Without a doubt, Finis's SwiMP3 (128MB, $250) is the most unusual MP3 player we've seen to date. While the company doesn't specialize in portable audio devices, its many years of experience making advanced training equipment for swimmers are well implemented in the SwiMP3. And although the player could use a few notable improvements, competitive and casual swimmers alike will certainly see the appeal of the device.
You wear the SwiMP3 in the water, and the player comes attached to Finis's Lane 4 goggles, though you may use your own. The main downfall of this design is that it places the controls, which consist of three buttons (on/off, next/volume up, and previous/volume down), on the back of the head. Because the keys are already stiff and difficult to press, our test swimmer had to remove the player and goggles every time she needed to adjust the volume or change songs. There's no LCD on the player, but this isn't an issue, considering its simplistic interface and minimalist features.
Attached by wires to the control unit are the two custom sound units. These are flat discs that you place against each cheekbone; the Finis SwiMP3 uses bone conduction to produce sound. In other words, sound vibrations are passed through your bones to your inner ear. Be careful not to place the discs directly over your ear, otherwise the above-water sound is so loud and shrill that it may damage your hearing. Finis includes a pair of earplugs, which are useful as an extra precaution.
In addition to the MP3 player, the goggles, and the earplugs, Finis includes a proprietary USB cable and an install disc with Musicmatch 9.0 software. Use this program to transfer files onto the device, or simply drag and drop via Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder. You must use the included USB cable to charge the SwiMP3 unless you want to spring for the VersaCharger, which is available for $35 from Finis and has a built-in AC plug and cigarette lighter adapter.
To test the Finis SwiMP3, we relinquished it to our editorial development coordinator, who is training for the Iron(wo)man Triathalon and spends more than her fair share of time swimming laps. While she admitted that the concept was excellent, offering a welcome distraction from the mind-numbing task of swimming laps, she said that this distraction could be unwelcome to serious athletes who are keeping track of their laps and time. She also noticed that when she used the SwiMP3 for periods of more than about 30 minutes or so, she would get out of the pool feeling woozy, as if her inner ear equilibrium was off. However, this might not happen to every user. Finally, she noted that the music was sufficiently loud to make her worry that other swimmers could hear it (they couldn't), and the sound quality was decent, all things considered--just don't expect boomin' bass.
Due to the SwiMP3's lack of a repeat function--a bummer, considering its restrictive 128MB capacity--we were unable to complete CNET Labs' tests for battery life, but the rated time of four hours is disappointing. However, you probably wouldn't use it for more than a few hours at a time anyway. The average transfer time of 0.46MB per second is slow but not a huge deal for its memory size.