Digital Networks continues its assault on the MP3 player market with the release of the 5GB Rio Carbon MP3 player. Attempting to steal some of the firmware update.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. Thanks in part to the iPod Mini's frenzied popularity in early 2004, Digital Networks pulled the plug on its planned 4GB model, the Nitrus. In retrospect, that was a good move because the juiced-up Rio Carbon is a far better product.
The Carbon is the first player on the market to utilize Seagate's new 5GB mini hard drive, which means the Rio packs one more gigabyte (which translates to about 250 more songs) than the iPod Mini but manages to pack everything into a body that's lighter, shorter, and thinner (on the average) than that of its Apple counterpart. The stylish body measures 2.5 by 3.3 by 0.6 inches, weighs 3.2 ounces, and is similar in shape to the 1.5GB. Its smooth, rounded edges and gradually tapering thickness feel at home in the hand, and the player slips invisibly into almost any pocket.
The bottom half of the device has a gray, rubberized edge that serves as a shock protector as well as a functional grip, but the rest of the unit is encased in bright silver and plastic-coated metal that is durable and looks great. The first run of Carbons had a design flaw wherein any pair of headphones with a metallic ring around the base of its plug caused a short circuit, resulting in annoying static. Rio has since corrected the problem in newer Carbon models. The new Pearl version of the player, introduced at CES 2005, isn't affected.
Instead of the red, thumb-joint-wrecking joystick found on the Nitrus, the Carbon's navigation and playback controller is a four-way pad with a raised Select button in the middle. In addition to this vast improvement, the Carbon features cool, red backlighting behind the buttons and the logo. On the upper-right corner, you'll find an improved selectable jog wheel that controls volume and acts as a secondary menu navigation control. Directly below the wheel is the Menu button. Meanwhile, the Carbon's topside features a headphone jack, a USB port, and the power button. Note the absence of a Hold switch--the function is inconveniently buried in the menu.
The final two key characteristics are the 1.25-inch backlit display and an integrated microphone designed for recording voice memos. Despite its diminutive size, the sharp, monochrome LCD shows lots of relevant info in a sensible manner. The Carbon's overall design deserves praise for its simplicity, its small size, and its recognizable improvements over its Nitrus-based design origins.
In addition to the earbuds, the player ships with a nondescript carrying case, a wall-wart power adapter that connects to the Carbon via an included USB cable, a software disk, and a Quick Start guide. The carrying case serves as a protector only, as it restricts access to the LCD and the primary buttons. It's also difficult to remove the Carbon from its case.The Rio Carbon plays MP3s and WMA (including secure WMAs), as well as Audible files for all of you virtual bookworms. Unlike the larger and more complicated Rio Karma, it does not support OGG or FLAC. The Carbon is also a handy voice-recorder, complete with mic-level meter, that captures audio as WAV files through its decent microphone. It is also an ideal way to store and carry essential data files.
The Carbon's strength is its simplicity--it's the player for those who just want to listen to music. Part of this strength is derived from the clean, mature onscreen interface. The main menu includes: Play Music, Bookmarks, Settings, Voice Recorder, Recordings and Stopwatch (lest we forget to mention, it's a stopwatch, too). Diving into menu folders is an in-and-out affair, but the interface transitions are quick and tidy. Selecting the Play Music category takes you to a wealth of options, including Play All, Album, Artist, Genre, Track, Year, New Music, Playlist, Spoken Word, and Recordings. Menu highlights include a five-band custom EQ, simple voice recording, and a nifty bookmarking feature that not only takes you instantly back to the same place in a song but also remembers the player's settings. In fact, you can easily bookmark songs by pressing and holding the Select button and choosing one of nine bookmark spaces.