MP3 Players and Accessories Product Guide

MP3 Players and Accessories

Where have all the CDs gone? They are still around but there are millions of listeners around the world who can pick and choose their music for storage on digital media drives. To most people, such a player is called an iPod. But iPod is one brand among many brands that produce digital media players. Digital media players are replacing portable CD and cassette tape players. Pretty soon, it's likely they'll replace portable DVD players too.



MP3 and Digital Media Players


A digital media player is a small portable device that, instead of playing discs, plays digital files that are stored on built-in memory. A digital media player is a relatively simple device. It consists if a USB port, memory, a volume control, a power source, and a headphone jack. In principle, the USB port communicates with a computer to access and load music files on memory. Once it's in memory, you connect your headphone and listen to it. Because lots of memory can be stored on a very small size chip or drive, you can literally store and listen to thousands of songs as memory files on a very tiny device. The original name of this device was the MP3 player, so named because of the common type of audio file that was used - MP3. As these digital media players became more sophisticated, they added (TV-like) screens, about 2-inches in size (or larger). This let your organize and scroll through your songs. Better yet, you were also able to store pictures and videos as visual files. So the MP3 player began to evolve. Yet the root remained the same. You had to get the files into the player in order to listen and view them. There are many brands of digital media players. Among these, one is extremely successful - the Apple iPod.

How do you get those files? Basically, you need a computer with Internet connection. Throughout the Internet there are literally thousand of websites that contain more than hundreds of thousands of music or sound and video files. By connecting the player to your computer, you were able to download (transfer) those files to your computer or directly to your player. Some of these files were free but most were available at a fee. Some websites require a membership fee with free file transfer privileges but most require a fee per song. The connection between the player and computer is a USB port - one of the fastest ways of transferring digital information. Many MP3 players include software that allowed transferring your CD discs into song files for free storage on your digital media player. That way you can listen to your CD collection on your tiny player.

MP3 is among the oldest of these audio files that are stored and played on portable media players. MP3 is a compression system. That means a song file would be compressed to require minimal memory storage. When it was played, it would decompress for listening. Since its introduction, literally dozens of competing audio and video files have been released. Among the most competitive are Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV), conceived by Microsoft and are widely distributed through many websites.

In addition to the availability of audio and video files, there are also files that contain books and magazines that can be read on digital media player screens. These books are also available from download sites. If you plan on using your digital media player as a digital book reader, one with a large enough screen is recommended.



Apple iPod vs. other Brands


The only exception is the Apple iPod. It uses its own proprietary compression file system. Owners of the iPod have exclusive access to Apple's tune site known as iTunes. This is a cost per file service. It is only compatible with the files that iPod supports. Its success was its friendliness. The iTunes site was so inviting and easy to use. The files are reliable. Because there are many iPods in use, iTunes has greater access to audio and video files. In many cases, popular and classic television shows and movies are often available through iTunes. While a few other websites might support iPod files, iPod users enjoy iTunes because it provides 100% pure iPod-friendly files. In addition to iTunes, iPod is also MP3 compatible. Partly because of iTunes, the iPod is the number 1 selling digital media player in the world.

While players from other brands may not access iTunes, they offer wide compatibility with virtually all the available audio and video file systems. So while you might not transfer files from iTunes, you can access/purchase files from Amazon, AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, and many more websites throughout the world.

Choosing an iPod or a digital media player of another brand is a personal choice. Most of them are very reliable. Among other brands, you might find models with greater memory capacity, larger video screens, and smaller sizes. They may also offer greater value at memory storage per cost.

If you're seeking ultra simplicity, iTunes is often imitated but is the friendliest download site around and is a proprietary site exclusive for iPod owners. The iPod's popularity has spawned many third-part accessories for the iPod, including cases, straps, and other fun things. There are even radios, speakers, and A/V systems that let you dock your iPod for play-through.

If you're computer savvy and are seek freedom to choose among your resources and download sources, other brand players will fit your style. They offer a wider breadth of features. Some offer screens up to 7-inches (diagonal). Virtually all are great for sports, recreation, lounging, or traveling.

There's enough space for every brand in the digital media player field. Each is a viable contender to fit your lifestyle.



