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PC World

MP3 for Christmas? Maybe


November 24, 1999
Web posted at: 11:16 a.m. EST (1616 GMT)

by Cameron Crouch

(IDG) -- They may fit in a stocking, but next generation MP3 players still only play about an hour of music and won't hit the shelves in time for Santa.

New portable MP3 players were out in force at the recent Comdex show in Las Vegas. Ranging in size and price, most players offer good sound quality in a compact, skip-free, and sometimes brightly-colored package. Almost all come with some sort of desktop jukebox software to download, store, and rip (make MP3 files from CD tunes) music on your PC.

MP3: The new wave

Still, expect to buy additional memory cards to keep the music playing.

Sony: After-Christmas sales

Among the flashiest new entries is Sony's VAIO line of multimedia products, the MusicClip. At 1.68 ounces, the MusicClip might well be the lightest, if not the smallest, MP3 player. The $299 unit is scheduled to ship in January. It plays MP3 and ATRAC3 (Sony's proprietary coding and decoding standard) and, thanks to a new agreement with Microsoft, will soon be compatible with Microsoft's Windows Media files. The device incorporates Sony's OpenMG security technology compliant with the Secure Digital Music Initiative.

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Of course, small size comes at a price; the MusicClip offers 64MB of built-in storage but no removable storage media. For that, Sony pushes the slightly larger Memory Stick Walkman. Available in January for $400, the Memory Stick Walkman comes with a 64MB MagicGate Memory Stick media -- Sony's competitor to SmartMedia and CompactFlash cards.

"Memory Stick has up to 64MB capacity now, but will be up to 256MB and beyond by 2001," says Mark Vilem, Sony's senior vice president, digital imaging and memory stick.

Petite players, short tunes

Another new but small device is Pine Technology's D'music Mini. Measuring approximately 2.2-by-2-by-0.8 inches, it is meant to be worn around the neck and will cost $139 when it goes on sale sometime early next year.

To fit inside its petite package, the D'music Mini uses SanDisk's MultiMedia Card for storage instead of the SmartMedia cards found in many of the other players. Just as SmartMedia offers a smaller alternative to CompactFlash, the MultiMedia Card is smaller still but suffers from lack of capacity.

The D'music Mini, which only plays MP3 files, will ship with a mere 16MB MultiMedia Card. "It plays about 15 minutes of music but is half the size of a regular MP3 player," says Conny Chan, marketing coordinator at Pine Technology. "We expect to upgrade to 128MB by summer."

Chan says Pine is banking on the MultiMedia Card replacing SmartMedia in MP3 players. Other device makers such as RCA are looking at the higher density CompactFlash cards. Often used in digital cameras, CompactFlash is a common removable storage medium. Despite its larger size, several MP3 player developers are considering switching to it for its higher capacity.

Burn your own MP3 CD

MP3 buffs also often burn their own CDs. At Comdex, Pine Technology unveiled what might be the most practical music device, the Pine D'music MP3 CD player that plays MP3 CDs as well as regular CDs.

"With the CD player, you can use your PC to make CDs at 12X compression," says Brian Hamilton, a vice president at Pine Technology. "Wal-Mart will soon start distributing MP3 CDs."

Another MP3 device maker, I-Jam, also unveiled a MultiMedia Card device, the I-J 101. A USB device, it works on both Macintosh and PC platforms. Available in blue, red, silver, yellow, and black, it is on sale now for $299 and includes 64MB of storage, or about two hours of continuous music play.

Updates to popular players embrace Windows Media

New players from Sony as well as S3, RCA, and Creative Labs support formats other than MP3, such as Microsoft's Windows Media format (WMA). Microsoft claims WMA compresses files to half the size of MP3, which means you get twice the playback time.

At Microsoft's Comdex booth, S3 demonstrated a prototype of the newest Diamond Rio player, which supports Microsoft's Windows Media and Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM). Like Sony's Open MG technology, Microsoft's DRM technology allows you to transfer secure, downloaded WMA music files to a Rio player, while still preventing replication of the music.

The new Rio will add support for WMA files to the MP3 and MPEG2 files that the $270 Rio 500 plays. According to Microsoft, WMA compresses files to about half the size of MP3, which translates into twice as much play out of a device's 64MB of memory. Price and availability of the new Rio are not set.

Next to the Rio, the most popular player has been Creative Labs' Nomad, available now for $250. Early next year, Creative will ship the Nomad II, which offers a programmable processor and the higher price tag of "under $400." Programmable processors can be altered to decode other compression formats such as SDMI, WMA, and Liquid Audio. Like the current Rio 500, the Nomad II will connect via USB port, eliminating the need for a cradle.

The usual suspects

Large, familiar music labels have joined the MP3 player space in the form of RCA and Sony. RCA's Lyra is available now in two configurations: 32MB for $200 and 64MB with a cassette adapter for the car for $250. Lyra plays MP3 and RealNetwork's G2 formats, and it will support other formats in upgrades. It uses the larger CompactFlash card rather than SmartMedia or MultiMedia cards.

Ever since the recording companies and hardware manufacturers announced the Secure Digital Music Initiative, consumers have heard the buzzwords about SDMI-compliant devices and songs. What does that mean? Will your favorite MP3 songs play on new secure devices, and will older devices play the watermarked secure songs?

Companies like Sony and RCA, which have a strong interest in protecting music copyrights, worry the most about security in devices. The security question is still in its early stages, says Mark Hardie, a senior analyst at Forrester.

"The security issue is driven by fear," Hardie says. "I don't believe SDMI will come out with any prohibition for playing back the music that's already out there. It's too early to predict how piracy will be minimized. There will be devices with no security that are just as safe as secure ones."

Format wars subside

Despite the plethora of coding and decoding (codec) standards, Hardie predicts that over time, format won't be an issue. "You'll see codecs that play almost anything," he says. "Consumers might choose higher quality compression formats for a home stereo and lower fidelity compressions for portable devices."

While each player offers unique features in terms of size, shape, and even which formats it supports, you still take a plunge to buy one. The current devices are complicated, and you must spend $300 or more to get an hour of music, Hardie says.

That's a tough sell when portable CD players cost about $60.

Comdex: S3 to demo new Rio MP3 player
November 15, 1999
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November 1, 1999
Access your CDs anywhere
October 18, 1999
The MP3 Revolution
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Music trade mag merges with MP3 site
November 18, 1999

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