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Rio Carbon Pearl review: Rio Carbon Pearl

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

The Bad No FM tuner; no physical hold switch; no on-the-fly playlists; battery not removable.

The Bottom Line The Rio Carbon Pearl 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


The original Rio Carbon has received generous praise since its launch in August 2004. Despite having a design flaw where the use of many third-party headphones created annoying static (this has since been fixed), the Carbon appealed to those who want a stylish, compact, and easy-to-use WMA-compatible player with excellent battery life. Rio has expanded its Carbon offerings with 5GB and 6GB Pearl versions, which are pearly-white clones of the original, priced at $200 and $230, respectively. Although it's missing some features found in other players in its class, such as an FM tuner, the Rio Carbon Pearl 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. 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 silver Carbon was the first player on the market to utilize Seagate's 5GB mini hard drive; the white Pearl is available in both 5GB and 6GB capacities (or about 250 more songs). 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 Rio Carbon Pearl next to the iPod Photo.

The bottom half of the device has a black, rubberized edge that serves as a shock protector as well as a functional grip, but the rest of the unit is encased bright and plastic-coated metal that is durable and looks great. The first run of silver 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.

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 "premium" carrying case, a wall-wart power adapter that connects to the Carbon via an included USB cable, a software disc, and a quick-start guide.

The Rio Carbon Pearl in its "premium" case.
The Rio Carbon Pearl plays MP3s and WMA (including DRM-protected 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. Complete with a mic-level meter, the Carbon is also a handy voice recorder 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 (yep, it works as one, 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.

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