MP3 Players Buying Guide
MP3 technology is still quite new, so there are many things to consider when choosing an MP3 player. Most MP3 players have common advantages, such as the reusability of memory (you can remove and add songs as often as you like) and portability (smaller and sturdier than portable CD players, MP3 players are also more resistant to skipping). To understand the differences, read on? And yes stop right there do not buy an MP3 player before you read this.
What features should I watch for when purchasing an MP3 player?
Key features to consider on an MP3 player are memory, versatility, upgradeability, connectivity, speed, and software. Deciding which ones take priority depends solely on you, but start by focusing on the two features below, and then consult the rest of the questions below for more help.
Memory: Will you want to download a few songs here and there, or are you planning to store as much music as it takes to entertain yourself on a road trip from Maine to Mississippi? The more memory you have, the more you can store. An MP3 player with 64MB of memory or more is best, that way you are guaranteed at least an hour of high-quality sound. If you think you may need more memory down the road or at least want to take comfort in knowing the option is available, look to see if the amount of memory is built into the player, or if it’s in the form of a memory card. If it’s in the form of a swappable memory card, you could then expand your memory by purchasing additional cards with greater capacities.
Versatility: The most basic models are meant only for downloading files and then playing them back. As you start to add on features, there are MP3 players with hard drives that are designed to integrate with your home stereo system, and those that can store e-mail addresses and phone numbers, like a portable Rolodex. Others even have the ability to record voice or text memos. Finally, some even combine a CD player and MP3 player into one unit.
What makes MP3 files different from CD tracks?
An MP3 (Moving Pictures Expert Group Audio Layer 3) is a file format of compressed digital audio. In a nutshell, MP3s are akin to the audio tracks on your CDs, only they take up much less space. For example, with an uncompressed CD file, each minute eats up 10MB (megabytes) of memory. With MP3s, each minute only uses 1 MB. The one-minute, one-megabyte rule is a good reference to use in the world of MP3s, especially when considering how much memory you will need.
What should I look for when it comes to memory? Can I add more memory if I need it?
The one-minute, one-megabyte rule applies for those seeking high sound quality. Be skeptical of MP3 players with outrageous claims about how much music they can store. If you go by the one-minute, one-megabyte rule, a 32MB player should hold about a half-hour of music. If a 32MB player is advertised as able to hold an hour of music, beware. This claim isn’t necessarily false; just keep in mind that sound quality suffers considerably. An MP3 player with 64MB of memory or more is best; you are guaranteed at least an hour of high-quality sound.
If you think you may need more memory down the road, see if memory is built in, or if it’s in the form of a memory card. If it has a swappable memory card, you can purchase additional memory cards with greater capacities. Some players feature integrated memory with no card slot, so they are limited to the amount of memory already in the player. The most versatile MP3 players have integrated memory but also support memory cards. Know what types of memory cards are compatible with the MP3 player you are considering.
What are the advantages to MP3 players with hard drives?
Most MP3 players are solid-state, which means there are no moving parts and the memory is actually built into the unit. Others—generally more expensive—store files on internal hard drives. The main advantage to those with hard drives is memory: the higher-end varieties can hold hundreds of megabytes, some up to several gigabytes of music—which can mean hundreds of hours of continuous high-quality sound. Another advantage is versatility: there are some MP3 players with hard drives that are designed to integrate with your home stereo system. The only possible downside to these hard drive units is fragility: solid-state players can withstand more wear and tear, since there are no moving parts. You could drop a solid-state player without fear of damage. The best way to protect your player is a shock-resistant carrying case.
Are all MP3 players the same when it comes to compatibility?
No. Be sure to check the specs on the product description. Some MP3 players are only compatible with PCs; others only with Macs. Also look at operating system compatibility—an MP3 player may be compatible with a PC, but it may not be compatible with your version of Windows. For example, some players will only work with Windows 98 or above.
Can I convert my CDs into MP3 files?
Yes. MP3 players come with software that not only enables you to download MP3 files from the Internet, but also makes it easy to convert you favorite CD tracks into MP3 files (also known as “ripping”). If you buy a player with enough memory, you can take your favorite CDs and store them all for easy access.
Can I convert my MP3 files to CDs?
Yes, but only if you have a CD “burner” (an internal or external CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) or CD-Recordable (CD-R) drive), CD-writing software, and some blank CDs. Simply convert the MP3 files into .wav files on your computer (the option menu on your MP3 player should facilitate this process) and follow the instructions provided by the CD software.
Where do I find MP3 files on the Web?
Since the technology is so popular, there are hundreds of sites from which to choose. The best way to start is to type “MP3” into your favorite search engine, browse through the results and go. Some files are free, some are available at a minimal cost, but there are enough files out there to satisfy even the most obscure music lover.
Can I only download music, or can I use my MP3 player for recording other files?
MP3 players are primarily used for downloading and playing back music files, but some are equipped to store e-mail addresses and phone numbers, like a portable Rolodex. Others even have the ability to record voice or text memos.
How do I connect my MP3 player to my computer? Which connections are faster?
Your MP3 player’s product description will specify how you will need to connect your player to your computer. Earlier models use the parallel-port interface, which provides the slowest connection, while other players use the significantly faster, more modern USB interface. The most recently developed units feature a flash card reader rather than a cable, and use a flash memory card to connect to the computer.
How important is the software that comes with the MP3 player?
Don’t go with a player for the software alone, especially since many programs are offered on the Web for free. This is not to say that the software package isn’t important—a good package can make it much easier to use your player to its fullest capabilities. The best software will allow you to make your own playlists, and some will enable your player to integrate with CDDB, which is a database of album names, song titles, and artists that makes track labeling automatic.
What extra features are available?
Some players that come with remote controls, and some new players now feature a built-in tuner so you can listen to FM radio. Others feature keyboard adapters to make it easier to enter text for labeling tracks. Some players even allow you to record text memos and come complete with a sound alarm to remind you of important events. If you’re a sound-hound, a must-have extra is an equalizer that enables you to have more control over the sound quality. If you’re constantly on the go and always in the driver’s seat, a car adapter is also a great accessory.
With the technology still fairly new, I’m concerned about my player quickly becoming outdated. What can I do to make my investment last for the long term?
The more advanced players are “firmware upgradeable,” which means that they can be updated to support any new compression formats that become available. Along the same vein, see if your player is SDMI-compliant. With the instant popularity of MP3 technology came the danger or copyright violation, and there is still much controversy surrounding MP3 distribution. As a result, record companies, artists, and the like have formed the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). The newer MP3 players are SDMI-compliant, which means that they can play both the standard MP3 files and the new, copy-protected SDMI files. Whereas this is still a very new system, it may radically change the industry in the near future, so you don’t want to be stuck with a player that isn’t in step with the times.