If video killed the radio star, then the personal digital- music player must be another nail in the coffin. Considering the wild popularity of these little gadgets, which let you carry your music library in your shirt pocket, it's hard to imagine anyone listening to the radio these days.
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Although companies are pushing models with more bells and whistles, the Apple iPod remains the reigning king among digital-music players.
"I guess you can relate it to a Cadillac or something," says Brian Manzo, a veritable digital-music Yoda working at Circuit City (223 Andover Park E., Tukwila, 206-439-0359; also in Bellevue and Federal Way). "You might not need it, but you may feel like you have to have one."
A few reasons behind the iPod's popularity are its compatibility with both Windows and Macintosh computers. It also gets consistently high marks from critics for having user- friendly controls and software, which enable users to transfer songs from CDs. Apple now offers eight iPod models, from 4GB to 60GB and ranging in price from $250 to $600.
The 4GB iPod Mini and the iPod Photo are this year's additions. The Mini ($250) comes in five colors—blue, silver, green, pink, and orange. Although it only holds about 1,000 songs, the Mini's small design (3.6 by 2.0 by 0.5 inches) makes it easy to sneak into any classroom or cubicle. It weighs about 3.5 ounces and lasts about eight hours on one battery.
The $600 60GB iPod Photo lets users store about 15,000 songs or 25,000 photos and features a 2-inch, high-resolution color screen. It has a 15-hour battery life and is a little heavier than other iPod models. The iPod Photo also comes in a 40GB model for $100 less .
Some brands, like Creative Labs, iRiver, and RCA, are hoping to steal some of Apple's market share by offering more options at a cheaper price.
For example, Creative Labs' Nomad MuVo² has several more features than the iPod, and it's $50 cheaper at $200. It has an extra gigabyte of space, longer battery life, and weighs about 3 ounces less than the iPod. Its size (about 2.6 by 2.6 by 0.8 inches) is a little bigger than a Post-it notepad. Like the Mini, you can choose from five colors.
Similarly, Creative Labs' 40GB Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra is a cheaper option to the 40GB iPod. It's about $270—$30 cheaper than its iPod counterpart. Creative Lab's 40GB player surpasses the iPod in quality as well as price, says Troy Huyah, a salesman at Fry's Electronics (800 Garden Ave. N., Renton, 425-525-0200). "Creative is the best," he says. "It's a little bigger, but it costs less."
The Nomad's 14-hour battery life is two hours longer than the iPod's. However, it's a little heavier and larger than the iPod (around 4.5 by 3 by 1 inches). The obvious drawback for Mac users is that Creative Labs' players are only compatible with Windows computers.
iRiver is one of the companies offering all-in-one video, MP3, FM radio, and camera consoles. Its iRiver PMP-140 is smaller and thinner than a tissue box and costs $600. It has a 3.5-inch screen and holds 40GB's worth of data, which amounts to about 160 hours of video or 1,200 hours of music. The PMP-140's battery life is 10 hours for audio and 5 hours for video. The company also offers a 20MB version for $500.
Creative Labs is also pushing its version of a multimedia player, called the Creative Zen Portable Media Center. For $500, the 20GB player is roughly the same size as iRiver's, but it has a longer battery life—22 hours for audio or seven hours for video.
The RCA Lyra Audio/Video Jukebox is about the size of a Palm handheld computer. It holds 20GB's worth of data and costs $500. It has a 3.5-inch color screen and will store either 80 hours of video, 300 hours of music, or 10,000 pictures.
If several hundred dollars for a gift is too much, there are cheaper alternatives. Frugal shoppers have some less-high-tech options in MP3 players like the Rio Forge Sport. Costing only about $170, this player has 18 hours of play time on one AAA battery and 256MB capacity, or about 120 songs. While players like the iPod operate on internal hard drives, the Forge Sport stores its data on removable memory cards. That makes the Forge Sport cheaper and lighter at 5.6 ounces.
Players like the Forge Sport are a better option for joggers, bicyclists, purse snatchers, or anyone else with an active lifestyle.
Finally, if you are a certifiable cheapskate, there are even lower-priced options, like the RCA Lyra RD1071. "This is a bare bones MP3 player," Manzo says. The 128MB player costs $70. The RD1071 holds four hours of music and has no voice recorder or FM radio.
"You have to decide how you want to use it and how much you want to store at a time," Yoda adds. "Do you want to store just a little bit, or do you want to store a large collection?"