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iPod Classic

How to Buy an MP3 Player

By Mia KimSHOP.COM Gadget Review Guru

There are some clear favorites in the world of portable media players, but most people aren't aware of just how many options there are if you look beyond the most popular choices. To start with, there are very few players that are just for MP3s these days. You can watch video, view photos, record voice memos, store gigabytes of files, convert your old vinyl or cassette tape collections to digital format, and even use your PMP to tape your favorite shows straight from your television. SHOP.COM's Portable Media Player Buying guide will help you find the perfect device for your needs.

The Basics

Step 1Size: Media players can be so tiny, they can be worn as necklace pendants, or so laden with features and extras such as built-in speakers, that they stretch the definition of "portable". Players can have two types of storage: hard drive, or flash-based. Hard drives have much higher capacity, but are also heavier and more expensive. The smallest flash players can weigh just over half an ounce, while a hard-drive player with a large LCD screen can weigh almost a pound. If you're planning to run or do other sports with your player, go with flash.
Step 2Storage: Flash drives generally top out at 16 GB, while hard-drive players can go up to 160 GB. An average MP3 file (for a 3 and a half minute CD-quality song) takes about 3.5 megabytes of storage, so expect to get roughly 250 songs per gigabyte. With a large hard drive, you can carry your entire music collection (40,000 songs if you have a 160 GB drive), but if you're a heavy video user, the space will go much more quickly, holding about 200 hours of video . General rule of thumb is to get as much storage as you can afford unless size is more important.
Step 3File Support: Every PMP will support MP3, but there are hundreds of file types, and the more your player supports, the more versatile it will be. Other popular audio formats are WMA, AAC, ASF, and WAV. If you want to view photos, you'll want to make sure your player supports JPEG files. For video, there is MPEG 2 and MPEG 4, WMV, Flash Lite, H.264. Some players will support Audible audio books as well, which has its own proprietary system.
Step 4Battery: Most players will have rechargeable lithium ion batteries, but about half the time, the batteries are non-removable, and will require a manufacturer's repair at additional cost after the battery runs its course in about two years. While being less eco-friendly, some less expensive players still use AA or AAA batteries. Playing time per charge (or fresh set of batteries) varies a lot, so be aware that for some players you'll be charging every 4-5 hours, while others can go for more than 20 hours. Remember too, that watching videos takes much more battery juice and will run the battery down at least twice as fast.
Step 5Online Music Stores: Every player will be able to play music that's already been digitized onto your computer from CDs, as long as they're in a supported format. After that, things get trickier, if you have music from various online music stores. Apple's iTunes uses a protected file format that will only work on iPods. Other stores will have their own restrictions which will limit where you can play those files. Complicating matters even more are the newer "all you can eat" subscription services which allow you to download unlimited music as long as you pay a monthly fee.
Step 6Extras: Some features aren't standard but can be easily found if they're important to you: microphones for recording voice memos; in-line encoding, which allows you to record any source into digital format; FM radio; Wifi for downloading music directly from the Internet, without a computer, PDA functions like calendars and address books; the ability to be used as a USB data drive, for storing files of any type.

The Lingo

Compression: MP3 is a compression format, which encodes audio into a manageable size without sacrificing too much quality. The bigger the file size, the better the sound, but past the point of CD-quality, only the pickiest of audiophiles could tell the difference. A standard CD-quality MP3 is usually a 128 kbps file, which is the best balance of size and quality.
USB 2.0: USB is the port used to connect the player to your computer for transferring music. There are still some players using the old 1.1 standard, which is noticeably slower, so look for USB 2.0 transfer speed.
DRM (digital rights management): This is a general term for the protection used on music files purchased from online music stores to control file-sharing and piracy. Usually each store uses a different system, which is incompatible with other file types and players. Music you buy from one music store generally won't be able to be used with players made for another type of DRM.
ID3 Tags: ID3 data is embedded into the MP3 file and provides information about the artist, song title, album, and year of release. Some players allow for editing of tags right on the device.
Interface: The interface is the combination hardware buttons and software that let you interact with your media player.
Directory restrictions: Most people keep their music arranged on their computers in directories and subdirectories, so that each artist has its own folder. Some media players will support these directories so you can navigate in the same manner on your device, other players will ignore these subfolders and lump all your music into one big folder.

The Experts

CNET points out that there are so many portable media players available now, that "There's no one-size-fits-all MP3 player that's perfect for everybody". Weigh all the options and pick the one that's best suits your personal needs.
Consumer Reports says to keep in mind that no matter what you choose, as technology continues to improve, you'll likely be replacing your PMP with something new within a couple of years. Keep that in mind as you choose because nothing will stay current forever.

The Brands

Apple iPod: Apple is the maker of the ever-popular iPod, which comes in a multitude of versions, from the miniscule clip-on iPod Shuffle, to the large screen iPod Touch.
Microsoft Media Player: The Zune player, with Wifi.
Archos Media Player : For serious video enthusiasts, the Archos media players provide full DVR functionality.
Creative: Full range of players, from the tiny Zen Stone to the high-capacity Zen Vision.
Sony: Still called the Walkman, Sony's new portables are some of the smallest (2.1 oz) with full video support.

The Price

$: Kanguru MP3 Player You can buy a basic flash-based MP3 player with no frills for under 50, like the Kanguru MP3 digital player.
$$: In the 150-200 sweet spot, you can expect to find a flash or hard-drive based player with a color LCD screen, video support, rechargeable battery, and enough storage space to carry thousands of songs. Apple's iPod Classic is always a great choice.
$$$: You can get a widescreen, Wifi high-capacity player from between $300-$500 like the Sony X Series Walkman.

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