MP3 Player Buying Guide by Epinions reviewer Stan Goodner


This MP3 Player Buying Guide is intended to assist consumers with their purchase by providing information about MP3 players and insight about effectively narrowing down choices based on personal preferences.

The first step towards choosing the right MP3 player is done by deciding how one wants to enjoy digital music. Some people use their players all the time, while other players are used only outside the home. Some people use their players while exercising, while others use their players when relaxing in comfort. Some players are designed to be simple, while others come loaded with options and features. Keeping these ideas in mind while browsing the selections of MP3 players on the market will help one pick a player that will suit one's lifestyle.

Additionally, it's good to set an initial price range too. MP3 players can start as low as $50 and continually get more expensive well past the $600 mark. Setting a flexible budget will ensure the right player at the right price. While it's the goal of this MP3 Player Buying Guide to help prospective buyers sort through and categorize choices, ultimately, it's personal preference that determines what features are or are not as important.


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MP3 Player Hardware Compatibility

Hardware requirements and operating system compatibility are the very first bits of information that should be researched before anything else is taken into consideration. Computers that do not meet the minimum requirements will not be able to use the MP3 player or the included software needed to run it. Manufacturer's web sites provide user manuals and technical specification sheets that detail the necessary requirements. Most MP3 players are compatible with Windows-based operating systems, though some are compatible with both Windows and Macintosh-based systems. A few MP3 players are also compatible with Linux. Aside from the general operating system type, the requirements can be version specific; a player may work with Windows XP only if the computer has been updated with Service Pack 2. If a computer meets the operating system requirements it can usually meet the hardware requirements for an MP3 player. Shoppers who own a computer older than five years will want to double check their computer's processor speed, system memory, USB connections, and available hard drive space.



MP3 Player Software Compatibility

Music file compatibility is key when it comes to one's entertainment library dealing with the MP3 player. There are a number of different music file types available and not all players are compatible with all digital music. It is a good idea to check and ensure the player will be compatible with one's music file types, formats, and music subscription service (where applicable) at home.

  • The most commonly used music file types are: MP3 (MPEG Layer 3), WMA (Windows Media Audio), and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding).
  • The most commonly used video file types are: MPEG, MOV, WMV, and AVI. MPEG video can be found in different formats and not all formats are compatible with every player type. Some examples of video formats are: MPEG-11, MPEG-12, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, and XviD.
  • The most commonly used photo file types are: JPG, BMP, and GIF.

Some MP3 players allow a drag-and-drop approach to loading music and video, while others require the included proprietary software as the means of file transfer. Oftentimes the proprietary software is used to keep a music library singular to an MP3 player's owner in an attempt to curb sharing. Some MP3 players make checks towards digital copyright protections, while others are agreeable to play everything available. Some MP3 players also support video. Most MP3 players don't need additional driver support to be able to communicate and work with computers, but it's always recommended to check the product for the minimum required specifications to guarantee the product will work as intended. Purchasing an MP3 player that is immediately compatible with one's computer and music library at home will help guarantee against unnecessary headaches.


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Ease of Use

Contrary to popular belief, sound quality, while important, is not the most critical aspect when choosing an MP3 player. You can have the best-sounding player on the market, but if navigation is too complex or such a hassle for the average user, that particular device isn't going to see as much success as the manufacturer would like. Ease-of-use takes on two separate aspects that should have equal consideration: Software Interface and Hardware Response.

  • The software interface is essentially the programming that manages the MP3 player itself. Much like the operating systems found on our computers, it allows us to control how the MP3 player serves us. We load/unload files through it, sort through or create music lists, change the volume or equalizer settings, customize displays, save preferences, and any other function that the manufacturer has available on the specific model. Regardless if one is tech-savvy or not, a simple and effective user-interface is appreciated by all. We like our electronics to do what we want them to do, immediately, and with the least amount of hassle or time wasted. Complicated interfaces that require tricks, excessive patience, or don't deliver the necessary commands desired are more likely to lead to user frustration.
  • Hardware response goes hand in hand with the software interface. An MP3 player may have the best software to back its hardware, but it's a moot point if it lacks reasonable button controls to deliver. The button controls should be intuitive to the user, well-placed, and responsive that they need only be pressed once to perform their proper duty. MP3 player controls can and will vary greatly depending on the type of player, design, and intent for use. A lack of button control or excessive resistance to input can also lead to user frustration when handling the player.


Sound Quality

The sound quality of MP3 players is another aspect that can't easily be judged without some actual hands-on experience. In a nutshell, either the player sounds good enough or it doesn't, but in the end it's all relative to each individual person. While most MP3 players will satisfy most average users, there are those with an ear for music that know how their songs are supposed to sound. These consumers will definitely seek out MP3 players with the best sound quality reproduction and never settle for less. Since it's not entirely possible to listen to every MP3 player before buying, sufficient pre-purchase research would be necessary to assist shoppers in determining which models/manufacturers will suit their needs. Product reviews that focus on the sound quality of the MP3 player will prove the most useful to audiophiles.



