MP3 Player Buying Guide

MP3 players now come in all shapes and sizes, offering every feature from basic playback to video and broadcast capacities. With all those options, choosing just one can be quite a challenge. Here’s a simple buying guide to help you make the right choice.

First there was the portable cassette player. Next came the Walkman, which brought the world’s first consumer earphones, then the Discman, which had teenagers the world over lugging their entire CD collections to school. Today, carrying your music around is more fashionable than ever, with MP3 players coming out in all colors, sizes, finishes, and range of extra features.

All those options can be fun, but how do you choose just one? It all boils down to what you want out of your gadget, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. Here’s a quick guide to choosing an MP3 player that suits your needs.

Storage types

The type of storage you choose affects your MP3 player’s size, capacity, durability and price. The three main types are flash, expandable memory, and hard drive.

Flash MP3 players use non-volatile memory, which means they don’t need power to retain information. This eliminates the need for moving parts, as is the case with hard drives. Flash players have the longest battery life and can be made in really compact sizes. They’re also pretty cheap—you can get a decent player for under $150. The major drawback is capacity; most mid-range flash players can hold up to 4GB (around 1000 songs).

Expandable memory players are great for those who are constantly adding to their music collection. They usually make use of flash drives, as the storage units are small enough to switch and store. You can use this feature to organize your music or even back up your collection. If you’re considering an expandable player, try to get additional storage from the same manufacturer to avoid conflicts. Expandable memory players range from $100 to $200.

Hard drive MP3 players use the same storage system as your computer. They are mainly set apart by their enormous capacities—up to 160GB of music, or 40,000 songs! Most hard drive players also store video and pictures, so you can really maximize the storage. If you have a huge collection, make sure to organize your songs into playlists, as it can be hard to scroll through an entire library just to find one song. Hard drive players go from $200 to as much as $700.

Video and photo capability

Mid- to high-end MP3 players offer more than audio playback; they also allow you to store videos, pictures, podcasts, and even documents. Video capacity requires a larger screen for viewing, so they’re a little bulkier than audio-only players. If you’re getting a video-capable player, it makes sense to invest in larger storage—there’s no sense storing video in a 2GB memory card. Video is a good feature for frequent travelers who need mobile entertainment, but they can be too bulky to use during workouts.

Computer compatibility

Older MP3 players used to work only on selected operating systems; a classic example is Apple’s first classic iPods which worked only on Macs. Most new players are universally compatible, although some may have problems with Windows Vista and other new operating systems. System requirements are printed on the player’s box, so be sure to check it out before buying.

Also consider how you’ll be connecting to your computer. USB is still the main interface for audio players, but a few high-end models connect via FireWire. This allows faster transfers ideal for copying large video files or even entire libraries. Compatibility can be a problem, though, as not all computers have a FireWire interface.

Transfer options

Some players have to be installed in your computer to be able to take songs. In most cases you can download them for free on the manufacturer’s website, or an installation CD comes with the package. Transferring songs usually involves “syncing,” or synchronizing files and folders on your player with those on your computer. This can take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to take advantage of extra features such as playlists, song lyrics, and album art displays.

If you like to keep it simple, look for a simple flash-based player whose sync function is optional. These players will work just like flash drives—plug it in, copy and paste your songs, and you’re ready to go.