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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.
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.
There's lots of motion onscreen, with scrolling song info, a track position bar, and time elapsed. It's kind of nice, especially with the soothing backlighting turned on, then slowly fading to off. There's also a View mode that displays bit rate, codec, copyright protection, and size, as well as the always-handy date and time. The Carbon even has a customizable Lock setting, meaning you can program some functions--such as volume--to work even when the software Hold function is on.
Software and drivers aren't an issue. Rio supplies its own much-improved Rio Music Manager, but the Carbon is also compatible with Windows Media Player 10.0 and Apple iTunes, although the latter does require a plug-in. And it works with any of the music services that rely on WMA, such as Napster, MSN Music, Wal-Mart, and others. The Carbon takes advantage of the latest technology to deliver a better user experience. It can autosync with Windows Media Player 10.0 and Rio Music, a useful feature if you have more than 5GB of music. The Carbon series is finally compatible with Windows DRM 10.0 (also known as Janus), which allows the player to store and play back songs downloaded from subscription services such as Napster To Go and Rhapsody To Go. This greatly enhances the appeal of this already tight player.
The Rio Carbon isn't perfect, however--it's missing several features found on larger players. There's no FM tuner, no line-in recording, and no hardware Hold button. The interface has a few quirks too. Most notably, there's no way to create a playlist while on the go, an especially important feature on high-capacity players such as the Carbon. During testing, we also found that, if you're using the jog wheel when selecting menu options, you'll get kicked out of the menu and back into the Player mode--a minor annoyance when you are surfing the menus.One of the Rio Carbon's strongest selling points is its phenomenal battery life. At slightly more than 20 hours, it lasts twice as long as the Apple iPod Mini. The Carbon's lithium-ion battery is charged via USB.
Sound quality also rates up there, with punchy, hiss-free sound. The Carbon could be louder, as we were only able to crank it up using the custom EQ. While the included earbuds are termed high quality, the Carbon deserves to be listened to on bigger headphones. Owners of the first Carbon run should just make sure their headphones do not have the aforementioned metallic ring around the base of the plug, which can result in static (see Design). Yes, there is a low-tech fix for this problem. But coming from an otherwise polished player, it's a shame that Rio didn't catch this before the unit went into production. Transfer time over USB 2.0 was an acceptable 2MB per second.