MP3 Player Buyers' Guide - A Beginner's Guide

There is no doubt that the 'must-have' gadget at the moment is an MP3 player. In some cases it's as if we've come a full circle - the people who bought Walkmans in the late '70s and early '80s when they first became popular are now rediscovering the joys of music on the move. In others it's children wanting the latest toy. Gone are the days of a player that you simply put a cassette into and pressed play, the world of today's portable players is full of jargon and terms that you're just expected to know. This series of articles is intended to help you understand all the language associated with MP3 players and decide on the type of player that is right for you.

What Is An MP3?

MP3 is the name given to files saved using the MPEG Audio Layer-3 standard. Put simply, this a method of reducing the size of the file (compressing it), whilst keeping the quality of the audio as close to the original as possible. Uncompressed audio typically uses 1.4MB (one floppy disc full) of data per second, whilst an MP3 only uses anything from 4KB to 40KB per second. This enables you to store many more files in a given space. More on filetypes later.

Types of MP3 Players

There are three main types of portable MP3 players - flash memory, hard drive and CD. Each has its advantages and disadvantages:

Flash Memory Players
Because there are no moving parts, flash memory players are a popular choice for joggers or for listening to in the gym. Players based on flash memory also tend to be the smallest in physical size, but in general also hold the fewest number of tracks. At the time of writing, the storage size of flash memory MP3 players is measured in MBs and only a few are 1GB or over.

Hard Drive Players
As it sounds, hard drive MP3 players store their files on miniature hard disks that work in exactly the same way as the ones in your PC. Because the cost of hard drives is far cheaper than flash memory, a hard disk based MP3 player will be able to hold many more songs than a similarly priced flash-based one. However, because hard drives are mechanical devices they are more prone to problems if the player is shaken, such as when exercising. In extreme cases they can also be damaged in this way. For walking and general use they are perfect, but if you intend to use the player during physical exercise it would be worth looking at flash players. The Apple iPod is the best know hard drive based MP3 player.

CD Players
These are the largest physically, but also tend to be the cheapest. Rather than storing music as uncompressed audio on the CDs, the MP3s are stored as individual files. This means you are able to hold far more music than a normal shop-bought audio CD. The advantage of CD-based MP3 players is that the number of tracks is limited only by the number of CDs you can carry. You can also play normal CDs if the need arises. However, like hard drive players, CD players contain moving parts and so aren't suitable for vigorous exercise.

What About Different File Types?

Although MP3 is the most common way of storing digital audio, it is by no means the only one. There are a vast array of different file types, all used for the same purpose - storing more music in a smaller space. Not all players are able to play all filetypes, so it is important to make sure that any player you plan on buying can play the files you want.

Files downloaded from online music stores, such as iTunes or Napster, contain DRM (digital rights management). DRM ensures that the files are cannot illegaly shared, and potentially can also limit the number of times that a track can be played, burnt to a CD or transfered to a portable player. Again, not all players support DRM, so you may find you're unable to play files you pay to download in your portable player.

The most common file types that you will see are:

MP3 - Can be played in almost all portable players. Does not contain DRM.
WMA - A proprietary format, produced by Microsoft. It is claimed that, for a given file size, WMA files are of a higher quality than MP3s, and are used by a number of online music stores, such as Napster. They are also the default file type for CDs ripped in Windows Media Player. They can contain DRM, so check that any player you are planning to buy supports them.
AAC - The file type used by Apple's iTunes music store. It can be played on an Apple iPod, but very few other players support the format. The AAC format itself doesn't contain DRM, but files downloaded from iTunes are 'wrapped' in a DRM package which limits their use.
WAV - Uncompressed audio. Most players can play wav files, but it is rare that you would actually want to do so.


How Many Tracks Can I Store?

This comes down to three things - the bitrate of the files, the length of the tracks and the size of the player. The bitrate is how much data is captured per second of audio (kbps) - in a nutshell, the higher the bitrate, the better quality the sound quality. However, you need to offset this gain in quality against the increase in file size - the larger the files, the fewer you'll be able to store at once.

Which Bitrate Should I Choose?
This depends on where you'll be using your player. If you'll be listening on a train (or other noisy environment), you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a 128kbps and 192kbps file. However, if you'll be listening in a quiet room you'll want to go with at least 192kbps. As a rough rule of thumb, you will be able to store the following number of 3 minute files:

Size of Player / Bitrate 112kbps
128kbps
160kbps
192kbps
224kbps
256kbps
320kbps
128MB
50
45
35
30
25
20
15
256MB
100
90
70
60
50
40
30
512MB
200
180
140
120
100
80
60
1GB
400
360
280
240
200
160
120
5GB
2000
1800
1400
1200
1000
800
600
10GB
4000
3600
2800
2400
2000
1600
1200
20GB
8000
7200
5600
4800
4000
3200
2400
40GB
16000
14400
11200
9600
8000
6400
4800

As you can see, even with the smallest player and the largest files, you can still fit on at least a full album's worth of files, and with the largest player and smallest files, a whopping 16,000 files.
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