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No technology is going to change your taste in music — you either like Hatebreed or you don’t — but the latest batch of MP3 players will change the way you listen to music, particularly when you’re on the go. MP3 is probably the first computer file format to be a household word. If you’ve used Napster — or litigated against it — you already know how MP3 works. Songs are compressed from big files into much smaller ones, without a noticeable drop in fidelity — OK, audiophiles and Oscar-nominated sound engineers may notice a difference. These smaller files fit better on portable devices, which don’t have the expansive disk space of your computer. Tiny hard disks have made possible all-new music players, like Apple’s iPod, which features 5 gigabytes of room to store your tunes. Below, we look at the iPod and two other devices: the Sonicblue’s Riovolt 250 and the RipGo. All of these slick devices have pros and cons. Except, that is, for the iPod. It’s perfect (as long as you have a Mac and $400). APPLE IPOD While other manufacturers are still honing their MP3 players, Apple hits a home run — make that a grand slam — its first time at the plate. Roughly the size of a deck of cards, the 6.5-ounce iPod can store over 100 CDs worth of music. It’s small, it looks great (a sleek white case with mirrored sides and back), the sound is first-rate and it holds the bulk, if not all, of your music. But the iPod’s real trump card is its spectacular ease of use. Simply load your music into Apple’s iTunes2 software; it comes with all new Macs and is available as a free download for others. Each time you plug in your iPod, the music library on your computer’s disk is synched with the iPod, so that any new tunes you’ve loaded into your Mac (or “ripped,” as the process is known) are automatically loaded onto your iPod. Similarly, any tunes you’ve deleted from your Mac are deleted from the player. Think of it as Palm Pilot meets MP3 player. Of course, you can override this feature and update iPod manually. Either way, because iPod uses Mac’s superfast FireWire connection, music is transferred extremely quickly, in about 10 seconds for a CD worth of songs. And if you have any room left, you can save data files to the iPod, as well, using it as a portable hard disk. The iPod’s navigation system is awe-inspiring. Song information pops up on a big, sharp, backlit LCD screen, and a clever scroll wheel lets you browse songs by album and artist. You can also call up playlists that you’ve created in iTunes; these are downloaded to your iPod along with your new songs. The wheel allows for one-hand operation, and makes it a snap to find the one tune in 1,000 you want to listen to. Battery power is rated at 10 hours (via iPod’s rechargeable lithium polymer battery), but we squeezed out more than 13 hours on a single charge. Like the other MP3 players we looked at, there’s a handy shuffle feature, so you can listen to songs in random order. But unlike the other products, the iPod has a big 32 MB buffer, where songs are loaded from the unit’s tiny hard disk, giving you up to 20 minutes of skip protection. So feel free to take the iPod when you go jogging. Just don’t lose it. It costs $399. RIOVOLT SP2.50/SP90 These units, from Sonicblue, look like ordinary portable CD players, but they do more than play ordinary CDs. They also play home-burned discs filled with MP3 and Windows Media (WMA) files. So a 50-cent CD can store more than 20 hours worth of music, which means that you can put your whole Who collection on a single disc — a neat trick. You’ll need several sets of batteries to play that disc, however, as the Riovolts go through batteries the way Pete Townshend went through guitars. The SP250 ($179.95) comes with rechargeable AA batteries rated for 15 hours of continuous use; our set barely lasted eight hours. The lower-end SP90 ($99.95) uses ordinary alkalines, which tapped out after a paltry five hours. Both units have a cheap plastic look and, as they have to be big enough to fit standard-size CDs, are bulkier than most MP3 players. But you won’t want to go jogging with these units, anyway: Jostle them, and they tend to skip tracks. If you can live with these drawbacks, however, the Riovolts are nifty players, particularly the SP250, which features an LCD display that shows song information, including title and compression rate; a handy remote control that operates the unit while it’s in your backpack or pocket; and an FM tuner. (The SP90 drops all these features, and features a low-resolution display.) The Riovolt also recognizes playlists that you burn into your CDs using software like Winamp, though you can program selections on the fly, too. Navigation isn’t as intuitive as it is on the iPod, and setting preferences is a bit unwieldy, but once you’re up to speed, you’ll find these players to be a great way to take all those mixes you’re whipping up anywhere you go. IMATION RIPGO Score one for ingenuity. Imation’s $349 RipGo isn’t just a handheld mini-CD player; it’s a hand-held mini-CD burner. You plug the unit into your PC or Mac, burn a disc, then unplug the RipGo and take it — and your discs — wherever you go. Since mini-CDs are a fraction of the size of standard CDs, the RipGo fits snugly in your palm. The tradeoff for using the smaller CDs is that they hold far less music than their larger cousins — just 21 minutes of uncompressed tunes. But burn the songs as compressed MP3 or WMA files, and you’ll still be able to fit multiple albums on one disc. The RipGo roars through batteries, and the unit must be turned on to charge. The display is sharp and backlit and shows a wealth of information, such as song title, artist, file type, compression rate and charge remaining, but it’s all crammed into a space roughly the size of an AA battery. As a burner, the RipGo is on the slow side, and the controls are spaced too closely together. A remote control would have been nice — as would the ability to program tracks. At 8 ounces, the sturdy-looking unit won’t weigh you down, and it didn’t skip, even when we ran with it. The RipGo is priced a bit too high, but if you don’t already have a CD burner, and don’t mind spreading your music collection over a few more discs, the RipGo just may be singing your tune. Alan Cohen is a free-lance writer based in New York and obsessed with the Beatles, a band of his parents’ generation. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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