How to Buy an MP3 Player
Portable media players (PMPs), or MP3 Players, to use the commonly accepted moniker, are now pretty much ubiquitous, and in the age of apps, do much more than just play MP3s. While many of us have ditched PMPs in favor of music-enabled cell phones or even tablets, the PMP is still alive and kicking. Apple's iPod line has evolved dramatically in the nine years since its inception, and enjoys the largest market share. If you're already dead-set on Apple, this iPod comparison can help you pick the right one for your needs. But an iPod isn't an automatic choice for everyone, there are plenty of worthy competitors to consider. Whether you live in the iTunes ecosystem or not, this article will help you choose your ideal PMP.
Capacity: Flash Memory or Hard Drive?
While there are fewer models available these days, hard-disk-based players offer the highest storage capacities. They're ideal if you want to carry all of your media in your pocket, or if you want your player to double as an external hard drive. Most people don't need that much storage, however, and hard-disk players have a serious disadvantage: They're far more fragile than their flash-memory-based counterparts. While Apple still offers the iPod line in hard-disk and flash-memory flavors, most companies, like Creative and Microsoft, have phased out hard-disk devices altogether, so finding one might be a challenge. The largest, major-brand flash players available currently top out at 64GB, and the next step up will be 128GB (perhaps available as soon as next year), which will likely make hard-disk-based devices obsolete. If you're looking for maximum capacity right now, your best bet is a hard-drive-based player from Archos or the 160GB Apple iPod classic.
Design and User Interface
It's not all about how much music or video you can tote, and the easiest mistake to make when buying a player is not getting to know it first. There are plenty of devices that are slick on the outside but suffer from convoluted user interfaces that can cause enough hassle to outweigh the sexiness of their design. If you can, test out a player in a store before you buy. If it has a touch screen, is it sensitive enough, or do you find yourself tapping the same spot multiple times to trigger an action? Is there a dedicated button that brings you back to the main menu, or do you have to press a back button over and over? Anything that's slightly annoying in the store will only get worse when you take the device home and start using it regularly.
If you own a lot of protected content —be it video or audio—you'll want to make sure the file types you have will work with the player you choose. If you opt for an iPod or a Zune, you don't have a lot of choice, but there are also file formats common to, ahem, some "sharing" sites that won't play on every device—such as XViD for video, or the audiophile favorite, FLAC, for audio. If you're counting on loading a device up with FLAC files, you'll want to make sure your device actually supports it first. (Hint: iPods don't support FLAC, so you'll need to either go a with a different player or first convert your files with a program like XLD.)
Screen Size and Resolution
If you plan on watching movies or TV shows, keep in mind that not all players with screens handle video, most notably the new iPod nano (6th Gen), which has been stripped of both video playback and capture support. If a device does support video, screen size is important. The 3.5-inch Retina display on the latest iPod touch (4th Gen) is stunning—but it's hardly the only beauty on the block. The Zune HD and Sony's X Series Walkman both feature super-sharp, OLED touch screens. Archos players also generally have big, beautiful displays, but as many manufacturers concede to Apple's iPod touch in the premium PMP market, fewer competitors remain, and the focus seems to be shifting instead toward tablets.
Screen size isn't everything, though. Resolution is also an important consideration: Your display should be a minimum of 2 inches diagonally, with a minimum resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. Ideally, resolution will increase with screen size: 320 by 240 wouldn't look very sharp on a large screen like that of the Archos 5, which has a resolution of 800 by 480 pixels for its large, 4.8-inch display.
These days you'll find plenty of extras in PMPs. The aforementioned X Series Walkman comes with built-in noise cancellation and integrated Slacker Radio and YouTube features, the iPod touch now has a video camera and FaceTime video chat along with a plethora of apps, and the Zune HD offers HD radio and can output high-def video. If music is only part of the reason you want a PMP, just keep in mind that more features tends to mean a higher price tag, which leads us to...
...The Most Important Part: Price
One feature everyone wants? Affordability. While some players will cost you an arm and a leg (the 64GB iPod touch fetches a whopping $400), affordable options abound. And if you do some smart online shopping, you can score a real bargain.