Reg Group Test Apple's iPod has drawn buyers' attention to the hard drive-based music player market over the last few years. However, the Flash-based player market hasn't stood still during this time and has continued to evolve from the iPod-sized Rios of old into more compact form factors and squeezing in more music capacity. Today, a typical 'micro' MP3 player will offer up to 512MB of storage in a case no larger than a ciggie lighter.
What limits the size of a Flash-based MP3 player is the battery, the controls needed to work the device and a display capable of showing meaningful information. Many of the devices we look at here cram all of the above into packages small and light enough to slip in any pocket, yet are easy to control.
The first, however, pushes size to the limit - ridding itself of a separate box in the process...
The Sport MP3 does away with the usual MP3 player form factor entirely. Its design philosophy is simple: if you're going to be wearing headphones, why not build the player into the headset?
That's what the manufacturer has done, and the result is a pair of 'back of the head' 'phones that contain 128MB of Flash memory, basic controls and a small AAA battery for power. And, crucially, no wires.
You do need a wire to connect the Sport MP3 to your PC - the supplied USB cable, which connects to the 'phones via a tiny jack hidden behind an equally small and fiddly flap.
Unfortunately, the Flash RAM isn't exposed as a mass storage device, so you can't mount it on your desktop and copy over whatever MP3 or WMA files you'd like the device to play. Instead, you have to use the bundled Windows-only application called SlidingManager.
While music transfers are reasonably quick, the software provides no ripping function. Nor does it support playlists - you just add songs to the list, and the device starts at the top and works its way through one by one. You can use the bundled software to re-order the list, but it's hard going: it doesn't work by drag and drop, only by selecting a song then clicking an up or a down button enough times to put the track in the right place.
The Sport MP3 has a built-in equaliser, but it's limited to the five pre-sets built in to the bundled software: normal, classic, live, pop and rock. We found only slight differences between each setting.
Wearing the 'phones feels odd- they're heavier and bulkier than usual 'back of the head' units - but you get used to it. The set weights 80g without the battery. The controls are fiddly, but kept to a minimum: just an on/off switch and a jog-dial that serves as the play/pause button, plus fast forward, rewind and track skip.
CoWon iAudio CW200
The iAudio is one of the better looking players on the market, and it certainly has one of the best user interfaces.
The device is built into a Sony Vaio-style violet and silver plastic shell. At one end is the microphone and headphone socket, at the other the AAA battery hatch and the covered USB port. On either side are two jog dials, one for setting the volume and navigating the menu system, the other for play, track skip and track scan.
Between then, on the face of the device, is a nice, long two-line LCD, that manages to convey more information than some much larger panels on bigger, hard disk-based players do, including volume, battery level, mode, equaliser setting as well as track name, band, album and time data.
The dual jog-dials are a very nice touch. We found the iAudio's dials too squidgy - they need to pushed a long way in to select a menu item or to pause playback - but there's no doubt that they provide a much better level of control than the tiny, fiddly buttons most small MP3 players feature.
Pushing the lower button in displays the menu - a line of buttons each highlighted by turning the dial in the appropriate direction. The first button, Mode, lets you flip between the iAudio's MP3 playback, FM radio and voice recorder facilities, each of which have line of menu buttons of their own.
Nothing new here, you might think, but the iAudio's menu is fast and responsive. Particularly for mode settings. Call up the MP3 mode's EQ menu, for example, and as you scroll over each option - rock, pop, jazz and a very bassy classical - the player automatically switches settings, on the fly. So you don't have to select the EQ pre-set you want and navigate out of the menu structure before you get to hear the change.
Switching between mono and stereo FM works the same way, though the iAudio's stereo reproduction is rather hissy, as is the case with almost all devices that are too small to include a good FM antenna. Mono reproduction was nice and crisp, though.
Alongside the play/skip jog dial, which in FM radio mode switches between station pre-sets, is the record button used for voice memos and for recording radio programming. The quality of radio recordings is poor, but it's fine as a solid-state dictaphone.
The iAudio is one of the heavier players we looked at, but its weight is by no means a deal-breaker and of little relevance to anyone carrying it a pocket.
Decktron MyVoice Plus DMR-1832
From the heaviest player, to the lightest: the MyVoice Plus. It's the smallest too, though not by much. As its name suggests, the MyVoice, works like a dictaphone as well as an MP3 player. Its recording quality is surprisingly good - the compression runs to about 16Kbps - and the microphone is capable of picking up conversations across a room. And unlike the iAudio, pressing the Record button automatically takes you to recording mode - you don't have to select that option first.
That said, you still have to turn the machine on in the usual way - you can't just hit the Record button and start speaking. It supports voice-activated recording, however, so you could leave it running, speaking as and when you need to.
MP3 playback is fine, with four pre-defined equaliser settings - pop, rock, jazz and classical - but no way of making your own adjustments. Like the iAudio, EQ pre-set changes are made on the fly. You make such changes using the Menu button, which has different actions depending on whether the device is playing a track or not, and how long you hold it down for.
While this does make is easy to access certain features quickly - such as EQ - it also means you have to stop the track you're listening to before you can change, say, the screen contrast, the backlight timer, or any other of the menu options. Going straight to the menu system would be generally quicker and more flexible and save button presses.
MyVoice's buttons are small, and have a loose, rattly feel. Indeed, the device as a whole has a cheap, plastic feel.
