Rio Carbon (5GB review: Rio Carbon (5GB

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The Good Small, slim, and sleek; excellent battery life; strong sound quality; solid value; nimble navigation; Janus-compatible.

The Bad No FM tuner; no physical Hold switch; no on-the-fly playlists; weak carrying case.

The Bottom Line The Carbon largely lives up to the hype. This mini hard drive player has a great design, an excellent interface, and Energizer-like battery life.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 9

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 Apple iPod Mini's thunder, the stylish Carbon packs an additional gigabyte of storage into its polished, slender case. Factor in the price of $249 (identical to that of the Mini), a battery that lasts 20 hours, and some extras, and you have a legitimate alternative to the colorful Mini. But the Carbon isn't perfect. It is missing some features found in other players in its class, such as an FM tuner. Still, the Carbon is one of the best choices if you want a high-capacity player in a small package that is compatible with Windows Media-based online music stores and subscription services such as Napster To Go. The Carbon series is finally compatible with the latter, thanks to a new free 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 Rio Nitrus. 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.