Originally, it was a battery-powered device with text display small enough to fit in a pocket, which stored songs you transferred from a computer. Also called an MP3 player, it output music via a headphone jack, which explained the included earbuds. But that was 1999. Today’s players do a lot more than just play music (now in a variety of formats and with listener-adjustable effects). They can also show your entire photo library; play movies, TV programs, and home videos; display books and documents; provide the functions of a personal digital assistant; and play games. MP3 players have evolved into tiny computers optimized for entertainment and communication.
They either rely entirely on connection to a computer to get new content or they are also Wi-Fi capable. The former means that whatever music, photos, videos, documents, games and other files stored in the player when you disconnect it from your computer won’t change until you reconnect it. The latter means that in addition to taking content away from your computer, you’ll be able to stream or download new content; read, compose, and send e-mail; and browse the Internet whenever you enter a Wi-Fi-accessible hot spot.
The least expensive music players may not have screens at all. But most players do have displays, they’re in color, and they range in size from about two to 3.5 inches or larger. The screens are typically active-matrix LCDs, though some use OLEDs, which can be a little brighter and more colorful. The most popular size is 3.5 inches in a wide (16:9) aspect ratio. Screen resolutions have been increasing. They may be listed by the number of horizontal and vertical pixels or by the total number of pixels when the two dimensions are multiplied together. Be careful not to confuse dots for pixels. Dots count sub-pixels at the rate of three sub-pixels (red, green, blue) per complete pixel.
Some let you look but don’t respond when touched. Others are touch screens, which means the screen is the primary or only interface. When a digital media player doesn’t have a touch screen, you press real buttons along the edge of the hardware. Some people prefer the assurance of pressing down on a hard button. Beyond power and volume, buttons are a matter of what appear on a touch screen as needed. Because touch screen controls are launched with a soft touch, users must learn to reign in straying (or greasy) fingers. Still, without an array of hard buttons or the conventional diamond navigator (four buttons circumventing a select button) a touch screen can be designed right up to the edge of the device, providing a larger view in a smaller footprint. You may be able to find a touch screen player with redundant hard-button controls, but such devices are the exception as the trend for digital media players are all touch screen all the time. The most intuitive touch screens enable multi-touch controls, so, for instance, separating two fingers enlarges the image. Also, a screen image that automatically readjusts as you turn the player is an indication that the player is friendlier to use than one that doesn’t sense a shifting orientation.
The ability to insert a memory card or find a media player that uses a hard drive have taken backseats to models that rely entirely on embedded flash memory. There are some exceptions. The main reason to get a player with a card slot, usually for accommodating SD memory, is to expand the amount of memory in the player. It’s also a convenient way for viewing and/or copying images stored on acard transferred from your camera in locations not convenient to your computer. Music and videos can be added through a card slot, too. And since copying can be bidirectional, you could transfer content from your player. Alternatively, certain players will contain a mini or micro USB port for accepting (using an adapter) a memory stick or cable from a camera. Most late model media players, though, can only load new content when linked to a computer or through a Wi-Fi connection. Media players with fixed hard drives are the exception to flash memory models, but if you expect to store a vast collection of video, keep in mind that hard drive memory is more capacious and less costly than flash.
Generally, you’ll be comparing players with varying amounts of non-expandable flash memory. Knowing what type of media and relative quantity of each type you plan to carry around will help you determine how much memory to select in a model: photos consume the least amount of memory; music, more; and videos the most. If your media appetite exceeds the memory capacity in the model you’ve chosen, you’ll be spending extra time at your computer juggling files.
You could argue that no matter how much capacity and how many features the manufacturer stuffs into a media player; the hardware is only as good as its software. Given the opportunity, try the menus and navigation controls in the player itself to see how intuitive they are to use. Can you access playlists, jump to the next tune, fast forward through a tune, or easily return to the preceding or main menu? Most players work with software you install on your computer that you use exclusively to manage content in the player. The software typically connects to an online store. Some players rely on the Windows Media Player and its ability to sync content to the library on your computer. Picking a player should be more about choosing an ecosystem than a particular color.
If want to listen to something different from the music stored in your player and don’t have the opportunity to load new content, switching to FM stations could relieve the boredom. You may even be able to record the program as you hear it, put a live broadcast on pause, and then fast forward through commercials. Some players enable you to transmit stored music at a selectable FM frequency so that your car stereo or a dock-less home radio can pick it up. Keep in mind that even if your player doesn’t have one or more of these features built in, there’s often an accessory available that will do the job.
Media players by definition are play-only. However, some may contain a built-in microphone for dictation or an audio line input. More expensive players may contain a camera for taking snapshots or recording video or both. The latest players may even enable video chat using a Wi-Fi connection. Accessories are sometimes available to add such features when they’re not built in.
Players that use replaceable alkaline batteries are becoming extinct. The vast majority rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that cannot be removed, so carrying a spare isn’t an option―though there are some accessories available that let you add portable power externally. Battery time before recharging varies according to the model, but one thing is certain: using Wi-Fi or playing videos consumes power much more quickly than just playing music with the screen off. Recharging is always possible through the USB cable from a computer, but some manufacturers may not include an accessory adapter that enables faster recharging through more widely available AC outlets.
The short answer is in your hand or in a pocket. Some smaller models can clip to your clothing, but carrying cases with clips are typically sold as an accessory that protects the screen, too.
The least you should expect is an earphone jack and a USB port or proprietary dock connector. When you want to share the sound (and a speaker isn’t built in), the dock connector is the pathway to a surprising number of clock radios, audio receivers and even some TVs. The earphone jack can be turned into a line output to speaker systems that don’t contain a compatible dock. The dock connector can alternatively accommodate an accessory A/V cable for connection to, for example, a pico projector.