How to Choose Between Types of MP3 Players

Different types of MP3 players do a lot more than play music. If all you want is sound, you can find MP3 players that pack a lot of storage space at an attractive price. Increasingly, though, consumers are looking for video and Web access on MP3 players, turning what was once a humble music player into a portable entertainment and communications center. That means more types of MP3 players for you to choose among.

MP3 Player Storage
MP3 players come in two varieties: hard-drive-based MP3 players and flash memory-based MP3 players. The style you choose will affect the flexibility of your MP3 player and how you use it.

Hard-drive-based MP3 players give you the most storage for the price, with some models running as low as $3 to $5 per gigabyte of storage. You can buy hard-drive-based MP3 players large enough to store more music than you'll ever need, thus making it unnecessary to rotate music due to storage constraints. The downside of hard-drive-based MP3 players is that they are built using moving parts and don't stand up well to extensive physical activity. If you plan to use your MP3 player when working out, choose a flash-based player or invest in a good case or a holder with shock absorbers to minimize possible damage.

Flash memory-based MP3 players are often smaller than MP3 players with hard drives, offer additional features and are not subject to problems from strenuous physical activities. They won't jog, skip or fail if they're jostled.

A flash-based MP3 player offers less storage space than a player with a hard drive, and you'll pay more per gigabyte for storage. Flash-based MP3 players can cost as much as $25 per gigabyte of storage. Flash-based MP3 players also top out at 16GB of storage, while hard-drive-based MP3 players may hold as much as 160GB.

Understanding MP3s
If you've never had an MP3 player, you might think that an MP3 is an MP3 and that there isn't much else to know. Unfortunately, that's not the case, as several protected MP3 formats exist.

Using Digital Rights Management technology, some music distributors encode specific file types so that they may only be used with a limited number of devices, or with a registered device. Apple's iTunes uses the file-protected AAC format, which only works with an iPod or iTunes music player. Many other music sharing services and websites use Microsoft's WMA format, which does not work on the iPod.

If you have a favorite music service, find out what file format it utilizes for protected audio files. If you use Rhapsody.com, Napster, or Yahoo! Music, you need an MP3 player capable of playing WMA files. If you use iTunes, the iPod is the MP3 player for you.

Not Just for Music Anymore
Most MP3 players go beyond simply playing music to storing photographs and video files. This can range from storing cover art from your favorite album to watching an entire television series on your MP3 player.

As with audio files, an MP3 player will only support certain types of video files. For example, iTunes video files will only play on an iPod or iPhone, while Amazon.com's video service only works on Windows-based devices.

Some MP3 players also incorporate WiFi for easy, wireless content transfer. This lets you surf the Web or check e-mails wherever you happen to be.

WMA MP3 Players
Windows-based WMA MP3 players are compatible with virtually every music service except iTunes. If you're looking for a WMA MP3 player with a lot of storage, check out Microsoft's Zune or Archos' Portable Multimedia Player. The Archos Portable Multimedia Player has extensive storage space and a large screen, measuring in at 160GB with a 4.3" LCD, along with WiFi Web connectivity. The Zune is closer in design to the iPod, with a maximum of 80GB of storage and a 3" LCD screen. If you want a portable multimedia unit, consider the Archos. If you're looking for a simple WMA MP3 player with a lot of storage, check out the Zune.

There are many other flash-based WMA MP3 players made by Creative Labs, Insignia, SanDisk, Samsung, Sony and Microsoft. Popular features you might want to consider include photo slideshows, video playback, voice recording, an FM tuner and Bluetooth or WiFi for easy file transfer.

Those who are serious about audio quality will be happiest with a name-brand MP3 player. While a generic MP3 player may be cheaper, they are also prone to freezing, crashing and poor craftsmanship, leading to early failure and poor sound quality.

Apple iPod
In spite of its proprietary file format, the iPod is the most popular MP3 player. iPod popularity is due largely to its user-friendly menu navigation and companion music library software: iTunes. The iPod syncs seamlessly with iTunes when you plug it into your computer, updating the music library and charging simultaneously. The iTunes Store contains more than six million songs in addition to movie rentals, TV shows, podcasts and audio books.

Apple offers a broad range of iPods at an equally broad range of prices. If you want a flash-based MP3 player, check out the iPod Shuffle, available in 1GB or 2GB models. If you're looking for a little more storage, check out the flash-based iPod Nano, which comes in 4GB and 8GB models with video screens. If you have a large collection with a serious need for space, the hard-drive-based iPod Classic might be the right choice for you, with up to 160GB of storage space. For an MP3 player designed for multi-tasking, check out the iPod Touch, complete with multimedia support and WiFi connectivity.

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