. 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
. 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.
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"
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.