MP3 Player Buyer's Guide

Everything You Need To Know About MP3 Players

MP3 players are the latest and greatest toys in the portable music market. They are more compact, rugged, and feature-packed than conventional music devices. You can download songs from the internet, create your own personal music mixes, and even record your own voice.

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There are many things to consider when buying an mp3 player, so you should really look carefully to find one that's right for you. Don't worry, even if you don't have a clue as to what you want, this guide will walk you through the selection process.


Pros & cons of mp3 players

If there weren't more pros than cons, mp3 players wouldn't be such a big hit. The main benefit of mp3 players is that you can store a lot of music in a little space (without much loss of audio quality.) Even better, you get to choose what songs and in what order they play. If you commonly listen to only 1 or 2 songs on a CD before switching to another, you'll love this. You won't have to carry a whole case of CDs anymore, and you'll still have all of your favorite songs. And if you get sick of your current mix, just make a new one!

Another great "pro" of mp3 players is that they eliminate a big "con" of CD players: skipping. Since mp3s are stored digitally, most mp3 players have no moving parts (referred to as solid state or flash memory.) The only exception would be if the mp3 player uses a hard drive to store the music, but still, skipping is uncommon.

What else sets them apart? They look cool!

There is one con though. MP3 Players are much more expensive than a portable CD player.

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Types & cost

There are three general types of mp3 players: home, car, and personal.

The home mp3 players are usually in the form of DVD players that also play mp3 files that have been burned onto a CD. Due to the many different possibilities, systems can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Car players are inserted into the dash board like a usual car stereo. Other than that, they are fairly similar to home systems. Some systems allow you to hook up your mp3 player to your car's speaker system. Most will cost a few hundred dollars.

The most popular version, personal mp3 players, are very compact and can easily be carried in one's hand or pocket. Prices range from just $50 up to a whopping $500. This guide will focus on personal players. The next section lists individual aspects to look at.

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The iPod

Before going any further, I thought this would be a good place to cover the iPod.

While the iPod is a great MP3 player, it is not the only MP3 player out there - it just happens to be the most popular. It is not necessarily the best out there or the best for your needs.

If you have been sucked into the iPod craze, I encourage you to look at all the MP3 player options before buying one. You might just find something else (or realize that the iPod really is what you want.)

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Key features

Weight & size - Many people consider size the most important feature, and for good reason. Their small size is what sets them apart from other [not so] portable music players.

A word of caution: Be careful if you have big hands. Some players have buttons so small and close together that it is hard to press them in. Just make sure to find one that you feel comfortable with.

Audio format - MP3 isn't the only format available now. Microsoft's WMA, RealNetwork's G2, and Ogg Vorbis are other audio file options. Some players can play only one format, while others can play three (or more.) Others can even be upgraded to play future formats. There is nothing wrong with an mp3 player that can only play mp3 files, but other formats may become more popular in the future.

Storage capacity & format - Most players with built-in flash memory store from 512 MB up to 16 GB. A 1 GB player will hold roughly 250 songs or 16 hours of music (while an 8 GB player can hold 2,000 songs.) Other players use memory cards to provide storage. Some use both (these players are said to be expandable.)

Memory cards are available in different types, such as MultiMediaCard (MMC), SmartMedia, CompactFlash, Secure Digital, and Memory Stick (for Sony.) If an mp3 player uses a type of memory card, it will be listed in the specifications. Other electronics such as cell phones, PDAs, and digital cameras use memory cards, so if you already use a certain type, you could find an mp3 player that uses that type, too.

More expensive mp3 players will use a hard drive for storage, usually ranging from 20-160 GB. While hard drives can hold thousands of songs, they are expensive and not quite as rugged as the solid state versions. I would highly recommend buying a protective case for your mp3 player if it has a hard drive.

But remember - hard drives give you a better value on storage space since you get more GB per dollar.

