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Technology

Tunes to go

Last Updated October 27, 2006

Until recently, people who wanted to take large digital music collections on the road with them had only one option: Bulky hard-drive-based players with multi-gigabyte drives. But the latest crop of affordable and much more durable flash memory-based players offers lots of storage at entry-level prices — all in a gadget not much bigger or heavier than a pack of gum.

For the average buyer — particularly those without a lot of techie know-how — the task of shopping for a super-portable digital music player these days can be tricky, though. With more than a dozen manufacturers each putting out a dizzying array of different models — each with a range of features and storage capacities — things can get pretty confusing.

That confusion also has an upside. More choice means a greater chance of tracking down a player that fits both your budget and needs. There are different ways to go about hunting down a player, but one of the best ways to start is to figure out how much music you have, and how much you want to take with you on the road.

And keep in mind that it's not just about music anymore — besides acting as a personal jukebox, many pocket-sized media players now offer the ability to view photos and watch video. Some also work as personal storage devices for carrying files back and forth between home and work or school, and a few manufacturers are even throwing in functions such as daily planners and contact lists as bonus bells and whistles.

Here's a look at some of the latest super-portable media players that store songs using flash memory.

iPod

Apple is easily the digital music front-runner for many people, thanks to its overwhelming share of the market, and the latest iPod nano is a clear improvement from the original model.

The problem with the first nano was that it was prone to scratches, both on the screen and most especially on the aluminum casing that made up the back. Those days are history, now that Apple has moved to different (and tougher) materials for the new nano line.

While the first iPods gave you the choice of white … or white, the nano now comes in various colours and with different-sized hard drives. The black one is the only model to have an eight-gigabyte hard drive, which should be able to easily fit around 2,000 average-length songs (it sells for about $300 in Canada). But there is also the 4 GB model ($230) that comes in four other colours: blue, green, pink and silver. Rounding out the nano lineup is a 2 GB model ($170) that comes in silver and has a capacity of about 500 songs.

The new iPods also have colour screens that can display digital photographs. These pictures will take up some of the player's storage space, but if you reduce the quality of the images through software on your computer to match the resolution of the tiny screen, you can carry a ton of photos without making a sizeable dent in the space left for your music library. Since the screens are so small on these players, the resolution of the photos doesn't need to be high to produce an image that looks sharp.

Let's put it this way: If you reduce your photos to an average quality of 100 kilobytes per image, then you could stack up 100 snapshots in the player's memory and only take up 10 MB, which would be the equivalent of just two or three songs worth of storage space.

Zen and Sansa

The ability to carry photos as well as music isn't exclusive to the nano by any means. In fact, it's a common feature in the colour-screen players being released for this year's holiday shopping season. Creative Labs' Zen V Plus and Sandisk's Sansa e270 both let you carry a good mix of songs and photos.

The Zen V Plus comes in models of 1 GB ($110), 2 GB ($170) and 4 GB ($220), with different colour combinations for each.

The Sansa e270 is a standalone model that has 6 GB of storage capacity for music, video and photos and sells for around $220.

Video is also a hot feature this year on higher-end players. It's something the nano doesn't offer, but it's available on both the Zen V Plus and Sansa e270. Keep in mind, though, that due to the size of the screens, the video playback capabilities of these gadgets is not really meant for watching full-length movies or TV dramas. The idea is to be able to carry and watch short clips, like those you can find on YouTube.com or even ones you've shot yourself with a digital camera or camcorder.

The video files stored on these gadgets are usually resized before being stored, and the result is a fairly compact file — you can have many of them on a player and still have plenty of room for music.

The tiny screens on these devices — bigger than a postage stamp but not by much — don't allow for too much detail anyway. You might be able to watch a full episode of Lost or Heroes on one, but it's not going to be a high-definition experience by any means.

And depending on the processing power of the player, the video can run a little slower than usual or have other quirks. The flash-memory-based super-portable players will play video, but people who plan to do a lot of portable viewing may want to splurge on a player with a larger screen and a hard drive with lots of storage space.

In other words, if video is important to you, it's worth going to a store and checking out the playback quality before you buy.

Bells and whistles

Even though the players are getting smaller and smaller, manufacturers are cramming more features into them to try and get an edge over rivals' products.

Creative's Zen V Plus, for example, can record audio through its tiny microphone, which is good for lectures or meetings. (Its recording quality is better than that of the Sansa e270.)

The Zen V Plus also has a line-in cable socket, so you can transfer your favourite songs from a portable CD player — or any audio source, for that matter — directly to the player without having to use your computer to create the digital music files. Just plug the cable into your CD player and then plug the other end into the Zen V Plus, and press a button to begin the transfer. You can also use the socket to connect an external microphone, so that voice recording gets a boost in quality.

Like the Zen V Plus, the Sansa e270 from Sandisk has an FM Tuner (which the iPod nano doesn't have), and can play video at a slightly faster rate than the Zen V Plus. The Sansa's FM Tuner holds a steady signal and allows you to record directly to the player's memory from the radio as well.

How they stack up

Like most things in life, different media players excel at different tasks.

The Sansa e270 delivers good video playback, and handles music and photos exceptionally well through its easy-to-use control system. The e270 is also durable, with a light and tough metallic alloy casing that can withstand impacts and scratches. It has a removable battery and a miniSD memory card slot to allow you to transfer music via a card instead of hooking the player up to a computer every time you want to add something.

The iPod nano is tiny, sleek and offers good playback quality for music and photos. It's easy to load up with music thanks to the iTunes integration. And thanks to Apple's domination of the digital music player market, you'll be able to find a wide range of accessories — from docking stations to custom carry cases — made specifically for it.

The Zen V Plus is very portable and has a good mix of features for the money, including a day planner and contact list that can be synched up with Microsoft Outlook for those who mix work and entertainment. But the main downsides are that there's no memory card expansion slot and the battery is built in permanently — you can't swap in a spare when it runs out of juice. And when the battery pack stops taking a charge a few years down the road, this player becomes a disposable item.

And speaking of battery power, the iPod nano comes in first with a lifespan of 23 hours of music playback before needing to recharge. The Sansa e270 comes in second with 19 hours, 10 minutes. The Zen V Plus follows in third with 18 hours, 30 minutes.

Bottom line

While the choice of gadgets available can be a bit dizzying, there has never been a better selection of digital media players on the market. You'll also get a lot more storage and features per dollar today than would have been found at retail even a few months ago. All it takes is a little homework and some comparison shopping to help narrow things down to a super-portable player that best fits your lifestyle.

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