3 player market covers a range of shapes, sizes, features, storage capacities, file formats, and download services. Amid such variety, how are you to choose? That's where we come in. This guide will help you pick the perfect player.
Every month, manufacturers unleash even more MP3 players to an increasingly confused public. Not only do these devices have wildly divergent features, but ongoing format wars mean the MP3 player you choose dictates where you can buy your digital music. These devices are anything but one-size-fits-all.
First, there's the question of design. A player can have every feature in the world, but if the design doesn't match your lifestyle or if the interface is impenetrable, you still won't enjoy it. You'll want to look closely at performance; sound quality and battery life can make or break a player, especially if you travel a lot or have the so-called golden ears of an audiophile.
Before you start checking out specific models, you should have a basic understanding of the types of MP3 players available. Note: All types of player mentioned below can play other formats besides MP3, such as WMA or AAC, but we still refer to them as MP3 players.
Most likely, a high-capacity player can accommodate every song you've ever purchased or ripped from a CD. Hard drives run from 20GB on up, and large players such as the 80GB Apple iPod can hold around 23,000 songs, assuming an average file size of 3.5MB per tune.
Pros: They store all your music on one device. They also tend to have more features and larger screens and are overall easier to use. High-capacity players give you the best bang for your buck in terms of price per gigabyte (for example, $300 30GB iPod vs. $250 8GB iPod Nano).
Cons: hese players are usually built around a 1.8-inch hard drive; thus, they are larger and heavier than the others. Also, hard drives have moving parts, so these players aren't ideal for strenuous physical activity. Finally, most use rechargeable batteries (usually lasting 8 to 20 hours per charge) that you can't replace yourself, so after several years, you might have to pay for a new model or pay to get the battery replaced.
Straddling the line between full-size hard-drive-based MP3 players and compact, flash-based players, these models aim to give you the best of both worlds by using miniature hard drives (about 1 inch or less in diameter) with capacities of up to 12GB. So-called "micro drive" players are being largely phased out in favor of high-capacity flash devices, but you can still find compact hard-drive players such as the Creative Zen Micro Photo for sale online.
Pros: They're smaller and lighter than high-capacity players but still hold more tunes than flash-based models with the same price.
Cons: You get fewer megabytes per dollar than you do with a larger player, and these models have many of the same disadvantages of larger hard-drive-based units, including the moving parts that limit physical activity and nonremovable batteries that eventually wear out and need to be replaced. Luckily, many new micro drive-based players such as the Creative Zen Micro feature a user-replaceable battery.
The original MP3 player design, these have no moving parts and are known for their shockproof operation and ultracompact dimensions. Devices range in capacity from 32MB to 8GB, though most new players don't go below 512MB. SanDisk's MP3 line, for example, includes exclusively flash-based players.
Pros: Flash-based players are tiny. They also have no moving parts, so their batteries last longer, and you can jog, snowboard, or bungee jump with them without causing skipping or damage. Many flash players include lots of extra features such as voice and line-in recording.
Cons: The aforementioned extras can make flash players a bit harder to use, and they have the highest per-megabyte cost and max out at 8GB.
These look just like portable CD players, except they can read data CDs filled with digital music. You can burn approximately 150 MP3 songs (10 albums) on one 650MB disc. But if you want to take your CD collection with you, no worries--these devices can play standard CDs, as well.
Pros: These are the least expensive of all types of MP3 players, and they use incredibly cheap replaceable media (CD-R/RW discs).