Construction Quality

Construction quality of a device should be taken into consideration, depending on where the player is most going to be used. Active people, who would want to bring their music with them while jogging, cycling, or exercising at the gym, will see greater benefit from well-made MP3 players. In this case, rhythmic motions or the occasional drop can eventually lead to damage or defects, so it's important to choose a player with a sturdy build. Some MP3 players are constructed mostly out of light plastics, while other better-built players come with slightly heavier materials. Like with most electronics, LCD screens can be particularly fragile and end up being an expensive part to replace. Some are more prone to scratches than others. Even if an MP3 player is going to be carried around in hands, pockets, or bags, it's a good idea to purchase one that is going to last through normal wear and tear.



Battery Life

Not all MP3 players will provide the same amount of uptime from a single battery charge. While this doesn't really affect MP3 players that mostly stay home, it tends to be an important factor for players on the go. Consumers concerned with long-term MP3 player use between charges will want to keep battery life in mind. Some players have an internal battery charged by AC adapter or USB sync cable connecting to a computer, while other players use standard AA or AAA batteries.

The benefits of internal batteries:

  • rechargeable
  • less moving parts
  • the sync cable can usually charge the unit
  • greater energy capacity.

The benefits of standard external batteries:

  • easy to replace
  • don't require a computer to charge.

It's a good idea to consider that using an MP3 player for videos (where applicable) will drain batteries faster than when it's only playing music. Most players will achieve at least 10 hours of continuous music play before requiring a full recharge. Some players can last upwards of 25 hours. The average amount of continuous video playback time that should be expected from a video-capable player should be about 4.5 hours. These values can vary during actual practice since adjusting the volume and screen brightness will use more or less battery power.

Internal batteries may or may not be removable. Some manufacturers design their players so the battery can be replaced by the owner. Other MP3 players would require the manufacturer or authorized repair outlet to perform a battery replacement. Rechargeable batteries have a limited lifetime based on average use and charge cycles, and this information isn't always available from technical specification sheets. The means of battery replacement will help determine if owners can do it themselves or if they'll need to ship the player out to have it done. Sometimes the cost of shipping and replacement is close enough where consumers can spend a little bit more and buy a new MP3 player instead.



Hardware

Part of what determines an MP3 player's uptime is the actual hardware it's providing energy for. Smaller and more compact players have a greater likelihood of lasting longer per charge, especially those with smaller screens. They are also easier to carry around in bags or in pockets. Larger MP3 players can provide more than just simple music playback. Many sport a full-color LCD display to watch videos, powerful audio hardware, and high-capacity data storage to house entire collections of music. The amount of music or video that a player can hold is determined by the size of the files - higher quality files are bigger - and the storage capacity of the unit.



Storage Options

There are two ways that an MP3 Player can store data: Hard Disk and Flash Technology.

  • MP3 players that use hard disks are not unlike the drives that run most electronics, including our computers. They offer storage capacities that aren't available to flash-based MP3 players. Hard disk based players generally use more power than their flash-based counterparts, and since they have more internal moving parts they can be subject to damage or data loss from physical accidents. One is more likely to see storage capacities similar to that of a computer hard drive, starting as small as 20 gigabytes and scaling upwards to over 80 gigabytes. These are ideal for users who want to carry as much music and video with them as possible, either as entertainment or just for portable storage. Most hard disk players have an internal battery which is charged by an included AC adapter or USB sync cable capable of recharging while connected to a computer.
  • MP3 players that use flash technology are able to achieve smaller, lightweight, and creative designs which can be easier to carry around. Flash technology isn't as fragile as hard disk nor is it easily susceptible to data loss or corruption from physical force. Users of flash-based MP3 players enjoy skip-free music, even when carrying their device while exercising. Much like the flash memory cards used to store photos for digital cameras and camcorders, the unit itself would have to be broken to ensure loss of all the data. Low-capacity flash-based players can hold as little as 256 megabytes, while others can store as much as 8 gigabytes. Some players provide built-in card slots that give the option to expand capacity with compatible flash cards. Some flash-based players use AA or AAA batteries, while others have an internal battery charged by AC adapter or USB sync cable.


LCD Screens

LCD Screens, while creating the cornerstone of mobile electronics everywhere, are not all created equal. Computer and television screens have the luxury of staying indoors [mostly], but many MP3 players have the demands of outdoor performance expected of them. Any decent-quality MP3 player will have an LCD screen that can perform well indoors. Buyers intending to bring their MP3 player outside with them will want to pick a model whose screen is bright, sharp, and colorful enough to be visible to enjoy under sunlight and all conditions. While no LCD display can perform 100% outdoors, the higher-quality ones will be able to function adequately to suit the needs of file navigation. Better ones can support their full color screen for video playback and enjoyment. Manufacturers are even bringing out touch-sensitive LCD screens which make their products fun and easier to use. A respectable screen size for an MP3 player, measured diagonally, is about two inches. Shoppers who are looking for players with better video viewing will want to consider screen sizes ranging from four to seven inches.



