Technology Review: Picking A Music Player

How to choose the best one for your sport
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How to choose the best one for your sport

For hiking: Oregon Scientific MP120 512MB MP3 player/FM radio

This compact player can hold up to 120 songs and lasts 9 hours on one charge. The MP120 is completely waterproof and even floats. $130, oregonscientific.com

For running: Philips Model PSA232 Active Range

The PSA232 is a rugged flash player with up to 512MB of storage space and a built-in stopwatch. Designed with the runner in mind, this tiny player includes a pair of light sports headphones and a bright LED for track info and stopwatch functions. $119, philips.com

For gym workouts: 512MB iPod Shuffle

It's small, light and unobtrusive. While some might be put off by the lack of LCD screen, the simplicity of this ultra-slim MP3 player will win lots of iron-pumping converts. Add a handy armband for $29 or slip it around your neck with the included lanyard. $99, apple.com

Hard Drive Players

Hard drive MP3 players can store much more data but are prone to skipping or failure if you mistreat them during a long run. Hard drives are delicate creatures, consisting of a moving read head and a set of aluminum platters that spin at almost 5000 rpm. However, if you're planning on keeping your entire MP3 collection in one handy device, a hard drive player can't be beat.

When looking for a hard drive player, consider your current music collection. Do you have hundreds of CDs? A huge collection of MP3s? Do you use a Mac or a PC?

Those who want a nice selection of music, about 1500 songs, and the ultimate in portability should consider a 4 to 6 GB player. These tiny players contain a miniaturized hard drive and usually last about 8 hours on one charge. Need more for the long haul? Consider a larger player with up to 60GB of hard drive space.

Quick Tip: Don't hold your hard drive MP3 player in your hand. Consider purchasing an arm strap or belt holder for long runs or rides. Dropping or swinging a hard drive is one of the quickest routes to a broken player.

For hiking: Mio 269 Sports MP3 Player/GPS Device

At almost $800, the Mio 269 is the most expensive of the bunch but features a full GPS system and huge touch screen for staying on track anywhere in the world. Best of all: the built-in 2.5-GB hard drive can even store about 120 MP3s. $799,miogps.com

For running: Apple iPod Nano 4GB

In terms of size, simplicity and accessories, the iPod Nano is great for runners. At 4GB (about 1,000 songs) the Nano has hard-drive capacity, but actually uses flash memory instead. That means it's completely skip-proof and drop-resistant. The Nano is also super-slim, weighs only 1.5 ounces and with an available Apple armband (for an extra $29) you will barely notice you're carrying it on a run.

For the gym: Rio Karma 20GB

The Rio Karma is a gadget-lover's dream. It supports most major audio formats and can hold up to 10,000 songs. The real draw is the big, backlit display and automatic playlist generation. The device is simple to operate--just drop it into its charging cradle between trips to the gym and the software can load music and playlists automatically.

Music Services Come of Age There are online music services for every type of listener --from the casual pop lover to the audiobook listener. With so many services, however, which one should you choose?

Quick Tip: Mac or PC? Products by Apple, including the iPod line, are usually solely compatible with the iTunes Music Store, available on both Macs and PCs. Other devices with the "Plays for Sure" logo work well with Windows Media Player-based download services and are PC-only. Check your favorite devices for compatibility before you buy. Like Apple, Sony players will only work with the Sony Connect music service.

iTunes Music Store: The home of the 99 cent download, the iTunes Music Store (ITMS) features over 1 million songs. Entire albums are available for download but the ITMS only supports iPod devices. The system allows you to burn your tracks to CD for low-tech consumption. Most major labels are represented and ITMS tends to get newer music even before some of the other major players. A partnership with audible.com also allows you to download audiobooks, allowing you to while away the road miles with a good book.

MSN: A latecomer to the party, the MSN Music Store supports Microsoft's Janus DRM system, which is bundled with most copies of Windows. Tracks are 99 cents and the service is compatible with most non-Apple MP3 players. Major labels are well represented, but the featured music skews towards less alternative acts.

MusicMatch: MusicMatch's On Demand subscription service makes this system stand out. Instead of purchasing individual songs, you pay $5.95 listen to a selection of songs for a certain period of time. Once you cancel your subscription, however, the music disappears. MusicMatch also offers 99 cent tracks. A special music suggestion engine makes short work of figuring out what you'd like to listen to next.

eMusic: eMusic is a pioneering MP3 service that offers a number of downloads for a set price. The most expensive offer, for example, costs $19.99 and entitles you to 90 song downloads per month. The tracks will play on any MP3 player in the world and are completely unprotected by any digital rights management. The music is skewed towards the alternative and unknowns but there are thousands of gems in eMusic's extensive library, from the Pixies to Bloc Party.

Napster: The original music service has gone legit. Individual tracks are 99 cents and Napster To Go offers unlimited downloads to any MP3 player for $14.95. The To Go service, like MusicMatch's service, expires once your subscription lapses. You can only burn purchased tracks to CD but the catalog is wide and Napster features all of the latest from artists in all genres.

Rhapsody: Rhapsody offers free downloadable music in trial mode as well as a $9.95 all-you-can eat subscription with 99 cent downloads and Rhapsody To Go which allows you to download content to your MP3 player. Like other Microsoft DRM-based services, music you didn't pay for is erased when your subscription lapses.

Sony Connect: Similar to the iTunes Music Store, Sony's store will only work with Sony players, which use the proprietary ATRAC format for music files. But one of those players is the very hot Play Station Portable game, video and music device. Sony's story includes music from all the major labels, not just the Sony catalog. Like other music stores you can also burn downloaded music to CD.