Less is more with next-gen MP3 players

MP3 players with giant-sized hard drives are so last Christmas. People want smaller, simpler players and need just a fraction of the storage Apple Computer's popular 20GB IPod offers. That's the tune a growing number of manufacturers were singing at the 2005 International Consumer Electronics Show, and they're backing it up with a slew of slick new players using 5GB and smaller drives.

"We think 5GB is the sweet spot," says Zach Hill, director of marketing at IRiver America, which introduced its colorful new US$280 H10 player at the show last week.

While certainly some music fans can fill up a 20GB (or larger) drive, the average non-techie doesn't have enough digital music to fill even a 5GB drive, he says. Those buyers would rather have a smaller player that's easier to use.

The beauty of the new H10 is that it's the midpoint between a large-capacity player and a flash player, Hill says.

"You can easily slip it in your pocket, but you can still get a lot of music on it," Hill says. The H10 comes in four different colors and has an FM receiver and recorder, a voice recorder, and a removable, rechargeable battery. It's due in stores in the next few weeks.

Most of the major MP3 manufacturers are jumping on the mini hard drive bandwagon. In addition to IRiver, Samsung Electronics and BenQ displayed brand new 5GB players at the show. Creative Creative Technology's recently introduced Zen Micro was on display everywhere (and drawing crowds), and Digital Networks North America's Rio division promoted a restyled version of its award-winning 5GB Carbon player as well as a new 2.5-GB unit.

Not a carbon copy

Apple launched the smaller hard drive MP3 player craze with its popular 4GB IPod Mini early last year, but Rio wasn't far behind with its 5GB Carbon. The silver device's sleek design and outstanding battery life has made it a hit for Rio, and this week the company unveiled a second version of the player dubbed the Carbon Pearl that has a new exterior, an improved case, and the same $249 price.

Equally noteworthy is Rio's decision to offer a third player using the Carbon form factor -- called the CE 2100 -- that drops the Carbon's voice-recording feature, uses a 2.5GB hard drive, and a sells for a slightly lower price of $199.

Rio executives are convinced mainstream buyers will embrace the CE 2100, particularly as the portable subscription services -- which let you take your rented music with youa??begin to roll out this year.

"The CE 2100 is a very manageable size for most music listeners," says Daniel Torres, vice president of product marketing at Rio. "It's big enough to store about 625 songs, or just under 50 CDs, and it's really the perfect size to support the subscription services."

Color is in

While Rio's Carbon and Creative's Zen Micro seemed to draw plenty of attention at the show, IRiver's Hill thinks his latest player has a notable advantage over both: A color display.

The H10's 128-by-128 resolution display offers up a colorful new interface and in addition to playing WMA and MP3 music files is capable of displaying JPEG and BMP photos. The color screen adds an undeniable "wow" factor to the device, he says.

"It's like cells phones -- once you see the color screen you'll never want to go back to monochrome," he says. And despite the display's diminutive 1.5-inch size, Hill insists it's good for looking showing off your photos to friends and family.

Both Samsung and BenQ also displayed new MP3 players with color displays. The new player from Samsung, called the YH-820 Micro HDD Jukebox and Photo Album player, has a 1.6-inch display, a 5GB hard drive, and a voice recorder. It will sell for a relatively modest US$230 when it begins shipping later this month.

On the other end of the spectrum is BenQ's new product, the Joybee 720, which will carry a US$400 price tag when it begins shipping after midyear. In addition to its color screen, FM radio, and removable rechargeable battery, the device also offers support for a secure digital card or MultiMediaCard. The card slot lets users more easily move photos onto the unit, plus they can add additional storage down the road.

Fatih Gunduz, product line manager at BenQ, is confident the Joybee 720 will sell well, despite the fact that it costs dramatically more than comparable units.

"We have more of the features that people want," he says.

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