Of all the supposed revolutions carried out on the Internet during the past year, MP3 had the most dramatic impact. The compressed sound file format became a tangible sign of progress and change, which meant that innovative companies saw dollar signs and began producing portable MP3 players. The first of these, the DiamondRioPMP300, was the prototype for a new generation of portable players—the Sony Walkman of the future.
Or was it?
The Rio generated scads of attention when the record industry accused it of promoting bootlegging, even taking Diamond to court. The case was eventually dismissed, and it's been a digital free-for-all ever since. The manufacturers haven't produced an ideal player yet, but there are now at least a dozen on the market, at prices ranging from $120 to more than $1,000 (and available at online and brick-and-mortar electronics retailers).
The big question: Is it worth it to buy one of these early second-generation models, or would it be more prudent to wait until the technological dust settles? At the moment, most MP3 players allow users to download between 30 and 60 minutes of high-quality music, which can then be played while jogging, walking to work, whatever. They're fairly easy to use. Most players come with detailed instructions (with better support online) that walk you through the process, which involves downloading music from your home computer to the portable player. Some technical hurdles remain, and the very process of having to return to your PC every time you want to change the playlist will be off-putting to some. In that case, wait until the new year, when more advanced players hit the market with expanded memory size (future players will probably allow 10 hours or more of music storage) and better features, such as hi-tech voice recording, built-in CD players, and radio capabilities—they're even making PDAs (personal digital assistants) with MP3 capability.
But for now, there are several sufficient units for those who want to get started. If you've got the patience (and the cash) to try out one of today's MP3 players, the rewards are enormous and fleeting. Analysts predict that consumers won't start buying downloadable music in significant numbers until 2003, so in the meantime most record companies and Web sites offer free downloads of songs, increasingly by major artists. Amazon.com has a free download area with more than 100 free tracks, and a search at Listen.com will turn up at least some familiar songs—which are free for the taking.
And as the record industry predicted, bootlegging and pirating have become rampant. You want a copy of Bruce Springsteen's Paris show? You want a copy of the latest Kid Rock single? You want entire Beatles albums? As long as you don't have a moral hangup about stealing, this music is free. Despite the industry's stated goal to mandate that MP3 players weed out such unauthorized recordings by this year's Christmas holiday season, they failed; you can bet that this won't be the case next year, so this is a completely illicit, limited-time offer.
Okay, so now that you know the background, what about the actual products? Currently on the market are a slew of players from Diamond. The trendsetter has added to the original model with new colors and expanded memory (the Rio 500 has an easy-to-use USB interface and can store up to two hours of music or 30 hours of spoken word, all for less than $300). RCA has a few models available under the name Lyra; the RD221 will set you back about $200-$250, depending on how much space you want. Audiovox's MP1000 isn't as easy to find, but this player has received high marks from the tech press, with writers citing the high sound quality, though the MP1000 did lose points for requiring exterior sound cards to add extra memory (as many of these players do, actually, and at a not-inexpensive cost). Another popular item out of the gate is Sensory Science's Rave MP Media Player, which retails in the $300 range and comes standard with an impressive 64 MB of memory (about one hour of good quality music).
Again, purchasing any of these players is advised only for those who have a high level of patience when it comes to new technology. If you know a music fan who uses her Walkman like another set of ears but who doesn't even have an e-mail account, don't add an MP3 player to her Christmas wish list. This time next year, when Sony, Philips, and a host of others enter the field, and when myriad software and hardware developers create more effective components, MP3 players will be as easy to use as an iMac, and the Revolution will be portable at last.
Richard Martin is the music editor at 'Seattle Weekly.'