Types of Memory Storage


Flash Memory

This is a solid-state device, a memory chip, with circuits that hold a certain amount of memory. Flash memory gets its name because the microchip is organized so that sections of memory are activated in a single action or "flash." The memory is non-volatile - reliable and stable. It can only be erased by electronic means and (in a digital media player) through a re-recording action made by you. An example of flash memory is the digital memory card used in a digital camera or cell-phone. The difference in most media players is that the memory card is integrated inside the unit and is not removable. In a few circumstances, a player may have a slot for adding an additional memory card.

Flash-RAM is an economical and very stable form of memory. Inside the flash chip, information is stored in little pockets called cells. A floating gate protects the data written in each cell. Tunneling electrons pass through a low conductive material to change the electronic charge of the gate in "a flash," clearing the cell of its contents so that it can be rewritten, if you need to do so. Initially, flash memory had relatively low capacity. Over time, technological advances of these chips found capacities increase from less than a million (MB) particles of memory to several billion (GB) parts. With increasing memory due to advanced gate technology, larger capacities (16GB and above) may also be referred as SSD - Solid State Drives.

The advantage of flash memory is that it can the digital player can have an extremely small size and a feather-light weight. Some are so small that they can be hung as a neck pendant or clipped directly to an article of clothing. Another advantage is the technology is very inexpensive. Many Flash-memory based players are priced less than $100. A significant number of products are available at under $50.00.

Hard Drives

These are disk drives, essentially small hard drives. Their capacities can go anywhere from 20GB (billion bits of information) to well over 200GB. The higher capacities are obviously very effective for storing and playing many video files, as well as audio.

Hard drives add size to digital media players, as the drives are larger than Flash memory chips. Some products, like those made by Archos, can have screen sizes of 7 inches diagonal. Some even have direct Internet access capabilities.



Approximate Sizes & Weights


Most hard drive based media players are approximately 2x4 inches and less than 1" thick. An iPod Classic with 120GB hard drive memory and a 2-1/2-inch screen is about this size. Hard drive players, depending on screen sizes, may weigh about four to five ounces. Some with large screens may weigh over 8 ounces. A typical flash-drive unit may weigh less than 1 ounce, up to about 5 ounces with a large screen.



How much memory?


The old wisdom of more is better may be valid here but higher memory capacities also drive up the cost of the player. A 16GB unit may deliver up to 4,000 songs or about 60 hours of video. But there are certain parameters that are followed as a reliable measuring stick. How long is a song? Song claim is typically based on 4 minutes per song at 128 kbps MP3. Video claim is based on WMV 9 video encoded at 500 kbps. A 4GB audio player may deliver 1,000 songs based on 4 minute songs, encoded at 128 kbps WMA. Slower speeds can deliver higher capacities but also compromise sound quality.

The basic rule to follow is that you'll get about 125 songs per 1GB of memory. Video takes a lot more memory. Using the parameter that you can get about 60 videos on a 2-inch screen with 16GB, you might get near 4 videos with 1GB. Many 1GB units, however, may not be able to display video. Video display usually requires at least a 1-1/2-inch display minimum. Screen size typically increases the size of the player unit, regardless of the type of memory used. Media players designed for audio files only are, therefore, very tiny. They generally have memory capacities of 4GB or less. They are also the most affordable.

Many users, however, enjoy the ability to view pictures and videos. Those players comprise the largest group among players sold.



Built-in Radio


Almost all digital media players include a built-in FM radio. Among the exceptions are the Apple iPod models. There are some models (example: Slacker) that receive digital radio streams and allow download of songs directly from these streams. Some allow free downloads off this stream but many may have a small membership fee for unlimited use.



The Compression Debate


The key concepts in virtually all of the digital media files are associated with compression. Compression reduces the size of the music or video file to reduce memory space. According to compression advocates, irrelevant portions of the file are removed. True audiophiles might find this repugnant. They'd note that these so-called "irrelevant" data might actually be important to the listener. Proponents, however, indicate that most of the removed data are perceptually unheard portions of the music.

The argument is that music exceeds the human hearing capacity of 20 to 20,000 Hertz (vibrations per second). Average human hearing of a 30-year adult may register about 40 to 16,000 Hertz. Reducing the data on the upper end significantly reduces the scope and size of the audio file.

