With its 20GB hard drive and innovative playback options, the Rio Riot was pegged by some as a potential iPod killer. But the Riot is large and lacks jukebox syncing and a fast connection. While your music will sound great once it's on the Riot, getting tunes onto the player and organizing thousands and thousands of songs can turn into a headache-inducing chore.With its 20GB hard drive and innovative playback options, the Rio Riot was pegged by some as a potential iPod killer. But the Riot is large and lacks jukebox syncing and a fast connection. While your music will sound great once it's on the Riot, getting tunes onto the player and organizing thousands and thousands of songs can turn into a headache-inducing chore.
The $350 Riot looks promising when you first take it out of the box. Weighing 10 ounces and measuring 5.38 by 3.63 by 1.38 inches, the player is smaller than a paperback book and somewhat resembles a handheld gaming device. The sturdy, plastic case has convenient handgrips on either end, and most of the controls--including a half-concealed scroll wheel; a play-stop-forward-reverse mouse; and Menu, Select, and Back buttons--are within easy reach. Smack dab in the middle of the device is an impressive 1.50-by-2.25-inch backlit display. The display is one of our favorite aspects of the Riot since it allows you to view the slick menu graphics and multitude of song titles while browsing. We just wish that the titles would scroll so that long song names would still be readable. Initially, we thought the display had a slight ghosting effect (meaning that you can see faint outlines of items that used to be on the screen), but it turns out that Sonicblue did this intentionally to help with navigation.Â
Time to reinvent the wheel
Unfortunately, the scroll wheel isn't as simple to use as it looks. Because only half of this dial appears outside of the Riot's case, we couldn't spin it nearly as quickly as the iPod's scroll wheel, which is fully exposed. Another design flaw: the small, hard-to-press volume-control buttons are hidden on the side of the Riot and are especially tough to access when the player is in its nice, padded case. And while the Select, Back, and Menu buttons are well placed, they don't always work the way that you'd expect. For instance, from the Play Music menu, the Back button returns you to the previous menu. That's intuitive enough, but from the Radio menu, the Back key doesn't do anything. For some reason, in certain situations you must use the Menu key--rather than the Back button--to return from whence you came. Ugh.
Transferring music to the Riot is a simple yet time-consuming process. Just fire up the included RealJukebox software (iTunes for Mac users), add your music to the program's library, and drag the files to the Riot. Be prepared for a long wait, though. It took us 50 minutes to move about 1GB of MP3s over the Riot's USB connection; transferring the same amount of files over the iPod's FireWire port took 2 minutes. It takes more than 16 hours to fill the 20GB Riot. While you probably won't be moving 20GB worth of files to the player every day, we wish the Riot could transfer files over a faster, state-of-the-art FireWire or USB 2.0 connection.
File syncing: Missing in action
Once all of our tunes were on the Riot, we found ourselves missing the iPod's autosync function (the Riot doesn't sync with your system's jukebox software). Sure, you can make your own playlists on the device itself, but our fingers started to go numb re-creating all of the existing playlists on our system. (And no, you can't drag playlists from RealJukebox or iTunes to the Riot.) When you're dealing with 20GB of music, file-syncing capabilities or at least PC-based song organization is essential. That said, creating playlists on the Riot isn't too awful, thanks to the large display, the scrolling mechanism, and a navigation system that works well for this task.
The Riot files songs by artist, album, or genre, which means that you'll have a tough time finding your MP3s if their ID3 tags aren't pretty complete--unless you enjoy plowing through thousands of songs by title. Thankfully, the included MoodLogic software can clean up most of those ID3 tags. We highly recommend that you use it before you transfer your songs to the player.
The Riot does break some new ground with its Rio DJ feature, which creates playlists based on your most- or least-played tracks, your most recently added music, songs from a specific decade, or random play. Just select how long you'd like your mix to be--anywhere from 15 minutes to every song on the player. And if you grow tired of listening to all 4,000 or so of your own songs, the Riot comes with a built-in digital FM tuner that sports eight presets and pulls in channels clearly.
Once you get all of your files in order, you're in for a treat because the Riot sounds great. Music is lush and vibrant with a generous low end, and you can tweak the treble and bass if you're so inclined. In comparison, the iPod sounds a bit flat even with its new built-in equalizer. The Riot's volume could stand to be a little louder--we often found ourselves trying to turn it up in vain. But at least you'll be listening in comfort, for the player comes with a pair of comfy, decent-sounding headphones.
The Riot also ships with a sturdy carrying case and a belt clip, perfect for taking your music out on a stroll. However, think twice before taking the player on a marathon; the 10-ounce weight precludes jogging. The player never skipped during our tests, even when we shook it with reckless abandon, and its built-in, rechargeable batteries lasted for the 10 hours that Sonicblue promised.
It's getting there
If you're looking for a player to hold every last one of your MP3s, and you're willing to put up with slow file transfers and a hard-to-master user interface that makes organizing your music less than pleasant, the great-sounding Rio Riot could be the hard drive-based MP3 player for you. For our money, the smaller iPod, with its speedy FireWire connection, file-syncing capabilities, and simple UI, is still the player to beat, although Toshiba's Mobilphile also makes a great choice for Windows users.