Battery type/life - You will either be replacing or recharging batteries for your mp3 player. Some players give you the option to use standard or rechargeable batteries. Some claim to play up to 35 hours on a single AA battery. Others use a rechargeable lithium ion (built-in) or will accept NiMH batteries, also rechargeable. Rechargeables will last about 8-10 hours between charges. Stay away from NiCad rechargeable batteries, which are lesser quality.

Also keep in mind that hard-drive based MP3 players will require more battery power and thus drain batteries more quickly than players with flash-based memory.

Displays & appearance - A good, back-lit LCD screen is a must. You should be able to read it in any light condition and not have to get too close to decipher the words. The screen should at least display the track number and length, and maybe even the artist and song title.

But if you don't need a display, that's fine. The Apple iPod Shuffle doesn't have one! (This player is pretty cool due to it's VERY small size.)

Screen size will be more important if you are considering an MP3 player that also displays photos and plays videos. In that case, you want a big screen with high resolution.

Interfaces & transfer - To get songs onto your mp3 player, you'll need to connect it to your computer somehow. The fastest transfer rates can be achieved with either Firewire (IEEE-1394) or USB 2.0 connections. Above all, make sure that the connection is supported by your computer.

Also make sure the buttons and dials make sense.

Software - The software bundled with an mp3 player is often overlooked in the buying process. Quality, easy-to-use software makes your mp3 experience much more enjoyable. It should allow you to make your own play lists using tracks from different sources, including your own CD collection. Even if your player comes with crappy software, there are many programs available on the internet free of charge.

Compatibility - Even the best software and interfaces are useless if they aren't compatible with your computer. Be sure that your system meets or exceeds the requirements of the mp3 player, the software, and the connection.

DRM compliance - Copyright violations are oh so common on the net nowadays. That's why copyright protection actions are in full swing (but not widespread.) If your mp3 player is not compliant, it will not be able to play these marked files.

Of extra concern is the Microsoft Zune. It is totally screwed up in this department.

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Extra & advanced features

FM radio - Some players offer an FM tuner. It can come in handy if you get tired of listening to the same old music, but reception is not always top quality. (And does anyone actually listen to the radio these days?)

Voice recording - This capability will utilize a built-in microphone to let you record any memos or important times that you need to remember.

Low battery indicator - It's nice to know how much battery power is left so you know when to change or re-charge the battery.

Equalizer controls - The ability to choose between equalizer presets will enhance the sound quality from the mp3 player for various types of music. Some players offer bass boost, too.

Shuffle or Random play - This feature causes the tracks to play in random order, so you never know what song is coming up next.

Auto resume - This feature allows you to start listening where you left off when you last turned the player off.

Auto power down - Automatically turns off the mp3 player after a period of inactivity to conserve battery power.

Belt clip/arm band - Most players feature a belt clip for hands-free operation, while some provide a strap so that you can attach the player to your arm for more security during physical activity. Cases are available that provide these if your player does not have them.

Water resistance - This is useful if you plan to use your player in the rain. (I would still not recommend using it while swimming, though!)

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Most necessary accessories will come with the player. You should at least be getting headphones and transfer cables. Other accessories include cases, remotes, cigarette lighter adapters, special batteries, and extra memory cards.

Headphones are a very popular upgrade for almost any mp3 player, and for good reason - upgraded headphones can greatly improve sound quality and comfort. The noise canceling earbuds from Bose and Sony are widely considered to be the best headphones, albeit pricey.

If you have an iPod, there are tons of accessories out there just for you! Everything from car adapters to docking stations with top-notch speakers are available.

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Where to get mp3s

You probably know where to get mp3s illegally, so here's a list of where to get them legally:

Apple iTunes - The ultimate music download site. If you have an iPod, you need to check out the iTunes music store. - Download unlimited mp3s for one low monthly fee. Get 50 free mp3s when you start. - Unlimited downloads and streaming music for only $9.95 a month. - Listen to over 18,000 audio books, programs, and radio shows including science fiction novels, national newspapers, and investment tips. You also get a free mp3 player just by signing-up for a year!

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Where to buy mp3 players - The best selection at the best prices. What did you expect? - New, used, or refurbished mp3 players up for auction.

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