We look for three factors in a gym-worthy MP3 player: It should have a lightweight, rugged design; a pair of sweat-proof, sweet-sounding headphones with ample cord length; and an easy way to manage the tempo of your workouts. Philips and Nike have been collaborating on fitness-friendly flash-based MP3 players for some time. Their latest effort, the 256MB Philips Nike MP3 PSA 220 ($200 list), fulfills some of our requirements for a workout-friendly player but fails to meet others. Weighing 2.6 ounces and measuring 2.75 by 2.75 by 1.0 inches, the all-plastic Philips Nike MP3 PSA 220 is a fine size to take along on a run or to tuck into your track suit while you make the rounds of the weight machines. However, if you're a runner looking to shave seconds off your sprint times, you may want to consider a lighter player--models from Cowon, Creative, and Rio each weigh about an ounce less. The PSA 220 has a very readable, backlit LCD that features a strobe light option that will make you more visible on the road--handy for night joggers. While the controls on this model aren't as stiff as we've found on older models in this line, they're still fairly difficult to press, which is especially egregious when you need to use the stopwatch. Still, the controls are intelligently placed.
Philips and Nike toss in an accessory elastic armband with a plastic holster to keep the player in place. (Unfortunately, we found this had a tendency to snake down our arm we ran.) You can also wear the player on your waist by employing the waist belt extension. Alternatively, you can purchase an optional waist belt remote control ($20). It would be nice if the manufacturers included an in-line remote in the box--you have to buy that separately.
While the fully adjustable, over-the-ear headphones are a serious improvement over the previous models' larger-than-average earbuds, these were terribly uncomfortable--and not just when we were bouncing up and down on the treadmill. We tested them indoors and out, on the track and off, and the results were the same: these 'phones chafe in all the wrong places. If you spend 30 minutes in the gym, you might be able to tolerate them, but if you're training for a marathon, forget it. We also wish the package contained extra ear pads; it would be nice to have some at the ready once the originals become sweat-soaked. One more note on these clip-on 'phones: If you have long hair, you'll find the adjustable arms tend to get tangled in your 'do. The Philips Nike MP3 PSA 220 doesn't offer a ton of features, but the ones you get make sense for fitness nuts. This tiny, flash-based sports player features a stopwatch, an FM radio with 10 presets, both arm and waist belts, and a strobe light that'll come in handy if you like to jog at night. The PSA 220 supports only MP3 and unprotected WMA files--online music store fans are out of luck. (At press time, Philips and Nike asserted that they were working on a fix that that would make the player DRM compliant).
While the included music management software (called the Digital Music Manager) looks elegant, it's a pain to use, especially if your digital music collection is disorganized to begin with. You can copy files onto your player with a simple drag and drop from within the interface, but creating a playlist is harder than it looks. Because the interface is restrictive and the working spaces are tight, it's easy to select files you don't want. Musicmatch is also included on the installation disc as an optional install.
Probably the biggest letdown is the PSA 220's lack of expandability. You get just 256MB of internal memory, which will hold roughly 125 WMA tracks or 65 MP3s--fine for your average workout, but not enough for long hauls. If you like the player but think you'll need more memory, take a look at the step-up model, the MP3 Max, which offers 512MB of internal memory. Considering the PSA 220's hefty price, we're surprised it doesn't have an expansion slot. Also of note, an AC adapter is included for charging the battery, which connects to the player's USB port. If you plan to take the PSA 220 along to the hotel gym while you're on a business trip, keep in mind that you'll need to pack this extra component. You don't need audiophile-worthy sound when you're in the gym, but you shouldn't have to settle for tinny, weak, and lifeless-sounding music, either. Initially, we were disappointed with the PSA 220's sound quality, but after some experimentation, we figured out that the headphones were largely to blame. Our tunes sounded much richer when we plugged in our Shure E1c 'phones.
In our CNET Labs tests, the average transfer time was a slow 0.34MB per second. This number isn't a deal breaker, but it's annoying since you'll probably want to change out your tracks pretty often, given the lack of an expansion slot. In our tests, the Philips Nike MP3 PSA 220 exceeded its rated 12-hour battery life by lasting an impressive 14.8 hours. This number more than compensates for the fact that you can't use a regular battery when your player has run out of juice.