The Fuse is the smallest digital-music player in Rio's updated product line. The 128MB ultraportable is listed at $129, but you can find it online for $30 less.
The Fuse is a plug-in player; it hooks up directly to a computer's USB jack. The connection, protected by a pop-off cap, is on the unit's left side. We had to remove neighboring peripherals from our PC's USB hub to accommodate the Fuse's wide, teardrop-shaped body. It measures 1.5 by 3.5 by 0.7 inches, slightly larger than some competitive models. Rio should have narrowed the device or included an extension cable. But the rounded edges make for a comfortable fit in your palm.
The player itself is a study in simplicity. In the center of the face is a rectangular LCD, which is backlit with a gentle blue when activated. Flanking the screen are a menu button and a small five-way joystick that acts as a transport control and a menu navigator. Large volume-up and -down keys sit on the right-hand side. The power button, the sliding Lock switch, and a standard 1/8-inch headphone jack share the top. The compartment for the single AAA battery is accessible from the bottom of the player.
The tiny Fuse has limited functions. It lacks a voice recorder, an FM radio, and--like all other plug-in models to date--expandable memory. But the player does offer the basics: MP3 and WMA playback, shuffle and repeat modes, autoresume, six equalization presets, and control over bass and treble. You also get a stopwatch and a time/date display that updates automatically during syncing. The included Sennheiser MX-300 earbuds are nothing special (you can get them separately for just $8), and their 26-inch cord is a little short. And you'll have to carry the Fuse in your pocket; Rio doesn't include an armband, a neck lanyard, or a belt clip.
Unlike many direct-connect units, the Fuse requires you to install hardware drivers and proprietary software, so you can't start dragging and dropping song files onto the player right away. But Rio's intuitive Music Manager 2.0, which also ships with most of the other models in the company's autumn lineup, is top-notch. It makes moving tunes and playlists a pleasure. The Rio Taxi application lets you use the Fuse as a data drive. And a Windows Media Player 9.0 plug-in enables integration with Microsoft's ubiquitous music program, as well as drag-and-drop file transfer in Windows. Another plus is the Fuse's compatibility with the Macintosh version of iTunes. Even Apple users can consider supplementing their trusty iPods with this jogging-friendly Rio.
The Fuse sounds good and has a power output of 16.9mW per channel--more than enough loudness for most users. Joystick navigation is simple and intuitive, but the control is smaller and more fragile than the one on the Fuse's sister devices. More encouraging is the battery life, which came out at 17.5 hours on a single high-performance AAA--right in line with Rio's 18-hour rating.
Its lackluster feature set notwithstanding, the Fuse is a fine jogging companion, providing about two hours of music. But the player has an increasing number of affordable, full-featured plug-in competitors. For about the same price, you can purchase Creative's MuVo NX, which adds a voice recorder and an armband. The Jens of Sweden MP-110, which costs closer to $200, also includes an FM radio. And for those who don't mind a slightly larger form factor and a cable computer connection, Rio's own Chiba offers the Fuse's software and interface, plus an FM radio, an SD expansion slot, and a sturdier joystick--for as little as $10 more.