How to Buy an MP3 Player

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PC World
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; 4:19 PM

Whether you want to get your groove on while working out or would like to amuse yourself as you commute on public transit, a portable MP3 music player could suit your needs. MP3 players--available in a wide variety of styles and sizes and capable of storing thousands of songs--capitalize on digital technology to supplant traditional Walkman-style cassette-tape players and portable CD players.

The Big Picture Today's players pack loads of songs, and the devices are easy to manage, too. We'll help you figure out which one is best for you.more

The Specs Explained The storage capacity and battery life of an MP3 player can have a big impact on how much you enjoy it. We'll explain what's behind these and other specifications.more

MP3 Player Shopping Tips Our advice will help you find the right MP3 player for your lifestyle without paying too much.more

The Big Picture

A portable digital audio player sets your music free so you can easily mix and match songs in any order and take the tunes with you. MP3 players use one of two storage mediums: hard drive or flash memory. Hard-drive players offer the greatest amount of storage space but tend to be larger and more susceptible to damage due to the fragile nature of hard disks. For the most part, flash-memory models hold a more limited number of songs, but their lack of moving parts makes them more durable than hard-drive players.

Nearly all MP3 players require that you have a reasonably modern PC with a free USB 1.1 or 2.0 port. Your songs will load much more quickly with the latter. As you begin creating your music collection on the computer, you may want to upgrade your hard drive to be able to store more files.

Specialized MP3 players are not the only devices you can buy to listen to your music: You can now get mobile telephones, thumb drives, digital cameras, personal digital assistants, and car stereos that can store and play back MP3 music files. Even many pocket-size voice memo recorders can also record and play back MP3 files. But a word to the wise: Dedicated MP3 players usually sound better and often have more user-friendly controls than hybrid units, although devices like the Apple iPhone are beginning to wear this assumption down.

Storage: The greater the storage capacity, the more songs you can take with you. Hard-drive-based players hold the most--currently, the highest capacity we've tested is 80GB (which can accommodate about 20,000 MP3 songs ripped at 128 kilobits per second). The latest (and most expensive) flash-based players we've tested can hold up to 8GB of music (about 2000 MP3 songs ripped at 128 kbps).

File management: MP3 files include ID3 tags, metadata embedded within each song file that provides artist name, song title, and album name information to the player. Working with this data, a player can organize the files for you, though each does so in its own way. Most players have a built-in LCD screen; look for one that shows the information you use most.

Transfer speed/port type: Downloading 5GB of songs all at once from your PC using a USB 1.1 interface can take all night. Almost all new players employ the much faster USB 2.0; but if speed is important, ensure that your player of choice supports the faster standard before you buy.


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