General listening tests among groups have demonstrated that, among most popular music types, few can discern the differences in a compressed file from a CD file. Some have noted drops in the upper end of the frequency range. This, when noticed, can be easily corrected by using better headphones. Many owners usually replace their original headphones (that came with the player) for new headphones. These generally fall in a $25 to $100 price range for delivering better sound to your ears.

Whether (in-ear) earphones or headphones are better is strictly a personal choice for comfort or activity.



DRM


DRM means Digital Right Management. Many online music stores employ DRM to restrict usage of music purchased and downloaded online. These restrictions are usually imposed by the publishers of the original music or video on the file. DRM files were encryted with restrictions placed on your ability to use and transfer files from one player to another.

There has been considerable tension and rancor among online content file libraries, including Apple's iTunes. It is expected that these DRM restrictions may be removed in lieu of another method that will satisfy all involved parties.

More download stores are adopting DRM-Free policies, including Apple iTunes and key independent sites. It's likely that DRM will no longer be a major issue.



Popular Download Sites


Feeding your digital media player with additional content can come from different sources. You can convert your current CDs to digital music files. Or you can download music from other websites. Downloading music or video content is usually priced on a song, book, or video basis. Examine the requirements of each website you download from as some restrictions may apply. Some may have restrictions. For example, you may only use downloads for that specific brand of player.

There are basically two ways to download content for transfer to your digital media player.

Most content (music, video, books) are available on a per track (or per song) basis. While an entire music album might be available, you can choose to download only the songs you want. Most sites allow you to hear a sample of each song. Videos and Books are usually sold as a download in entirety. Apple's iTunes site is an example of this type.

Many download libraries charge membership fees and permit (up to) unlimited downloads as long as you maintain membership. This is usually a great value if you plan on downloading over 30 songs each month. Cancelling membership, however, may mean that all your downloads may no longer be accessed. In many cases, that membership site might offer a way to buy the tracks you want to keep on a 'per track' basis for a listed fee for each track. Rhapsody is an example of a membership download site.

You're likely to find many subscription sites. Some may be more reputable than others. We suggest examining them thoroughly before choosing the one you use. Make sure there's a customer service department that you can easily contact regarding questions about use of site, billing, and cancelling.

Here are some popular download websites:

iTunes

iTunes is the official Apple download service exclusively for the AAC music files used by iPods. Here you can choose among millions of songs. There are DRM-free songs available from 4 major labels. There are also television shows and videos for view on your compatible iPod. Choose to rent or buy blockbuster movies, get HD episodes of your favorite TV shows, subscribe to free podcasts, and shop for audiobooks. You have music and video in iTunes. You have photos, contacts, and calendars on your computer. You want to get it all on your iPod or iPhone. iTunes syncing does exactly that. You can save your purchases on an iTunes library. Your library contains everything you've imported and your iTunes Store purchases: music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks, iPod games, applications, and ringtones. As your collection grows so does your library space.

The concept of iTunes is to be as friendly as possible but aims its marketing exclusively to iPod and iPhone users.

Rhapsody

This is a rather unique twist. Part of Real Networks, Rhapsody doesn't charge you on a 'per song' basis. You have full, unlimited access to Rhapsody's content as long as you maintain membership at a monthly fee (about $12/month). Throughout your membership, you have unlimited access from their library that consists of more than 6 million songs. Some MP3 players, such as Haier's Ibiza, have special arrangements with Rhapsody for special discounts and computer-free downloads.

While you have unlimited access to content while you maintain membership, content is no longer active when you discontinue membership at Rhapsody. At that point, you're offered purchase of the song at the going fee. You get to mkeep the songs you've paid for. The others will no longer be accessible.

It's a unique concept. Let's say it costs about $1.00 per song and you plan to download more than 14 songs per month. The membership plan is very much in your favor. Still, even with membership, you're not limited exclusively to the content of their website. But you're rights to the music downloaded from Rhapsody is limited only as long as you maintain membership with them.

Napster

One of the oldest download websites. Napster ran into some difficulty a while back. They were offering tracks without authorization from record labels and publishers. Now they're clean abd offer a membership service somewhat similar to Rhapsody.

CNET Downloads

A very popular site offers free and for fee downloads from various libraries. It has wide file compatibility and no membership is required.

Walmart

The retailer to the world also offers MP3 music files by track or by album.

