MP3 players come in many forms

Editors note: This is one of several columns that I wrote for the Columbia Missourian. They were originally called Your Digital World

I want my MP3s … and if you do too, there’s more than one way to listen to them. Devices that play MP3s are very hot items this holiday season.

MP3 is the popular file format for recording digital audio because it takes up very little storage space, while at the same time preserving the quality of the audio.

Once you’ve gotten some MP3s, (you can rip them off a CD you own, or get them from file-sharing services like Napster), you need a way to play them.

For a long time the only way to listen to your digital music was on your computer. Special players such as Winamp on PCs and iTunes for the Mac, will play your MP3 files. These programs let you organize your MP3s into playlists of songs you want to hear. These programs are easy to use; they have buttons similar to those on CD players or stereos, such as play, next song, etc.

Portable MP3 players are usually devices about half the size of a CD player that can connect to your computer and download some MP3s. You’ll hear the phrase solid-state memory bandied about in regard to these players, that’s just a techno-term for the player’s storage. It doesn’t have moving parts, like your computer’s hard drive, which has spinning magnetic disks.

The amount of memory is the key to the number of MP3s you can put on the player. Most of your audio files are about 3 to 4 megabytes in size. If your player has 32MB of memory, you store about 9 or 10 MP3s. You can expand the number of songs by putting removable memory into it — depending on the player this can be called Memory Stick, Compact Flash or Smart Media. They all do pretty much the same thing, but be sure to get the right type for your player.

The downside to this removable memory is that it can be pretty expensive per megabyte compared with traditional storage on hard drives or CDs.

The first portable alternative to solid-state storage came in the form of MP3 players that had hard drives to store the files. Apples iPod, one of these “MP3 jukeboxes” holds 5 gigabytes of MP3s — that’s about 1,000 average-length songs. These “jukeboxes” have their downsides, too — they cost about as much as their solid-state counterparts, but hard drives are susceptible to shock damage, and they wear down over time. You also have to consider trying to sift through 1,000 songs to find the one you want on a relatively small screen. However, the iPod has been rated one of the best players, especially in menu usability.

The most exciting option for playing MP3s is the new line of hybrid CD players. In addition to playing standard audio CDs, they play discs that are burned with MP3s in a data format. Usually when you burn songs to discs they are converted from MP3 format to CD Audio format, which only gets you about 14 songs. By using a MP3-CD player and an MP3 disc, you can get about 180 songs. These players come at a fraction of the cost of regular players without most of the hassle … and they play regular CDs for when you want to kick it old school. You’ll have to factor in the cost of a CD burner if you don’t have one, but it’s becoming a standard feature on most new computers.

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
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