Choosing the best portable iPod, MP3 audio and video players: Buyer’s Guide review

What to look for when you're buying a portable media player
Photo of Choosing the best portable iPod, MP3 audio and video players: Buyer’s Guide

Buying a media player has become trickier now that other manufacturers have caught up with  Apple’s innovations. While a few short years ago the only real choice was to buy one of Apple’s original iPods, the market is now flooded with a variety of devices from a range of brands – and it’s all too easy to pick up a lemon if you don’t know what you’re looking for. IT Reviews guides you through all the important choices.

The media player market is split into two main segments: audio players, and multimedia players – also known as Portable Media Players, or PMPs. Audio players are relatively straightforward: they hold music, traditionally in MP3 format, but also increasingly lossless formats such as FLAC. They feature a small screen – or, in the case of devices like Apple’s iPod Shuffle, no screen at all – for navigating between files and making settings.

Portable media players, on the other hand, are a more complicated affair. They usually include a large colour display, and can play both video and audio. They’re bulkier, however, and often have poorer battery life – despite the larger size allowing for a bigger battery with which to power the device.

The choice of which design to go for is up to the buyer: a PMP will allow you to watch videos on the go, and many DVDs and Blu-ray discs now come with a ‘Digital Copy’ feature specifically designed to allow you to create a low-resolution version of the film for portable use. An audio player, on the other hand, is cheaper and lighter – but not much use if you’re wanting more visual entertainment.

Traditionally, audio players were known as MP3 players – named for the most common audio format around at the time. Despite attempts at creating competing formats, such as WMA, AAC, Ogg, and FLAC, MP3 remains one of the most popular formats for music – and you may still see devices referred to as ‘MP3 players.’

The first thing to look at when buying a new audio player is your music collection: you’ll want to ensure that any device you buy is compatible with both the format your music is stored in and, for preference, the software you use to manage your music.

Those who buy their music in MP3 format from sites such as Amazon MP3 and have it easy: as the closest thing the industry has to a standard, every audio player on the market supports MP3 files. Better yet, you don’t have to worry about Digital Rights Management or DRM – the technology that’s used to stop people copying music and providing it to others for free – as the MP3 format doesn’t support any.

iPod Nano 16GB
devices such as iPod Nano once had the portable music player market sewn up – now there’s plenty more competition, so it’s worth shopping around.

If you use Apple’s iTunes Store to buy most of your music, you’re best off looking at the various devices in the iPod range. These offer the best compatibility with iTunes – and if you still have songs in your collection that are protected by the DRM that Apple used to use in its Store, you’re guaranteed compatibility.

Windows Media Audio
If the majority of your music is in WMA, or Windows Media Audio, format, you may find your choices limited. Developed by Microsoft, WMA promises better quality for the same file size when compared to MP3 – but hasn’t really taken the market by storm. When you do find a player that plays WMA files, check to see if it offers ‘Plays For Sure’ support – without it, tracks protected by Microsoft’s DRM technology won’t be available for transfer to your new device.

The next thing to consider is capacity. The larger the storage capacity of your audio player, the more music you’ll be able to fit on it. Many portable devices have between 2GB and 16GB of storage, usually solid-state – although larger units use hard drives to offer up to 200GB, they are usually both expensive and bulky. Always go for the largest capacity you can afford, within reason – you might not need the extra space now, but your music collection is likely to grow.

Audio quality
The quality of playback is usually very similar between devices – and far more dependent on the quality of the headphones used than on the device itself – but it’s always worth seeing if you can try the device out before buying. This will also give you the chance to try its interface: with a small screen, many portable audio players can have a fiddly control system. This is especially important if you’re looking at one of Apple’s iPod Shuffles – with no screen at all, the device uses text-to-speech technology to guide you around your music collection, and is unlikely to appeal to everyone.

Battery life
Battery life is an important consideration. You want a device that will last for your longest expected listening session without having a battery that weighs it down and adds to the device’s size. Check the specifications to see how long the battery will last – but remember that manufacturers’ claims are often exaggerated: a claimed 50-hour playback time may only equate to half that in general use.

Other features
Finally, look at other features the device has to offer. Some MP3 players may offer a built-in FM or even DAB radio – which can be a handy feature if you get bored of the music you have stored on the device. Others offer the ability to operate as a USB mass storage device, meaning they can be connected to any PC or Mac and have music and files transferred to or from them without the need to install any software.

Continue to the next page to find out about video-based portable media players.

If you’re looking for something a bit more visual than a simple MP3 player, a portable media player is likely to be just what you’re after. Sometimes referred to as MP4 players, after a popular type of compressed video format, PMPs feature large, full-colour displays (often touch-sensitive) and the ability to watch films. Some can even be connected to a TV for high-definition playback while you’re on holiday.

As a PMP acts as both a music and a video playback device, it’s important to check that the device you’re buying will work with your existing media. Check the format of your music and files and, crucially, whether the files you have are protected by any form of Digital Rights Management system, or DRM.

If you buy a cheaper PMP, expect there to be no DRM support – which means that you will be unable to use video content from iTunes or similar sites, and you won’t be able to take advantage of the ‘Digital Copy’ functionality offered on some DVD and Blu-ray discs. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but buying a model that includes the functionality could mean you avoid some headaches in the future.

The display is possibly the most important part of a PMP. While audio playback is usually very similar between devices – and more reliant on the quality of the headphones than on the actual device itself – the screen can vary massively from one model to another.

If possible, try a device out before buying it. Check the colour reproduction, the viewing angles, and how responsive its  user interface is. Playing a few sample files with high contrast levels and fast motion is a good way to test for the blurring that can occur on cheaper displays – try downloading a few film trailers and taking them with you when you try the device out.

Cowon C2
Touchscreen media players needn’t cost the earth, as more basic models like the Cowon C2 (pictured) demonstrate.

Battery life
Battery life is a critical consideration with PMPs, and an area in which the cheaper models often disappoint: despite the fact that their larger size allows them to include bigger batteries, large-screen PMPs draw considerably more power than a simple MP3 player.

Many PMPs allow their screen to be turned off when listening to music, which extends the battery life, but remember that when you’re watching a film you’ll want to screen on – so don’t fall for exaggerated ‘playback time’ specifications quoted some of the less honest manufacturers. Given heavy usage and ageing of the battery, take any figure a manufacturer gives you and, on average, halve it to get the real battery life.

When looking at storage capacities, buy the biggest you can afford. Again, thanks to their larger size, many PMPs include large-capacity hard drives, and units that offer 160GB or more of storage are commonplace. Some will also allow you to use the PMP as a USB mass storage device – a useful way of transferring files from work or school to home.

ZEN Touch 2 Review
Portable media players such as Creative’s Zen Touch 2 offer the sophistication of Android.

Once your selection is narrowed down, check out the features of each. A touchscreen display makes controlling the device easier, but will inevitably leave smudges on the display that can be distracting when you’re trying to watch a film. Built-in radios offer flexibility, while models at the higher end may be based around the Android OS used by tablet computers and smartphones, and will even connect to the Internet to download podcasts and browse websites on the move – but you can expect to pay for the privilege.