MP3 players look more like commodities all the time, but manufacturers can still find ways to make digital music hardware stick out from the pack. We recently tried four players that, while employing the same basic parts as most other devices, play their own tunes.
Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox Zen (Win 98 or newer/Win 2000 or newer, $300) is the first hard-drive-based MP3 player that comes close to the Apple iPod's smart combination of size, weight and file-transfer speed. It's small enough to wield comfortably in one hand and connects to PCs with a quick USB 2.0 connection that transferred a gigabyte of data in less than four minutes (your PC needs USB 2.0 ports of its own to gain this speed; a FireWire version is available for $50 extra).
But the Zen still employs Creative's subpar software to transfer files instead of the standard Windows file system, something even the Mac-centric iPod can work with. Creative's lengthy installation comes with a threatening warning that its software has not passed Microsoft's compatibility testing and might destabilize your PC; it didn't, but Creative should have taken care of this beforehand.
The Zen's own controls are a good deal friendlier; a scroll wheel governs most functions. Its battery ran a solid 10 hours in a test, its included earphones vastly improve on the tiny ear buds shipped with most MP3 players, and this player can do audio tricks like slowing the audio while preserving its pitch.
The Archos Jukebox Multimedia 20 (Win 98 SE or newer/Win 2000 or newer/Mac OS 9 or newer/Mac OS X, $390) is only slightly bigger and heavier than the Zen. Its advantage is the ability to display video and still images on its tiny color screen; you also can hook up the jukebox to a television set. It also records audio in low fidelity with a built-in microphone, or at higher quality with an optional amplified mike.
Other add-ons include a 1.3-megapixel camera and CompactFlash and SmartMedia card adapters to transfer photos from digital cameras. With the screen off, the battery ran eight hours.
But Archos packages all this utility inside some confusing controls (you have to press the Off button to reach the main menu from its video playback mode). Although you can copy files from the Windows desktop over a quick USB 2.0 link -- without installing drivers -- if you plug in the USB cable in the wrong order, you'll have to run a special utility to uninstall it and start over. This is not explained in the skimpy manual, which lists the wrong phone number on the back.
Creative's Nomad MuVo and CenDyne's Gruvstick only come in 64-megabyte and 128MB models but require far less space, easily fitting in a shirt pocket. Both have generic flash-memory drives with digital music capability (MP3 and WMA), which lets them store any file. Each runs on one AAA battery.
The MuVo (Win 98 SE or newer/Win 2000 or newer; 64MB, $130; 128MB, $170) is simpler to start using; it requires no drivers except under Win 98 and shows up on your computer like any other drive. Just drag music files onto its icon. It lacks a liquid-crystal display, but its controls are beautifully simple: play, pause, back, forward, repeat, and volume up or down.
The heftier Gruvstick (Win ME or newer/Win 2000 or newer; 64MB, $129; 128MB, $179) feels like a Boy Scout's knife and includes about as many tools -- an LCD readout, on-screen graphics equalizer and built-in voice recorder, good for 152 minutes.
The 128MB model we reviewed also included the Gruv-X wireless FM transmitter ($30 separately), which plugs into the headphone jack and sprays your tunes to any FM receiver around.
But CenDyne's software -- required to connect the Gruvstick to a PC -- was its undoing. First the player balked at deleting a couple of songs through its controls, and then, when we tried plugging it into our PC, the software no longer recognized the Gruvstick. The company said we had received a defective unit and offered to send a new one.
When it works, CenDyne's device offers an enticing bundle of functions. But Creative's simpler, smaller player has it beat on aesthetics and elegance.