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The Buyer's Guide to MP3 Players (Page 1 of 2)

Ask any teenager what the "must have" gift on their list this holiday season is, and you will undoubtedly have the majority suggesting the MP3 player. The Sony Walkman of today, MP3 players offer the convenience of portable music in a very small package.

A Little Background

At the heart of the MP3 player is a music file. Similar in some ways to a compact disc, which stores digital music in a disc format, the MP3 also stores digital music. The one big difference is that MP3 files are compressed to a much smaller size, which enables the player to store more files. The wonder of the whole operation is that the quality of the music does not suffer as a result.

What makes an MP3 player different than the Walkman of the past is the fact there are no storage devices that need be inserted (such as a CD or tape) into the unit to play music. The player is essentially a mini computer that stores a digital file. When called upon, the file will play music. In addition, the player is much smaller, with most flash players similar in dimensions to a credit card.

The components of a MP3 player are similar to a computer. It contains a data port, memory, microprocessor, digital signal processor (DSP), playback controls, audio port, amplifier and power supply. In order to download music, the data port from your MP3 needs to be plugged into a computer. MP3's come with software programs to manage files and handle the entire download process. Once data files are downloaded to your MP3, they are stored in the unit's memory. Depending upon the type of MP3 player you own, you might be able to store your entire music library.

The thinking part of the player is in the microprocessor. It handles all the information that the user inputs through the control panel and sends it to the appropriate locations in the unit. It also displays information about the song on a readout screen. The DSP receives the microprocessor's signal regarding the selection the user would like to hear. It goes through the memory and pulls the correct item up. In addition, the DSP makes any necessary sound adjustments to the audio before it is played. The DSP file is also where the decompression of the MP3 files takes place. In order to be played, the file must be "undone" from its digital format and broadcast in sound waves. The DSP takes care of this job.

The amplifier takes the converted signal from the DSP and sends it to the audio port where it can be enjoyed. The audio port can connect to a pair of headphones or speakers. Finally, in order to operate the unit, there must be a power source. Smaller MP3 units run on AAA or AA batteries, while others come with a built in rechargeable battery or can be plugged into an AC adaptor to save battery power.

Types of MP3 Players

There are two basic types of MP3 players, hard drive based and flash drive. While each type has a similar operation to that mentioned above, the way they store the data is significantly different.

Hard Drive MP3 Players

If you are the type of person who wants immediate access to every piece of music you own, then a hard drive player should be your choice of MP3 unit. This type of player has a built in memory and can store a large amount of data. The drives on these players start at 4 GB and only get larger from there. One of the drawbacks to this type of unit is that that they are not as durable as the flash based models, because hard drives have moving parts inside that can be damaged if dropped or otherwise jarred suddenly. Additionally, because they are typically constructed around a 1.8 inch hard drive they can be heavier and more cumbersome. Hard drive models are perfect for individuals who want their entire library in one place or frequently download other media (such as video) for use on their MP3 player.

Flash Players

The original (very small capacity by modern standards) MP3 players used this design. Even though their capacity has grown over the years, they generally can't come close to drive-based players for the same prize. Flash players have a memory of 128 MB (mega, not giga) to 8 GB (for mucho denaro) and are much more streamlined and shock proof. Because they store a limited amount of music (typically 8 to10 hours of music), you may need to change your music library by downloading more songs from your computer and deleted unwanted tracks from your player. The trade off, however, is that they are small and light, so they strap on to your arm or fit in your pocket with ease. This makes them particularly attractive to individuals who will be using them during rigorous activities such as sports.

Something else to watch out for...  Not all flash drive-based players are as fully-featured as their hard drive-based competitors. The iPod shuffle, for example, has no screen interface, but just randomly selects and plays whatever songs are on the device. In contrast, though, the Sansa Clip is also incredibly small, but allows the user most of the features they'd expect in an MP3 player, despite its size. You just need microscopic fingers and good eyes. Wink So, make sure you're getting all the features you want and need if you choose to go micro.

A Note about Micro Hard Drives

One almost-universal law about technology is that the more it advances, the smaller it gets.  MP3 players are also now being built with "micro" hard drives, as an attempt to bridge the gap between the hard drive-based and the flast drive-based units. The micro hard drive MP3 player can also hold a large volume of music (however, not the capacity of the true hard drive players). Because the hard drive processor they use is smaller (about 1-inch in diameter), they are lighter than hard drive players, however they are still almost as delicate as the larger hard drive units. 

Hot Picks

I've listed a few hot MP3 players on the next page.

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