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Download The Noise! Download The Funk!

11/22/00 03:19:23 PM PST
by David Penn

Napster or no, the MP3 revolution is still giving computer-savvy music lovers reason to rejoice. And with any one of these four portable MP3 players, you won't have to leave your tunes behind when you hit the road, Jack.

If you were the first on your block with a Sony Walkman back in the 1980s, and among the first in your circle of friends and acquaintances to trade in your portable cassette player for a compact disc version in the 1990s, you may be champing at the bit at the idea of investing in a portable MP3 player. Upgrading your personal audio technology every 10-odd years is not too unreasonable. But with the Walkman and its descendant, the Sony Discman, there was precious little technological savvy necessary to get up and running. Have tape (or disc), have player, have tunes.

So while the knowledge curve might have gotten a lot steeper between portable CD players and portable MP3 players, there are plenty of folks who don't mind the added climb, especially if that extra effort (and extra cost) means creating your own e-jukebox stocked with hours of your favorite songs and/or spoken recitations. You'll need to know a bit more about computers than you might already know, and top-speed bandwidth (cable or digital subscriber line [DSL] modem) can be a godsend when it comes to downloading music from the Internet. But if having your tunes arranged your way is a must, there's no better way to get there than with MP3.

What has so many folks excited about MP3? Perhaps foremost, the ability to download thousands of songs from the Internet without paying a cent is what has driven many to take up the MP3 banner. Even outside Napster, Websites such as allow music lovers to pick and choose their favorite songs -- and to set up their own compilations, digital jukeboxes, and party mixes without spending scads of cash on CDs. And for those who need to be truly mobile with their music, portable MP3 players have virtually no moving parts. This means the dreaded and annoying skipping that often accompanies portable CD players is nonexistent. With MP3 files having a sound quality that most agree is comparable to that provided by compact discs -- and the availability of music files from an increased variety of musicians -- the challenge to CD dominance has been made.


MP3, which stands for "MPEG layer 3," is a file format that compresses digital music files for easy -- if not always speedy, depending on your connection -- transfer over the Internet. The file format is also useful for transferring music on compact disc to a personal computer, where an application called an MP3 player allows you to play the file over speakers or headphones. Portable MP3 players typically can hold one (32 MB of RAM) or more (64 MB of RAM) hours of CD-quality audio in MP3 format. But most portable MP3 players on the market -- and all those profiled here -- are memory-expandable through accessories such as SmartMedia and CompactFlash cards, which can increase memory to as much as 370 MB.

While Napster, a Website through which people can swap digital music files, is what most people think of when they think about digital music and the Internet, there is much more to the genre. Companies such as and Musicblitz have developed relationships with music and media companies such as NBC and Macromedia -- as well as arrangements with individual artists -- to provide virtually millions of tracks of digital audio content for industry professionals. For the rest of us, itself is host to hundreds of thousands of free music files and also provides free MP3 player software that can be downloaded and installed on a PC, like any other Web application. Other popular MP3 Websites include,,, and even

But before you get going on your portable MP3 path, you will need a few things. First and foremost is a fairly up-to-date PC. Portable MP3 players, for the most part, require a computer to download music files, which are then transferred to your portable MP3 player by way of a parallel port or universal serial bus (USB). So in addition to having an Internet-ready PC, most portable MP3 manufacturers require at least a 200MHz Pentium II processor and Windows 98 or later. To load the MP3 software, only about 5 MB of available hard drive space is required, though an additional 1 MB for every minute of CD-quality audio you plan to store should also be factored in. Finally, a CD-ROM drive will help you transfer music from your favorite CDs to your on-board and portable MP3 players.


The Diamond Rio line of MP3 players (which includes the 300, 500, and 600 models) has among its credits the first portable MP3 player under $200, the Rio 300. Even today, the latest release from the Rio line, the Rio 600, has a price tag of just $169.95. The Rio 600 comes with 32 MB RAM, but is expandable to as much as 372 MB RAM through snap-on "backpacks" that are available separately. Like many of the top-line MP3 players, the Rio 600 is Windows Media-capable and features a customizable equalizer. The Rio 600 is available as a 32 MB model, even though the 500 comes with 64 MB.

RIO. The Rio line has among its credits the first portable MP3 player under $200, the Rio. Even today, the latest release from the Rio line, the Rio 600, has a price tag of $169.95.

Nor should Apple Macintosh computer users assume that the Rio 600 is not meant for them. Mac-compatibility (using OS 8.5.1 or later) is easily achieved by way of Mac drivers that can be downloaded from the Rio Website. In order to provide the smoothest downloads possible, the Rio 600 uses USB to transfer files at speeds five times faster than with a parallel port connection.

