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Too soon for totable tunes?

May 20, 1999
Web posted at: 1:24 p.m. EDT (1724 GMT)

by Howard Millman mp3 graphic

(IDG) -- They're cool, unconventional and right now, they're the hottest new personal-entertainment gadget. But before the current crop of MP3 players can serve the needs of business executives, they need to acquire greater storage capacity, bookmarks (to mark your place when you shut off the machine) and far more content designed to appeal to business listeners rather than teen-agers and twentysomething music lovers.

"MP3 is starting out slowly," acknowledges Dale Ford, a principal analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in San Jose. "As with so many things related to the Internet, it has the potential of growing far beyond where it is today."

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I found working with MP3, a technology that is undergoing change on an almost-weekly basis, a bit of a bother. Downloading or sampling the tunes takes more time than I have patience for, and transferring them to the player takes yet more time. For example, it takes about 30 minutes to download 30 minutes of tunes from a Web site then another three or so minutes to download to the player. Also, you can't dictate directly into Rio or MPMan, as you can with a minitape recorder. Although this lack of versatility limits MP3 players' usefulness as business tools, vendors are moving to overcome those limitations. For example, Milpitas, Calif.-based Creative Labs Inc.'s newly announced MP3 player, the Nomad, accepts direct dictation.

You can use your PC to access more than 100 MP3 Web sites and download digital music files to your PC, then to the player, through a parallel port. Most sites will let you listen to and, in some cases, download sample tracks. If you like the sample, you can buy the full CD. Alternately, if your PC's CD-ROM drive plays audio CDs, you can copy tunes directly from a CD to the MP3 player.

It's easy to understand the appeal of MP3 players. Both players I reviewed weigh less than 3 ounces, are smaller than a deck of playing cards and hold up to 40 minutes of music in their shock-proof memory.

You can slip in optional memory cards and increase the playback time from 25 to 50 minutes; 16M bytes costs about $45; 32M bytes costs about $90. Because the units have no moving parts, a single AA battery powers them for 12 hours. Both units I tested delivered near-CD quality audio through their "bud-style" earphones. You can substitute regular earphones if, like me, you prefer not to stick things in your ears.

The story on audio books and MP3

MP3 content available today is about 95 percent music, providing you have a generous definition of the word "music." The other 5 percent goes to audio books or articles.

Except for a small sampling of mainstream titles, most spoken-word content such as audio books or audio articles comes from unknown authors with the names of body parts or bodily functions prominently featured in the titles.

The problems with MP3 beyond the poor content of music and books include technical shortcomings in the players. For example, you shut off the unit or the battery dies, and you have to start at the beginning or go through a medieval process of physically recording track numbers. The second limitation is recording time. Even at the unit's lowest-quality audio level, listeners can't download an entire book or even most of one. To listen to an unabridged novel requires you to dump and reload content multiple times.

The players are better suited for shorter pieces such as magazine articles. For example, Audible Inc.'s offers daily recorded excerpts from The New York Times, in MP3 format, for 95 cents per file or $50 per year.

Dale Ford, a Gartner Group analyst, sees magazine articles and other short selections as the most likely use for dictation on MP3 players. "If listeners download just what they need, then MP3's limitations will not affect them as much."

Representatives from Books On Tape Inc. (link below) and Audible, two of the leading recorded book sites, say concern over piracy, copyright and reduced royalties may keep accredited book publishers and authors from licensing their property for use on MP3 players.

If the idea of a portable book player appeals to you, look at the player sold by Audible (link below). One advanced model offers up to seven hours of play. Another works with Windows CE-based handhelds. Audible's player uses a proprietary and noncopy format, so it offers more than 7,000 mainstream books from prime publishers and prominent authors.

The players

Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc.
Rio PMP300, $180

PROS: Rio's larger LCD and ample front-mounted controls make it easier to use than MPMan. Rio also uses a printer port bypass that lets you leave your printer hooked up as you download audio files. On the other hand, MPMan's setup requires you to disconnect your printer or install a second printer port. Diamond's newly announced 64M-byte model Rio provides about one hour of music playback and about three hours of spoken-word playback.

Lighter and more compact than portable tape or CD players, both the RIO and the MPMan are well-suited for exercise sessions or commutes.

CONS: Rio's audio management software, used to download files from the Internet to your player, is confusing. For example, to download a tune from your PC to the player, you click on "Memory." Why not just list it as "Download to player"? With the current crop of MP3 players, you must have access to a PC to change the player's content.

Eiger Labs Inc.
MPMan, $180

PROS: MPMan's audio management software uses traditional standard file management screens and menus, making it easier to understand.

CONS: The unit's small LCD makes it difficult to read track information and music settings. Like Rio, it can't accept directly recorded messages. For long trips or listening sessions, Rio's greater memory translates into more playing time and less uploading, downloading, dumping and rejiggering of files. Still, cassette players are a wiser choice. You can get unlimited playing time by switching tapes.

Millman is a reviewer in Croton, N.Y.

Find it on the Web
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MP3 audio enters the mainstream
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Timeline: MP3 moments
Diamond's Rio gives you MP3 music for the road
(PC World Online)
Recording industry blames it on Rio
(PC World Online)
Microsoft forms multimedia streaming division to rival MP3
(Windows TechEdge)
Heed the lesson that the recording industry ignored
LP to CD to MP3
(The Industry Standard)
Creative Labs to sell portable MP3 player
(PC World Online)'s Year 2000 World
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Books On Tape Inc.
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