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Sunday, May 12, 2002


Portable music players store, cost more

By Matthew Fordahl
Associated Press

At a glance
On the Net:


Creative Labs:


A serious music collector with hundreds of albums easily could fill a closet with vinyl records, CDs and tapes. Now, all those tunes can be squeezed into a portable handheld gadget.

Three new music players from Apple Computer, Creative Labs and SonicBlue store thousands of songs on built-in hard drives, run for 11 hours on a single charge and offer a host of features.

But if the music doesn't rock you, the price tag will.

Apple's iPod, now available with 10 gigabytes of storage -- enough for 2,000 songs -- sounds great, integrates perfectly with software and is small enough to fit into a pocket. It costs $499.

Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox 3 costs $100 less, has twice as much storage and is geared for expansion. The drawback: It's considerably heavier and twice as large as the iPod.

SonicBlue's RioRiot also runs $399 and has a 20-gig drive. It's got the best display and fantastic song navigation features. But it's also bulky, slow in transferring tunes and its PC software is a mess.

Do the capacity, portability and other features justify the price tags? That's up to you.

A closer look at the three:


In simplicity and size, the iPod is the player to beat.

The new iPod has the same design and shape of the 5-gigabyte model introduced last year and easily fits into a pocket. At 6.5 ounces, it won't pull your drawers down at the gym.

The white front face is dominated by its crisp LCD screen and a jog wheel surrounded by buttons. Navigation is as easy as spinning the wheel and selecting a song, artist, album or playlist.

A new release of the firmware, the software that runs the player, adds equalizer settings -- my only major quibble beyond the price when the first iPod was released. The iPod also now works as a personal organizer, holding up to 1,000 contacts.

The strongest feature is how well it works with Apple's iTunes music software. In a textbook example of what plug-and-play should be, the iPod automatically syncs with songs on the computer.

The initial download and subsequent updates are lightning fast thanks to Apple's FireWire technology. I transferred 1,010 songs, or about 4 gigabytes of music, in a little over six minutes.

The iPod's FireWire cable also carries power, recharging the lithium polymer battery whenever it is plugged into the computer.

Though various hacks are available online to make the iPod work with a PC, Apple currently only supports it running on a Mac.

Sorry, Dell Dude.


Windows users looking for the quick transfer speeds of the iPod and automatic synchronization with a computer-based song library do have an option: Creative's Nomad Jukebox 3.

It stores twice as many songs as the iPod on its 20-gigabyte drive, but is roughly twice the physical size and weighs in at 10.2 ounces.

Shaped like a small portable CD player, the Nomad doesn't easily slide into a pocket, though other features suggest its designers didn't really have that use in mind anyway.

Even if it's a bit bulky to bring along on a mountain biking trip, the Nomad works fine in the home, car or office. Like the RioRiot and iPod, it certainly beats hiring a DJ for a party.

The Nomad has ports for just about every conceivable attachment. Beyond headphones, it can record from a microphone as well as send music out through a four-speaker system.

Got a fancy CD player that sends optical signals out? You can rip tunes from it using the Nomad's optical line in. Sound is given special attention. With Creative's EAX technology, any recording can be made to sound as though it was being played in a cathedral, theater or even a bathroom.

To be honest, I didn't get much out of listening to Limp Bizkit in the ''cathedral'' of my Volkswagen Golf. A variety of equalizer settings got the sound just right for my ears.

Music and words also can be sped up or slowed down without affecting pitch. It also can equalize songs' volume to keep all songs at an even level.

Creative plans to sell an FM radio attachment and docking station that turns the unit into a boombox. There's even an infrared sensor for a remote control.

And a slot for a second lithium ion battery, which would double its playing time from about 11 hours to about 22 hours.

Songs can be transferred either by a very slow Universal Serial Bus cable or IEEE 1394, the same standard as Apple's FireWire.

Even with the fast connection, the Nomad downloaded 330 songs in 6 minutes -- the same time it took the iPod to transfer more than 1,000.

The Nomad's LCD screen isn't as sharp as the other models and navigation takes some getting used to.


The iPod so far works just on Macs. The Nomad so far works just on IBM compatibles. SonicBlue's RioRiot works on both.

It also has the sharpest and largest LCD display. It clearly shows what song is playing and what's coming. The rechargeable lithium ion battery lasted more than 10 hours. And the 10-ounce Riot has a built-in FM radio.

It also has the most advanced music selection system. Playlists can be created on the fly for a given decade, genre or album. It also remembers the most listened-to songs and can create a playlist off that, too.

All that's great, but the Riot still disappoints.

Of the three players tested, it is the only one that transfers songs solely by USB 1.0. In the six minutes that the iPod loaded 1,010 songs, the Riot managed to load just 34.

The Riot also suffers from a confusing layout of buttons and the odd placement of the headphone port right next to the power port. Yes, the power jack fits into the headphone jack -- a quick way to burn $400.

The Riot also is saddled with RealNetworks' RealJukebox, a clunky, outdated program that reminds users to upgrade whenever it is launched.

The problem is that the upgrade, RealOne, isn't yet officially supported. I upgraded anyway and hoped for the best. I slowly transferred a few songs before the connection died and I had to restart.

My Windows XP computer also crashed twice while running the free, ad-filled RealOne. After rebooting, a playlist of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos contained Dobie Gray's ''Drift Away.''

(Fortunately, the Riot uses Apple's iTunes on Macs, though the music doesn't automatically synchronize, as with the iPod.)

SonicBlue says it will soon release a kit for developers to add Riot support into other music programs.

It won't be a minute too soon.


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