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.