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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.