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Electronics and gadget pundits have been predicting the demise of the MiniDisc format for years. Sony invented MiniDisc in the late 1980s, before the MP3 revolution. MiniDiscs originally were going to compete against CD players and cassettes, offering digital quality with personal recording convenience. But in 15 years, the MiniDisc has morphed into a cult favorite for journalists and others who like its field recording capabilities, as well as its abiliy to play MP3s on removeable minidiscs.
The latest incarnation of MiniDisc, called Hi-MD, sets up like a hard drive when connected to your desktop or laptop. Also, MiniDiscs now play MP3 and WMA files, whereas in the past they were restricted to Sony's proprietary ATRAC system.
Bottom line: Sony MiniDisc players offer an alternative for portable MP3 fans, with removeable media and hi-fi field recording capabilities.
If you make the investment in an iPod, you need to remember it is a small computer, complete with a hard drive. Whatever you do, don't drop it. Hard drives don't handle shock well and you might end up losing your iPod and your iTunes collection of songs.
If you drop your iPod and it appears frozen, you can try to do a hard reset. To do this, press "Menu" and "Play/Pause" or "Select," depending on your iPod model. If the hard reset doesn't work, you're probably going to have to send the iPod back to Apple for repairs or replacement.
From the Walkman to the iPod, portable music players capture popular imagination and are on the forefront of digital innovation. Advances in digital storage are changing the entire music industry. MP3 stands for MPEG-3, a digital compression scheme that made high quality digital music available in small enough form for storage in a portable player. Today, there are three main types of MP3 players, each of which use a different method of digital storage:
iPods -- Apple iPods lead the MP3 revolution through consistent innovation. iPods were the first portable music players with large hard drives, making it possible to store thousands of songs -- even entire music collections -- in portable format. Apple also created the largest and most successful digital music service with iTunes.
Non-iPod MP3 players: It's a testament to the popularity of the iPod that the competition is referred to as "non-iPod." Non-iPod MP3 players are generally Flash Memory-based, which means they have less storage capacity, but can stand up to rougher treatment. The big difference is that non-iPod MP3 players can't use Apple's iTunes service. If you've already invested a lot in iTtunes, you need to invest in an iPod.
MiniDisc: Sony's MiniDisc player-recorders pre-dated the MP3 revolution but never quite caught on as digital music players as the competition did. But MiniDisc has a devoted fan base, primarily for its high-fidelity recording capabilities. While older MiniDisc players are restricted to playing in a proprietary Sony format, newer ones are MP3 compatible.
Bottom line: iPods are for those who want mega-storage, use iTunes and have the money to spend to download music. Non iPod MP3 players are for users who want to record and play CDs and want tougher players that can withstand being dropped. MiniDisc recorders are for users who want solid recording capability in addition to playing MP3s.
According to some studies, more than 90 percent of hard-drive-based MP3 players are iPods. But iPod's overwhleming popularity has not slowed competition for the rest of the audience. Companies include some top names: Sony, IRiver and Philips. Does the competition merit a look? Yes. Some models rival the iPod in terms of storage capacity and design efficiency. The big difference right now between these contenders and the iPod is that non-iPod players do not play iTunes compatible AAC format. These players are all Windows-based, using the WMA, WAV and MP3 formats. For now, iTunes is the clear leader in terms of digital music sales.
Bottom line: Hard drive-based MP3 players from IRiver, Philips, Sony and others can rival the iPod in terms of storage capacity and quality, but aren't compatible with iTunes. If you have an investment in iTunes, you need to stay with Apple.
As new technologies evolve, MP3 may go the way of old technologies like 8-track tapes. But the same prediction was made about Windows, which ranks as world leader for operating systems 20 years later. Here are some certainties:
* Hard drives will continue to evolve, becoming larger and faster and less expensive to produce. So the capacity of hard-drive based MP3 players should keep going up.
* Flash memory will also get faster and cheaper, blurring the lines betweem flash and hard drive-based machines.
* Convergence will be the main buzzword. Consumers don't like carrying an MP3 player, and a cell phone, and a PDA. Expect to see these converge into a single device.
iPods rule the portable music business. Why? Apple has been out in front with innovation, from portable hard drives to the iTunes digital music service. Also, Apple has the marketing savvy to keep updating the line with new advances that instantly make their old players obsolete.
Today, Apple has simplified its line to three types of iPod:
* The iPod -- Comes with storage of 30GB or 60GB. This iPod has a brilliant color screen for showing videos and photos, as well as album covers and navigation. The bigger model can hold up to 15,000 songs or 150 hours of video on its hard drive. These iPods sell for $299 and $399, although they can often be found slightly cheaper online.
* iPod Nano -- A shrunken version of the Ipod, the Nano holds up to 1,000 songs in a package roughly the size of a credit card. It has a 1.5-inch color screen, but doesn't do video like its big brother. There are three models of Nano, ranging from $149 to $249 retail.
* iPod Shuffle -- The shuffle is Apple's Flash-based player. It has much smaller capacity -- up to 240 songs in a package roughly the size of a pen. But it can take much more of a pounding than a hard-drive based player. Shuffles are much less expensive, retailing for $69 and $99.
If you see an MP3 player with "plays for sure" certification, the designation means the MP3 player is compatible with Microsoft's MSN digital music downloads. One of the ongoing mysteries about purchasing MP3 players is how to make sure the player will play music downloaded from digital services like iTunes or Connect. Apple players only play iTunes. If you want to use iTunes, you need to use an Apple player. But many MP3 players now play WMA files, compitable with the MSN service. However, these players will not be compatible with iTunes.
Bottom line: You need to make sure your MP3 player is going to play all your MP3s.
If you want an MP3 player anywhere, anytime, and in any weather, there's one realistic alternative: Flash memory. Sure, hard drive-based players like iPods can hold all your music, but the moving parts won't do well in extreme heat or cold. If you drop your iPod, it can kill the machine and your precious music collection. Shop instead for a "sports" MP3 player that uses Flash memory and can easily take a pounding from the weather -- and you. Look to sports companies like Nike, or experienced electronics makers like Rio, Creative, Philips or Samsung. There's no sports iPod yet, so you're going to be limited to MP3 and WMA files. You can also find sports MP3 players with FM radio included, so you can hear the news along with your music.
Flash MP3 players don't have the capacity of hard drive-based MP3 players, so you can't carry your music collection of 10,000 songs with you. But MP3 players with Flash memory are usually much smaller and more convenient, and can take more of a pounding. Apple, the industry leader, does make a Flash-based MP3 player, the iPod shuffle. Also dozens of other companies, including Sony, SanDisk, Samsung and Creative, make Flash-based MP3 players. Like the hard drive players, one of the big differences here is the iTunes software. If you've made an investment in iTunes, or plan to, you have to use Apple. If you are mainly transerfing your CD collection to MP3, you can easily use another brand name.
The latest innovation for the iPod make it much more than an MP3 player. The current version adds video to the capabilities, holding up to 15 hours. This is a paradigm shift. The 3-inch screen seems small at first, but actually is inviting as a personal video platform. Plus videos have been added to iTunes' virtual retail store. Now the store sells videos of popular TV shows, from "Lost" to "Saturday Night Live," in addition to its songs. TV fans can purchase their own copies of favorite shows without having to record them or wait for them to be released on video. This brings a whole new potential audience of millions to these portable devices.
Other hard drive-based players -- including the PlayStationPortable, and the Creative Zen -- also have video capabilities. But like everything else in this category, Apple has defined it first and then jumped to a an early lead.