MP3DownloadBox.com

Offers a library of over 15 billion files of audio and video. It offers free downloads through a membership service and most files are both Macintosh and PC compatible.

There are literally thousands of websites sourced from around the world. Make sure they are clear about customer service policies, pricing, and file quality. Try to find reviews about some of these sites and read them thoroughly. Some sites may have infected files.



Accessories


In-line remote controls, carrying cases, flash memory, FM transmitters, headphones, docking stations, USB kits, extra rechargeable batteries and car adapters. Purchasing any of these extras will greatly enhance your MP3 players, some of you can't live without them, where as for others it will make your music more convenient, they also offer greater protection and make your music listening much more enjoyable.

Headphones

The quality of the sound that you hear from an MP3 player usually depends on the headphones. Most players come with an in-ear earphone. The set of headphones included with your MP3 player is basic. If you want to significantly improve your way of listening to music it would be advisable to consider upgrading your headphones. If your flying inside a plane or in a noisy train during commutes, spending a little extra will be a wise investment. Many earphones available for sale have linings to customize the fit to your ear. This helps deliver better sound as well as secure fit when being active.

Some headphones include a noise-canceling feature that electronically filters out external sounds to help keep external noise from interfering with your listening. Some sound enthusiasts shudder at using electronic filters because they tend to reduce frequency response at the low end. Some headphones use a physical design vs. using an electronic filter to help filter out external sounds. Bigger bulkier full-sized headphones have foam cups that surround your ear to help isolate external sound. You can also get in-ear models that form a seal in your ear canal to acting as a filter sounds from getting in.

Some professionals believe that listening to very loud music may compromise your hearing over time. So using headphones that filters out external noises instead of just increasing the loudness settings will help your hearing.

Finding the best headphone to meet your needs is the best additional investment when buying your player.

For more information on headphones please click here, HEADPHONE GUIDE

Case

Since most likely everyone else will have the same brand or model MP3 player you have, getting a MP3 case will make your player more personal and better protect it when your traveling or help protect it when it falls to the floor. If your jogging and don't have pockets to carry your player you can get armband cases that hangs high up the arm so you don't have to worry about cords getting in the way. Belt clip cases allow you easy access your MP3 player instead of leaving it inside briefcase, backpack or purse. All cases come in different styles and material, you can find form fitting cases such as neoprene or a rubberized material that prevents the MP3 player from getting scratches, to metal cases that can withstand being crushed and damaging the screen.

Home and Car Adapters

FM transmitter allows lets you listen to MP3 files through the FM radio section of your car or home stereo. Connected to your MP3 player, it broadcasts a wave to be received by an FM tuner. Most of these wireless transmitters let you adjust to certain frequencies as different locations have varying frequencies available on the band.

Docks

Docking stations can either plug into the computer to allow you to sync your music daily or a stand-alone unit that has amplified speakers' built-in that allow you to enjoy powerful stereo sound performance with rich deep bass sound and control everything through a remote control. What are also available are other docking units that let's you enjoy videos on a TV screen as long as your MP3 player supports video. Portable docks can also come with an 8" screen built-in for watching on a larger screen while you're on the plane or commuting to work by bus or train.

Of most of the MP3 players on the market, only Sansa, Zune, iPod, and Zen have accessory docks. These can conveniently charge your compatible player. It can also link it easily to a computer, or radio. If a dock is important to you, make certain that the model you're interested in offers that option.

Screen protectors

If you own a MP3 player that has a large screen to watch videos or is a touch screen, it is advisable to consider a screen protector. A screen protector is an ultra thin and super tough protective clear sheet that invisibly protects your screen display. They help resist scratches and abrasions to keep your player looking great for years. Easily replaceable, these protector help keep the actual screen clean.



Summary


Digital media players come in all shapes and sizes. For greater content storage, hard drive units offer better value per GB of storage but they are also larger and heavier than flash-memory units. They're original function was for music but now offer video, TV, and other features such as WiFi Internet access. While iPod is dominant in sales, there are millions from other brands around the globe.

Most models come with software for converting your non copy-protected CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray discs into digital files. Most songs and videos are downloaded from various websites by payment per track or through membership access. These download sites, available on the Internet, can provfide access to tens of thousands of audio and video for your media player.





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