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. Apple iPod 20GB - (est. $300)
20GB (5,000 songs).
The iPod dominates the market among hard-drive players, and it's still an overwhelming reviewer favorite. If you don't need room for 5,000 songs, the new breed of micro-drive players, like the iPod Mini and Rio Carbon, (below) are smaller, lighter, and get better battery life than the full-size iPod. The iRiver H120 (also below) doesn't have the iPod's cache or easy interface, but has an FM tuner, voice recorder, line-in recording and excellent sound. A 40GB iPod sells for about $400. Some models can also display photos for $100 more. The iPod is Mac and Windows compatible.


. iRiver H120 - (*est. $300)
20GB (5,000 songs).
For music fans that need a wider variety of format compatibilities (including MP3, WMA, ASF, WAV and OGG files), the iRiver is the most compelling iPod alternative. The H120 includes an FM tuner, a remote control with LCD, a voice recorder and line-in recording from almost any external source, including component stereo equipment-all features missing on iPod. While reviewers say iPod still wins on interface and ease-of-use, the H120 has more features, more format compatibility and great sound. A 40GB version, the H140 costs $100 more.


. Apple iPod Mini - (*est. $250)
4GB (1,000 songs).
The Mini uses a smaller one-inch hard drive to power a machine a bit larger than a credit card and about ½-inch thick. Experts say the 3.6-ounce Mini is wonderfully engineered, with a tubular case that resists scratches, and an intuitive navigation click-wheel. Micro-drive players like the Mini are bridging the gap between the larger, multi-gigabyte hard-drive players and tiny, but less roomy flash players. They fit the bill for those who want a balance between memory and size. The Mini stores about 1,000 songs in MP3 or AAC formats.


. Rio Carbon - (*est. $225)
5GB (1,250 songs).
"Finally, the iPod Mini has some real competition," writes CNet's James Kim, who says the silvery Carbon is the best choice for those who have a lot of Windows Media files, or don't want to be restricted to Apple's online music store. The 3-ounce Carbon has a 5GB capacity, besting the Mini in capacity, and undercutting its price and weight. Testers squeezed 20-hours of battery life out of the Carbon-more than twice as much as the Mini. It sounds great, and PC World's Tom Mainelli says it's the "sleekest MP3 player I've ever laid eyes on."


. iRiver SlimX iFP-790 - (*est. $150)
256MB (about 4 hours).
The iRiver iFP-790 weighs just 2.1 ounces-a mere feather compared to the 5.6-ounce weight of the iPod and 3.6-ounce iPod Mini. This flash-memory player is feature-loaded, with an FM tuner, a voice recorder and on-the-fly MP3 encoding. This means you can record MP3s directly to the player from pretty much any analog source. CNet's Ben Patterson writes: "Quite frankly, we were blown away by the iRiver iFP-790's sound quality." The 38-hour battery life is longer than almost any other player.


. Creative MuVo TX FM - (*est. $75)
128MB (about 2 hours).
IGN.com's M. Wiley writes, "if you are looking for an ultra compact, then this is the one to get." If you don't need the iRiver's line-in recording, the dinky, 1.5-ounce MuVo is your best choice. The MuVo plugs right into a USB port for file transfers, eliminating cables. Controls are simple to master, and sound quality is clean and crisp. A 256MB version of the TX FM goes for around $95.


. Rio 600 - (*est. $170)
32 MB (about one hour). Can be upgraded to 372 MB
The Rio 600 is a great starter MP3 player and is perfect for your teenage niece or nephew. The unit is small, stylish, easy-to-use and sounds great. The backlit LCD screen tells you what song is playing and how long it will play for. Music "ripped" (that is, transferred from your PC to the player) from your own CD plays perfectly on the Rio 600 - but when music is downloaded from the Internet some users complain of pops and glitches, according to user reviews on Cnet. These users also complained that some songs don't play to the end. Despite some complaints, you aren't likely to find a better MP3 player much cheaper. But 32 MB of memory isn't much, and adding more will cost you. An extra 32 MB Backpack, for example, will set you back an additional $99.

. Nike psa play 120 - (*est. $299)
64MB (120 minutes)
The Nike psa[play has to be the coolest and sportiest player around, making it an ideal gift for your jockish brother-in-law. Nike jointly created the player with Rio: Nike was responsible for the design, while Rio worked on the hardware. It costs some $50 more than the Rio 500, which has the same technical abilities. It's your call whether the ultra-sleek design is worth the extra money. To test it out, we strapped the unit to the arm of a SmartMoney.com reporter who took it for a run. The rubberized buttons were easy to use, even while huffing and puffing for breath. Our only complaint? The unit lacks any type of LCD display; to see the current track information, you have to use a remote control that is sometimes hard to navigate. Also, before you leave for the gym, remember to grab an extra battery: The system goes dead without warning. For those who believe looks matter, this MP3 player will be a hit. But if you're on a budget, you might want to go with the more economical Rio 500.

. Sony Network Walkman - (*est. $299)
64MB (120 minutes)
It's easy to mistake the sleek and petite Sony Network Walkman for a cigarette lighter, making it perfect for the fashionista on your shopping list. (This baby is sure to turn heads.) But it's also functional: The unit has a bright backlit display that provides song and album information. The only shortcomings we found are that the device's memory isn't expandable and its proprietary ATRAC3 format (the compressor) is incompatible with some popular music files. Improved software, which will be available in February, will make Network Walkman compatible with more music files and give it a faster ripping speed. The upgrade will be free and will be downloadable from Sony's Web site. This player scores loads of points for its cool factor, and the price offered by 800.com makes it a great deal.