Additional Features

Creativity has ushered in additional functions to all our portable devices. No longer are MP3 players just simple, tech-upgrades to the Walkman or Discman of old, even if most players today have a built-in FM Tuner. There are MP3 players (generally ones that support video playback) that come with a TV-out connection and cables, allowing users to plug the player directly to a television set for video playback on a larger screen. Some can even record video off the television set the same way. Newer MP3 players can allow digital camera USB connections to view or transfer images. Some even take it a step further with built-in card slots to accommodate flash cards for photos, video, or music. While all MP3 players support headphones, there are models with built-in speakers. A few players support a microphone and can double as a voice-recording device as well. Some players have built-in wireless support for same-brand/model-family sharing and connectivity, bluetooth for wireless connection to bluetooth-enabled speakers or headphones, or wireless support to and from one's own computer or wireless network. Manufacturers have included daily-use functions such as: calendars, task lists, and sleep/wake timers.

The smaller features of an MP3 player can help potential buyers narrow down their selection by picking what they feel will suit best. Manufacturers are always incorporating new ideas into their product lines, so consumers will have an ever-increasing selection of options to pick from and consider.



MP3 Player Accessories

MP3 player accessories are oftentimes an afterthought that inflates the final purchase price, much to the dismay of budget-conscious buyers. Keeping the cost of accessories in mind while shopping can help maintain a pocketbook and enjoyment of MP3 player ownership. Just about every player on the market comes packaged with a pair of ear bud headphones. Some come with cases too. The complimentary accessories are good enough to get one by, but most users would recommend purchasing a headphone upgrade for better or more comfortable listening, or a rugged case to protect the device. There are companies whose entire product lines cater to accessorize portable electronics, so one may find entire store aisles dedicated to portable players and filled with: headphones, cases, screen protectors, stickers, cloth wipes, portable speakers, full-sized speakers, FM transmitters, replacement cables, flash memory cards, batteries, and much more. Retail shoppers can ask sales associates for the minimum-recommended accessories to go with any MP3 player purchase. Also know that most sales associates are going to offer an alternative to the manufacturer's warranty.



Warranty

Any consumer who has had to deal with item returns and repairs to a manufacturer comes to understand the nature of "limited", "fine print", and patience. Very few warranties foot the cost of all repairs and shipments. Not all repairs end up successful, and owners aren't guaranteed appropriate replacements when repairs fail. Oftentimes manufacturers will substitute refurbished units for unrepairable ones, though sometimes they will go and make full replacements, brand new in the box. In almost all cases, both manufacturers and retailers alike will provide extended warranties or service/replacement plans for electronics, but at a cost. For the consumer, it all boils down to chance, value/service, and price, and it varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and retailer to retailer. Being informed about the cost vs. benefit (fine print) of these warranties will help consumers decide if or which additional coverages are right for them. In the end, knowing the honest truth behind these electronic insurance policies is the best help one can get.



Recommended MP3 Player Brands

Name-brand electronics and MP3 players come with that premium cost, quality, selection, and service. Usually. The biggest grief consumers have with manufacturers is service, especially concerning technical support for defective or malfunctioning units. This doesn't always happen with every brand or model, save for first-generation production, but it's only an inconvenience that is suffered by the minority (usually). Otherwise, brand-name manufacturers offer features, quality, and reliability suited to please even the pickiest consumers. Each brand has its own strengths and weaknesses, but the nature of selection and competition give buyers more to pick from, even when it concerns price. One will find a range of players, from affordable to expensive, that are good for any occasion.

Those who have never owned an MP3 player may want to consider Apple's iPod as a first purchase. The iPod is lightweight, easy to use, and provides fantastic performance. Each Apple MP3 player comes with iTunes, which lets users listen to, purchase, and sync music files available on the computer or through Apple's service. Apple has products for every need: compact and portable, high-capacity video, and in between.

Shoppers who are looking to purchase an MP3 player ideal for an active lifestyle will want to consider Sandisk and iRiver branded products. These two manufacturers offer a variety of compact flash players designed to be carried with people on the go.

Shoppers who are looking to purchase an MP3 player that also excels as a video player will want to consider iRiver, Archos, and Creative branded products. These manufacturers have a selection of MP3 players equipped with larger LCD screens and high-capacity storage drives designed with video playback in mind.

Shoppers who are looking to purchase an MP3 player which is compact but can still play video will want to consider Sony and Microsoft in addition to the previously-mentioned brands.



With proper consideration and research, purchasing an MP3 player isn't as daunting as one might think. In the end, the models that compliment personal preferences will be the best the market has to offer as long as careful selection is always kept in mind each step of the way.


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