Pushing the portable MP3 player envelope

Comdex was loud with MP3s as electronics makers plot new and weird ways to capitalise on the popularity of digital music while reversing the disappointing sales of portable music players. It's no longer good enough to have a gizmo that just plays Windows Media and MP3 files -- you have to be different and combine functionality.

Showcased at Comdex was everything from ways to get Handspring's Visor personal digital assistant singing a new tune to a Samsung mobile phone that plays audio files. Also on hand is a beeper that doubles as an MP3 music player, and a handful of musical digital cameras. And to get portable players' prices down, a raft of firms are demonstrating less-expensive music storage alternatives to CompactFlash.

But the products that suffer from the "just because you can, doesn't mean you should" syndrome will probably never make it beyond the show floor.

All-in-one digital sound and sight

If listening to music and capturing low-grade video suits your media fancy, LG Electronics Digital Music Eye puts an MP3 player, Web video cam, and digital camera all in one. Expected to be priced around $US400, this gadget lets you capture 640-by-480-pixel VGA-quality video at 30 frames per second.

Pretec also has a combo digital camera/MP3 player that captures small 640 by 480 images -- something good enough to e-mail, but not much more. The $US199 device only includes 2MB of flash memory, but it has an empty slot for you to add your own CompactFlash memory card. One unique feature is an audiovisual jack for displaying images on your TV.

CMC Magnetics' $US239 MC-100 camera also captures 640 by 480 images and adds an FM tuner, but doesn't have the audiovisual jack.

In general, these combination devices may save you space, but the quality is not necessarily the best of both worlds.

Combo devices let you communicate

With MusicOne of the most innovative MP3 players on display here is the Uproar mobile phone from Samsung and Sprint. The $US400 device is a mobile phone that plays and stores digital audio files on its 64MB of internal CompactFlash memory.

Also on the communications front, Zidtech is showcasing a two-way wireless pager, Messenger, that can send and receive e-mail and voice mail and function as an MP3 player. Pricing and availability information have not yet been disclosed.

On the PDA front, Good Technology showed off Handspring add-on module called the SoundsGood AudioPlayer. The $US270 module snaps nicely onto the back of the Visor and includes 64MB of built-in memory.

CompactFlash alternatives

When you buy an MP3 player, a lot of the purchase price goes to flash memory storage. Today 32MB (just under an hour of play time for music) costs about $US80. That has some companies turning to cheaper alternatives.

Take TreoPlayer's Digital Music Jukebox, a $US400 6.4GB MP3 player that relies on the same hard drive that notebook computers use. By comparison, SonicBlue's $US260 Rio 500 ships with only 64MB of flash memory. The TreoPlayer hard disk can hold 150 music CDs, but the trade-off is the Digital Music Jukebox weighs in at a hefty 8 ounces. Creative has its own beefy MP3 player, the $US500 Nomad Jukebox, which holds 6GB of music.

At Comdex, Gigastorage is offering a lighter and smaller alternative. Its Cursor player uses mini-CD-ROMs that store up to 200MB of digital music. To use it, you have to save your MP3s onto burnable CDs -- which requires a PC with a CD-RW. Mini Disks cost about $US3 each.

But if you're the sedentary type, Adam Electronics has a $US300 DVD player that plays MP3s.

Still, if you're rushing to take advantage of these newest tune machines, be aware that many will probably suffer first-generation quirks, not to mention prices that seem as high as manufacturers' ambitions. Stay tuned.

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