On its face, are the tiny menu, fast forward, rewind and play/stop buttons. On one side sit record and volume buttons, and a control-lock switch. Below them sits the mini-USB connector, hidden by a flip-up cover. The single AAA battery is replaced by opening a cover on the back of the device. The microphone, lanyard attachment point and headphone socket are found on top of the unit.
MP3 files are copied to the MyVoice using the bundled, basic SkyManager software, which also allows you to upload voice recordings. You can also copy over any other kind of file, allowing you to use the player as a data store. The downside is you need to load SkyManager on any other computer you want to access those files from. Unlike the Jens MP-100, MyVoice doesn't work as a true Flash drive, so its use as a data carrier is limited.
Jens of Sweden iBead MP-100
Of all the players we looked at, the Jens of Sweden's MP-100 was one of the one we were most keen to try. It's essentially a USB Flash drive with MP3 playback, an FM radio and voice recorder bolted on. The beauty of this approach is that you simply plug it straight into any USB-enabled system, drag your music files over, eject the mounted drive and you're away. There's no special software to install - unless you count generic Windows 98 USB drivers - and cross-platform support is guaranteed - handy if you're not a Windows users.
It also means the player can double up as a portable data carrier, allowing you to move important files quickly between machines or use the same home folder no matter what machine you may be working on.
That's the ideal, but the MP-100 fails to achieve perfection. For a start, it ships without a manual - you have to download it. Only then can you learn how to set the player's volume, for example.
Controlling the device is fiddly, and compared to other machines, are positively minimalist: just a jog-dial, a play/pause button, a Record/repeat button and a 'Hold' control lock switch. Even the battery is built-in, charged via the USB connection.
If the MP-100 offers few controls, it nevertheless provides the user with plenty of settings to adjust. Where other players have a handful of equaliser pre-sets, the MP-100 has a nine of them - adding reggae, live, extreme bass, techno and dance to the more commonplace rock, pop, classical and jazz. Better still, you can apply your own settings, using a five-band slider set-up, controlled with the jog-dial.
Similarly, the MP-100 allows you to set your own voice recording sampling rate to best balance sound quality with recording capacity. Sampling rates from 8-48KHz can be selected, though given the nature of the built-in microphone some of the higher rates are perhaps superfluous.
The MP-100 also provides easy track and file deletion, and even a basic folder navigator so you can see what's stored on the device without having to connect it to a computer first.
We had some problems doing so on our Mac. Un-mounting the drive by dragging its icon to the trash can, as per any other storage device, works, but the player almost immediately triggered the OS to remount it. With a little practice, we were able to time the device's physical disconnection ahead of the remount, thus avoiding the risk (we hope) of data corruption.
We didn't have this problem on a Windows machine, but since cross-platform compatibility is one if the MP-100's USPs, it's a significant problem. Hopefully future firmware updates will fix the problem.
Like the MP-100, the SlimBox is powered by a rechargeable battery. This time, it's removable, and the manufacturer handily bundles a separate charger. It also includes an AAA battery add-on adaptor allowing you to use standard batteries as back up.
Such attention to detail can be seen all through the SlimBox. It's only player we tested, for example, to ship with a remote control unit. And while almost all of the others have recording facilities, this is the only one with a microphone jack in addition to the built-in mic.
SlimBox looks like a fat PCMCIA card - though it too uses a USB connection for file transfer. The main controls - volume up and down, fast forward, rewind, stop and play/pause buttons - sit on the front under the four-line display and microphone. The LCD's orange backlight isn't as aesthetically pleasing as other players' blue lights, but the display is nice and clear.
On the left-hand side are the Hold slider, covered USB port and 3.5mm microphone jack. On the other side site the earphone socket, remote control port, and Record and mode buttons. Below them is the battery hatch.
Pressing the Record button takes you straight to record mode - press it again to start recording. Like other players, the sound quality isn't great, but it's sufficient for voice memos. Recording through the microphone jack is handled separately, and kicks in a higher quality compression scheme. There's a bundled 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable so you can hook SlimBox up to a hi-fi and directly encode music.
If SlimBox has a flaw, it's the control system, which depends on pressing the Mode button quickly or for a longer duration. It's too easy to end up in the wrong mode, and the player drops out of its 'mode selection mode' too quickly. A proper menu system would make the device much easier to use.
All the players we tested gave us decent audio quality, so we focused our attention on usability and portability. We liked all of the players we tried, but the iAudio, the MP-100 and the SlimBox stood out. The iAudio styling, UI and size make it a winner, while the MP-100 scores on its cross-platform support and the SlimBox for overall attention to detail.
That's not to say the others were stinkers - the Sport MP3 won plaudits for its unique form factor, though its controls are difficult to use and it can be uncomfortable to wear. The Decktron is a fine product, but unremarkable, and we weren't so keen on its light, plasticy feel. ®
Available from: Cool New Gadgets
Price: $159 (128MB)
Available from: MP3 Players.co.uk
Price: £179.95 (256MB), £129.95 (128MB)
Decktron MyVoice Plus
Available from: MP3 Players.co.uk
Price: £79.95 (128MB)
Jens of Sweden MP-100
Available from: MP3 Players.co.uk
Price: £174.95 (256MB), £129.95 (128MB)
Available from: MP3 Players.co.uk
Price: £199.95 (512MB), £169.95 (256MB), £134.95 (128MB)