Back to school - MP3 player buying guide

We cover the basic features of today's portable media players

There are a huge range of portable media players on the market. We've rounded up a list of the key features of PMPs and MP3 players in order to help you pick up the model that's right for you or your child.

Music playback

This is a core feature of a portable media player. Most PMPs support a diverse range of audio files, from the ubiquitous MP3 to Apple's AAC, to more niche formats such as FLAC and OGG. As long as MP3 and AAC files are supported you should be fine, but if you need higher-quality music playback then choose a portable media player with FLAC or ALAC support — these 'lossless' audio files have the highest quality possible.

Video playback

Video playback is useful for long train or bus commutes — catching up on downloaded TV show episodes or vodcasts is easy with a portable media player and a pair of headphones. DIVX, WMV and MOV support is important, and some players are able to play FLV Flash videos from YouTube. H.264 high-definition video files can be viewed on a small range of devices.

Photo and document playback

Displaying photos is a relatively minor feature, but if you want to keep your holiday snaps close to hand for some solace on the soul-crushing bus to work or school it can be a useful inclusion. JPEG support is almost mandatory but BMP and PNG support can also be a bonus. Other document types such as PDF are occasionally supported — at a pinch you might be able to use a portable media player to read an e-book.

Wi-Fi and Internet access

The Apple iPod Touch is the best-known example of a Web-capable portable media player. Its 802.11g wireless networking allows it to access everything from e-mail to online videos to standard Web pages, as long as you're connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Audio adjustment

In the depths of most MP3 players' menu systems, there is usually a setting to adjust audio. Some players have only a basic treble and bass adjustment, while others have a variety of presets. If you're looking for the extensive control over audio then there are very flexible PMPs on the market with fully adjustable nine-band equalisers.

Controls

Most portable media players use a four-way control pad to navigate through a menu system, while a select few have touch screens. We prefer the touch screen for its ease of use and flexibility with a variety of applications, but if you keep your MP3 player in a bag or a pocket constantly, physical buttons are easier to use.

Extras

Some portable media players have integrated speakers, so you can place them on a table and listen to your music without headphones. The majority of MP3 players are bundled with a set of ear-bud headphones, but generally these are mediocre at best. We suggest you purchase a third-party pair of headphones to make sure you're getting the best sound quality.

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