YEPP. The Yepp, offered by Samsung, includes a voice recorder among its features, one that allows the user to record up to 128 minutes.

Samsung, who has made a number of dramatic entries into the handheld personal technology area (its Yopy handheld PC is one example), has also come out with a popular portable MP3 player, the Samsung YEPP YP-E32. Also available as a 64 MB power portable, the YEPP includes a voice recorder among its features, one that allows the user to record up to 128 minutes or 125 separate tracks of voice audio. The Yepp uses Real Jukebox software as a content manager to sort and arrange MP3 files and includes a YEPP card socket for adding additional memory. Although a Usb adapter is available separately, the YEPP uses a traditional parallel port to receive and send MP3 files to and from your computer. One of the YEPP's most original features (certainly for a portable MP3 player) is its telephone directory, which allows users to store up to 350 names, addresses, e-mails, and -- of course -- phone numbers.

LYRA. The Lyra line of portable MP3 players feature Real Audio G2 software, allowing the unit to be used with what is perhaps the most dominant mode of audio formatting on the Internet today.

Another popular portable MP3 player, RCA's Lyra, has picked up a number of fans and digital devotees. The Lyra uses removable CompactFlash memory cards to store and replay MP3 music files and is available as either a 32 MB RAM or 64 MB RAM unit. Like the YEPP, the Lyra uses parallel port connectivity and features Real Jukebox software as a music file manager. An additional advantage with the Lyra portable MP3 players is the fact that they feature Real Audio G2 software, allowing the units to be used with what is perhaps the most dominant mode of audio formatting on the Internet today. RCA's Lyra also comes with a five-band custom equalizer and five preset modes (flat, rock, pop, bass, and jazz).

NOMAD. The big daddy of portable MP3 players, this line is widely regarded to be at the cutting edge of portable MP3 player technology.

But the big daddy of portable MP3 players is arguably Creative Labs' Nomad line, which includes the original Nomad portable MP3 player, as well as the Nomad II, the Nomad II MG, and the Nomad Jukebox. The Nomad II line of portables is widely regarded to be at the cutting edge of portable MP3 player technology, with its support for a variety of digital audio formats in addition to Windows Media and MP3. The Nomad II line also features Usb connectivity, and is available in both 32 MB and 64 MB memory configurations -- both of which can be expanded using Nomad's SmartMedia memory cards. Nomad II also has its own proprietary content management software, and uses MusicMatch's Creative Digital Audio Center to allow users to code and archive MP3 files. Another feature on the Nomad II line is a built-in FM tuner capable of storing up to 32 preset stations. And, like the YEPP, the Nomad II line also comes with voice-recording capability.


These are only a few of the portable MP3 players on the market today. Virtually every other month, new companies are marketing smaller, more memory-rich MP3 players, and many of the established companies in this nascent field are rushing to upgrade and improve their offerings (Rio itself has an 800 model portable MP3 player in development that will feature 64 MB RAM, voice recording, and a headphone remote).

With all of these varieties to choose from, it can be a challenge to remain focused on just what features are most important to you. Do you need USB connectivity so that your portable MP3 player can communicate with your PC or Macintosh? And if you have a Mac, how compatible are the Mac-compatible portable MP3 players? Is voice recording a feature worth paying extra for, in your opinion? Or would you rather spend that money on additional memory? Other things to consider are new handheld PCs and smart phones that are capable of playing MP3 music files. Although lacking the storage capacity and some of the functionality of "pure" portable MP3 players, some of these new units may actually fit your needs better.

The last thing to keep in mind is price. With prices ranging from just over $100 for the Samsung YEPP-32 to just under $500 for the Nomad Jukebox (which combines a portable MP3 player with a CD player), there is quite a bit to consider when comparing features and prices. Even within brands, there can be wide price differentials for the savvy shopper. The list price for the RCA Lyra 64, for example, is $50 more than if you ordered the unit directly from We also found wide price differences among Internet vendors, from a low of $149.99 for the Nomad 64 to a high of $286.71.

If it seems ironic that an Internet phenomenon that began with free music (albeit, at times, of dubious legality) and free music players now finds portable MP3 players at its technological edge selling for hundreds of dollars, don't fret too much. The world of MP3 music is still wide open for computer users to wade in and see just what all the fuss is about -- without having to commit themselves to an expensive new electronic gadget. But for those who do wade in and like what they hear, portable MP3 players may be just the next enjoyable step in a continuing audio evolution.

David Penn

Technical Writer for Technical Analysis of STOCKS & COMMODITIES magazine,, and Advantage.

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