. eGo - (*est. $289)
94MB (200 minutes) can be upgraded to 340MB
The eGo is perfect for that traveling salesperson in your life. The translucent eGo plugs into a car's tape deck and plays audio files through the car's sound system. And not only does the eGo play music, but it also has text-to-speech software. This software converts e-mail and other text files into audio that can be downloaded to the player and read to you while you drive. You can send a response by dictating your reply into the eGo - the software will then email your message as an MP3 attachment once you return to your PC. Sounds cool, huh? Just don't let your ego get in the way when trying to figure out how to operate the eGo, which can be a bit complicated. Customer service is available online and by calling 877-480-4246. Unfortunately, when we tried emailing customer support, we didn't hear back from anybody for more than 24 hours. Perhaps the phone will work better. This device is perfect for someone who likes to stay on top of technology trends. That said, if you (or your gift recipient) still find Windows Explorer a challenge, you might want to take a pass on this player.

. Nomad Jukebox - (*est. $419)
6GB (150 CDs)
For the someone who has everything, consider the Nomad Jukebox. It may look like an ordinary CD player but looks can be deceiving - it's actually capable of holding an entire CD collection. Of course, when you're downloading 150 CDs, organization is key. Luckily, the Nomad has a seven-line backlit LCD screen that allows you to store and search songs based on artist, album, genre or customized play lists. We swung by a nearby electronic store to test the Nomad Jukebox. The biggest complaint we had was that like many other MP3 players it's unable to fast forward or rewind within a song and you can't upload files from the Jukebox to your PC. Otherwise the unit's sound quality is great and the technology is truly amazing. The Jukebox is dandy for the serious audiophile on your list.

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When it comes to MP3 players, reviewers such as CNet.com, Tom's Hardware Guide, PC Magazine, PC World and The Wall Street Journal agree that it's pretty much Apple's iPod vs. everyone else-at least when it comes to high-capacity hard-drive players. We found the most exhaustive analysis of iPod (and everyone else) in computing and tech magazines along with Web sites such as IGN.com, G4TechTV and The New York Times. Consumer Reports' latest effort at covering fast moving MP3 technology encompasses only thirteen players out of the hundreds on the market. Consumer Reports' work in this area is good, but not great, and is overshadowed by the intense coverage given to MP3 players by other publishers.

As reported by David Becker at CNet's News.com, the collective variations of the iPod accounted for a whopping 92% of sales among hard-drive players in August 2004. And according to Apple, the iPod and iPod Mini together totaled about 23% of Apple's total fourth-quarter revenue. What's more, according to a recent Piper Jaffray survey, an iPod ranks only behind money, cars and clothes on teenagers' holiday wish lists. There's no question that iPod (*est. $300 for 20GB) has an unmatched market cache. The primary question we had, and other reviewers have, is whether the iPod is actually better than MP3 players manufactured by Apple competitors.

There are several high-capacity hard-drive players taking aim at Apple and hoping to snatch a part of that leftover 8% market share. Sony swings the bat with the hotly anticipated 20GB Sony Network Walkman NW-HD1 (*est. $400), but judging by the early reviews we read, Sony doesn't hit the ball out of the park. Editors at CNet.com say Sony got off on the wrong foot by supporting only its proprietary ATRAC3 file format. The Network Walkman doesn't even play MP3 or WMA files. Users must convert all their tunes to the Sony format before loading them onto the player.

Wall Street Journal columnist Walter S. Mossberg levels the harshest criticism at Sony. In his tests, it took over two hours to convert 416 MP3s (far less than the Sony's 5,000-song capacity) to ATRAC3 and transfer them to the player. Mossberg transferred the same MP3 files to his iPod in less than fifteen minutes. Mossberg, along with G4TechTV's Andrew Wong, says the Sony gets terrific battery life, and is smaller and lighter than iPod, but "it is markedly inferior overall," writes Mossberg. Sony has launched its own online music store to compete with Apple's iTunes store, and files come in-you guessed it-ATRAC3 format.

While the Sony doesn't appear to be much of a threat, other products do much better. The 20GB Creative Nomad Zen Touch (*est. $250) is one promising machine. The Zen Touch is a hit with reviewers at CNet.com and PC Magazine. CNet's James Kim says the Zen Touch is a vast improvement over earlier Zen models, with impressive sound quality, remarkable 26-hour battery life and an innovative touch pad for navigating through songs and playlists. At PC Magazine, reviewers praise its "strong value," excellent sound and ability to create on-the-fly playlists. G4TechTV's Andrew Wong says the Touch delivers the "richest experience" sound-wise.

For each reviewer that likes the Zen Touch, however, there's another who doesn't. PC World's Eric Dahl says Creative has stripped the Zen's organizational features in a misguided attempt to simplify the interface. As a result, "the Zen Touch just comes off as a slightly larger, slightly heavier IPod." At Tom's Hardware Guide.com, reviewer Stephanie Chaptal laments the need for Creative's proprietary software, which means users can't simply drag and drop files into the Touch. Although "sound is definitely the strong point," writes Chaptal, the Zen Touch "remains largely an iPod clone."

Sneaking up on the iPod from behind, however, are hard-drive players from well-respected manufacturers iRiver and Rio. iRiver's series of hard-drive players, including the 20GB H120 (*est. $300) and 40GB (*est. $400), along with the 20GB Rio Karma (*est. $250) prove much stiffer competition for the iPod, and according to some reviewers, are actually better choices.

All this is beside the point if you don't want or need to carry 4,000 tunes wherever you go. Competition is heating up among micro-drive players, like the iPod Mini (*est. $250) and Rio Carbon (*est. $225), which hold about 1,000 songs but cost less than high-capacity players. Flash players hold dozens of songs instead of thousands, but since they don't have moving parts, they are better for the fitness crowd. Flash models are also the tiniest players on the market, and manufacturers are making serious innovations in this class of player.

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