MP3: Future sounds

The earliest MP3 players were flimsy, slow and had only limited storage capacities. In the first of two articles, Charles Arthur asks if the latest generation is up to the task
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In a drawer beside my desk lie the corpses of a selection of MP3 players. It's not that I'm clumsy (I hope) nor even especially unlucky; but the mobile existence such players lead means that they have to get used to some hard knocks, or die.

In a drawer beside my desk lie the corpses of a selection of MP3 players. It's not that I'm clumsy (I hope) nor even especially unlucky; but the mobile existence such players lead means that they have to get used to some hard knocks, or die.

If you're wondering what an MP3 player is – where have you been? Even though for most people, the MP3 revolution is only a couple of years old, the format has been widely used on the net for at least five years, and in games before that. Essentially, it takes a digital signal such as a CD track, removes the water, and produces a file up to 10 times smaller than the original. Thus one CD's 650Mb of music data turns into 65Mb of MP3, with the rule of thumb that every minute of music needs 1Mb of data.

MP3 players can thus potentially be light and have extended battery lives, because they don't have to have moving parts – the data can be stored in "flash" memory, which retains data without power. They're also a chance for product designers to strut their stuff, showing off how much usability they can squeeze into a small package.

Among the first of the MP3 players four years ago was the Rio Diamond, which used a flash memory card to store the songs. Rio (now SonicBlue) was brave enough to stand up to the US music industry and win a court case, proving that the Diamond wasn't a shortcut to piracy because you could only put songs into it, not take them out. (I've got a Rio Diamond corpse in my drawer.) That opened the floodgates for MP3 players, many of them built in the Far East, and many not much good at all – the controls were hard to use, and the software that ran on your PC made organising and downloading songs to the player difficult.

Your ideal MP3 player will have a large storage capacity, clear interface, and long battery-life. But, of course, one can reinterpret "storage capacity" – which is what Freecom Technologies, a Dutch company, has done. As its expertise lies in making CD burners, it has shrunk one to create the £100 "Beatman" MP3 player. This burns MP3-encoded tracks on to a mini-CD holding 185 Mb, giving you about 180 minutes' music at a minimum encoding rate of 128kb/s. (Lower encoding rates clip too many high frequencies to be worthwhile; the ideal is to use "Variable Bit Rate", or VBR, when encoding – "ripping" – your music; that captures more data when there are lots of frequencies that the ear is sensitive to.)

Though smaller than a CD player, the Beatman II suffers from being neither fish nor fowl. If you burnt a full-sized CD with MP3s, you'd get nearly 11 hours' music. The Beatman II with its tiny disks gets about three. That's a lot more than comparably priced flash memory-based MP3 players: they usually have 128Mb of built-in memory, or two hours' worth of music.

But to get there, you have to find a CD burner, arrange the tracks you're going to burn – the supplied MusicMatch MP3 player/ripper/organiser is useful, but it's not really a CD-burning program – then you have to deal with the CD burner not liking the fact that the mini-CD is, well, mini.

And then you tend to find that the novelty of the songs you've chosen wears off very fast. One of the attractions of most MP3 players is the ability to change the mix of songs by simply downloading a new set. But you can't change what's on a CD-R. And the mini ones are pricey: while standard CD-Rs cost less than £1 each, these cost nearer £5. Finally, the Beatman II was a Dracula to batteries. I've staked it in my drawer.

I was hoping for better things from Bang & Olufsen's Beosound2. The Danish firm has long been thought of as a sort of hi-fi equivalent of Apple – quality and stylish, if pricey. Now, they've picked up on the digital crossover, and are moving into this and other digital fields.

I worry for them, though, if the Beosound2 is the best they can manage. The player looks like a silver Pac-Man, about as wide as a household mug. But wow, it weighs some – you'd not go jogging with this in a pocket. The PC-only program that sorts and organises your files has its own peculiar ways (it sits at the sides of your screen, rather than the middle). It rips and organises files effectively enough.

The download to the 128Mb flash card is via USB – slow, but standard on PCs now – but once there, the trouble really starts. There's no display on the player: you don't know what songs it has or is playing. Are they mad? You shell out £500 and they can't even include a two-line display? Monstrously overpriced and fatally under-capacity, the Beosound 2 demonstrates what happens when gadget designers go bad.

Never mind. Next week I'll look at two more MP3 players – but these are ones to pick up rather than put down.

Freecom Beatman II, £99, Bang & Olufsen Beosound 2, £475 SRP,; 0800 138 0525