The latest portable MP3 player, Creative Labs' Nomad, is a tiny, Walkman-like gadget with a sharp-looking magnesium case. For those just tuning in, MP3 is a digital audio format that has been exploding in popularity online for the last couple of years. Until last winter, however, music fans could only listen to music in the MP3 format stashed on the hard drives of their computers.

The Nomad comes with the same 32 megabytes of built-in memory as its one big competitor, Diamond Multimedia's Rio, but the Nomad also includes a flash memory card that doubles memory to 64 megs -- enough storage for a little more than an hour's worth of music.

The Nomad has a few advantages over the Rio: A small, circular screen on the front displays the artist's name, song title and length at the beginning of each track, and the device includes an FM radio tuner and a microphone. But the tuner's reception is a little weak, and the voice recordings are a bit murky.

Software-wise, the Nomad is on the same level as the Rio, which is not really a good thing -- getting music from CD to hard drive to this device is a clunky, confusing multi-step process. Ideally, the Nomad's software would allow for simple dragging and dropping from a CD to a Nomad icon; right now, the user has to put up with an explosion of windows on the screen.

Digital music isn't going to get less confusing anytime soon, however. The Nomad might be one of the last MP3 players to not include something called SDMI, short for "Secure Digital Music Initiative" -- the recording industry's forthcoming response to the MP3 format and its lack of built-in copy protection. Much of the music business is no fan of MP3 technology and has been busy this summer coming up with a way to ensure that copyright owners can control digital distribution of their music (existing MP3 files would still be playable under this scheme, but SDMI-compliant software and hardware will balk at MP3 copies of new releases after an as-yet undefined date).

Whether SDMI will succeed or fail is cloudy -- this technology is showing up rather late to the party, but it's got just about every deep-pocketed record company on its side. And Creative Labs and Diamond Multimedia have both announced that the next versions of their MP3 players will have SDMI technology on board.

Nomad, Creative Labs: Win 95-98, $250 (32-mb model, $170, available only at http://www.creative.com)