MP3 for the road

Unless you’re still lugging your old cassette Walkman, you know that Apple’s iPod is the hottest MP3 player on the market. But it’s far from the only option for people who love music on the go. How do you decide which one is right for you?

MP3 players come in three flavors

The iPod is the best known of the so-called jukebox players, which store your music on a built-in hard drive. The iPod fits in a shirt pocket, has great sound and is a delight to use, which is no small feat given that the 40-gigabyte model lets you store 10,000 songs. That’s a jaw-dropping number — but so is the $700 price (15 GB and 20 GB models are $400 and $550 respectively). And the price doesn’t include $40 for the FireWire/USB cable you will need if you don’t have a FireWire port on your PC.

As well, the iPod’s rechargeable battery has a limited lifetime of 300 to 500 cycles and costs $190 to replace. The iPod includes a contact manager, games, and a sleep timer, and accessories are a cottage industry. You can add a Belkin iPod Voice Recorder ($75) or turn your iPod into the heart of a home stereo system with the JBL Creature II speakers ($130). The iPod’s success has spawned products like Dell’s Digital Jukebox and iRiver’s iHP-120. They’re cheaper but can’t beat the iPod’s ease of use. Bottom-line: The iPod is tops for the die-hard music lover with dollars to spend.

If you don’t want to shell out big bucks and you’re happy with, say, 30 songs at a time, then flash memory players are the way to go. They store your tunes on memory cards — about an hour of music per 32 megabytes. With no moving parts, they’re teensy, rugged (perfect for the gym) and generally go for under $200. What’s not to like? The small buttons are a hassle for folks with big hands or stiff fingers. My favorite is the MPIO FL100 (128 MB, $180; upgradeable to 640 MB). It also has an FM tuner and a voice/radio recorder, and runs for 11 hours on one AAA battery. You upload songs using your computer’s USB port.

Want MP3 support at the lowest cost? Get a portable compact disc player that can play MP3 files from a recordable CD. Use the burner on your PC to copy up to 12 hours of music onto a CD-R, pop it into your player and away you go. Try the Panasonic SL-SX430 ($100). A set of AA batteries will last an amazing 50 hours.

The iPod is fantastic, but it’s no more the final word on music players than the original Mac was the final word on personal computers. Want more technical info on the newest models? Go to It’s a retail site with reviews of the top players.

From the June 2004 issue

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