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Ah, summertime: sand, sun, water, the radio playing beach music . . . On second thought, scratch the radio. The airwaves are filled with shrieking commercials, and the people on the next blanket might not like your taste, anyway. Better to have a portable music player, with a good set of headphones. It’s less sociable, perhaps. But hey, it’s your vacation. Forget about old-fashioned stuff like portable CD players. I don’t know about you, but once a compact disc leaves my living room, there’s a good chance it’s gone forever. Besides, who wants to lug around a bunch of disks? Being portable these days, at least musically, means toting a light, portable MP3 player. But I’ll make a further distinction: You should tote a portable hard-disk MP3 player. There are lots of adorable little gadgets that play MP3 music files. But they use little memory chips, good for only a couple of hours of music. With a big hard drive, you can store lots of music on a device the size of a deck of cards, give or take a few centimeters. You can carry everything from Vivaldi to Radiohead in your pocket. And you can leave your precious CDs home. These portable music machines have hard drives of anywhere from 10 GB to 40 or more. To give you an idea of what that kind of capacity means, I have a 10 GB iPod from Apple Computer, Inc., and right now I have about 1,600 songs on it, plus an audio book I downloaded from audible.com. And it’s got almost another 2 GB to spare. It will change your life. I’m only exaggerating a little. There are a couple of steps to portable digital nirvana. First, you import the music onto a computer. To do this, you need music jukebox software, which either comes with new computers (Windows Media Player for PCs, iTunes for Macs) or is easily downloaded (MUSICMATCH for Windows). Pop a CD into the computer, hit the “import” button, and your music is “ripped” onto the hard drive, as geeks and teenagers say. As an officer of the court, you’ll naturally want to acquire your tunes legally, either from your CD collection, or from a bona fide online music service, more about which later. (We won’t go near illegal online music-sharing; ask the nearest teenager if you’re really interested. But you shouldn’t be.) Now you’ve got to get the music from your PC to the portable player. That, too, is easy enough. Just plug the device in, and most jukebox programs will copy the songs over to the player. (With Apple’s iPod, the gold standard when it comes to these things, the process is completely automatic and easy even for most technophobes.) There’s one wrinkle, in the way your player connects to your computer. Make sure that both your player and computer have either a FireWire/IEEE 1394 port or USB 2. Earlier players (and PCs) used regular USB ports, and transfer speeds were painfully slow � make that glacial. If your computer doesn’t have a fast port, you can put one in without too much pain. It’s that online stuff that gets complicated. Music companies haven’t really come to grips with the digital world, even though they’ve made desultory attempts at selling tracks online. They offer a few online services for Windows PC users that require you to sign up for a subscription. You pay a monthly fee, and you might or might not be allowed to copy tracks to a computer and/or a portable music player. This is not exactly customer-friendly. Apple, bless its perverse heart, has come up with the simplest way to buy music online and transfer it over to a portable player, specifically, to its own little cult object, the iPod. The problem for most people is that right now, the store, called the iTunes Music Store, only works with the Macintosh (they promise a Windows version by year-end). It’s integrated right into the computer maker’s iTunes jukebox software. Hit the “store” button, and you’re in. Find a song or album, click on “buy,” and the music, for 99 cents a song, is zapped onto the Mac. Then it’s a few more minutes to transfer the music to the iPod. It’s that easy � and it’s added significantly to my monthly credit card balance. Potential rivals are scrambling to catch up. Real has come up with Rhapsody, which works with Windows, and beats Apple on the per-song price: 79 cents. The catch: Rhapsody still makes you subscribe, so to download you have to pay a monthly fee of $9.95. Apple’s service is free; you pay only for what you buy. Will your portable jukebox experience be just a summer fling? It doesn’t have to be that way; once you get hooked on a Archos Jukebox or an iPod, you start finding reasons to keep the CDs in their jewel cases. Various gadgets hook up to your player and broadcast through a car radio. With a simple “Y” connector, you can hook one up to your home or office stereo. And with all of this, those beautiful old 12-inch album covers become an even more distant memory.

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