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Before You Buy a Portable Audio Player

Looking for a portable digital audio player? There are plenty of choices, but this can just lead to confusion. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you buy.

How Much Memory Do You Need?

CD-quality audio consumes about one megabyte (MB) of memory per minute, so a 64MB unit can only hold about an hour of MP3-encoded music. You can always erase the player's contents and add more music, but more memory is always better. My advice is to buy as much memory as you can afford. Also, check to see if the player's memory can be expanded later.

Flash Memory, Hard Drive, or CD?

The earliest players used built-in flash memory, later supplemented by plug-in memory cards, and 64MB was as large as they came. Now, models like the iRiver iFP 595T and Rio Forge come with up to 512MB of flash memory. Hard drive players like the Apple iPod, Rio Carbon and Archos Jukebox hold from 4 to 60 gigabytes or more (a gigabyte is 1,000MB). Many CD players come with MP3 decoders built in, and they hold 700MB on inexpensive disks. Finally, you can play MP3's with some cell phones and PDAs.
• iRiver iFP series flash players
• Apple iPod hard drive players
• Panasonic SL SV570 CD / MP3 player

How Will You Use It?

If you use your player while jogging or playing sports, a flash memory player is the best bet. Hard drive players hold incredible amounts of music, but their size, weight and fragility are a disadvantage. CD players are even bulkier, and are prone to skipping under rough use. If your budget is limited, a CD MP3 player is a good choice. You will need a CD burner on your computer, though. Hard drive players are sexy and versatile, and are the best choice if you have a large music collection.

What Kind of Files Will It Play?

All portable players work with MP3 files, but some will play WMA, OGG and other formats. Not all players support the protected AAC format used by iTunes, so if you buy music from Apple's famous online store, be sure your player works with it. Napster, MSN Music and Wal-Mart stores sell WMA files. If possible, buy a model that can be upgraded to new audio formats as they become available. Some players also double as storage devices, so you can transport pictures, documents and anything else.

Is it Convenient to Use?

Before you buy a player, pick it up and try out the controls. Are they easy to reach, and logically arranged? Is the display clear and easy to read? Some units come with a remote control - a convenient feature for joggers and other active people.

Does it Have the Features You Need?

Some portables can record voice or music through a built-in microphone or line-in jack. Many models also feature an FM radio. The latest gadgets can also store and display pictures and video. If these features are important to you, shop around for the best option.

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