Which Portable Music Player Should You Buy?

The Apple iPod is a religion for some users (and not all of them own Macs). I was among the first people with the original 5GB iPod. At the time, nothing touched iPod usability; the dial-pad on the original iPod might be Apple’s best achievement since the original Mac. iTunes was a software player for Mac users only. AAC had not yet supplanted MP3 as Apple’s format of choice. For Windows users, WMA hadn’t quite commanded the full attention of audio users as an alternative listening format.

Flash-forward two holiday shopping seasons and the iPod ships with as much as 40GB of disk space. iTunes is the most popular legal music download site on the planet, with support for both Windows and Mac users. 500+ devices support WMA, including portable players, car stereos, and home theater devices. More importantly, some of the portable devices deliver a user experience just as good as the iPod for a fraction of the cost.

500 devices mean tons of confusion. A majority of those devices fall into two categories: hard disk players and flash memory players. Hard disk players appeal to the user who wants to take their entire music library with them everywhere. Flash memory players are great for taking a couple hours of music to the gym.

To help narrow the field, I decided to compare my two favorite WMA devices with the iPod. I own both the 20GB Rio Karma and the 20GB Dell Digital Jukebox. My brother owns a 20GB iPod. All three devices have specific strengths.

Apple iPod

The Apple iPod remains one of the friendliest interfaces in the hard disk player category. Menu systems are easy to navigate. Numerous preset EQ options make mixing audio easy. Extra software features like contact storage and an alarm clock are useful functionality extenders. The 25 minute song buffer to prevent excess disk access is a smart feature. Belkin makes a ton of add-ons for the iPod, adding battery life, voice recording, and a media reader for transferring photos. A remote is nice for more convenient play control when using a belt clip. Track bookmarking was added in the most recent firmware upgrade, which is important for audio books. The iPod interface is the most ambidextrous of the three, thanks to no buttons on the left side of the device.

The obvious negative to all iPod models is price. Compared to either the Karma or Dell DJ 20, the 20GB iPod is $115-135 more expensive. The new Touch Wheel isn’t as responsive as the original mechanical dial, reducing iPod usability. The iPod lacks support for WMA, which means iTunes is the only source for purchased downloads. Despite buffering songs to reduce disk spinning, the iPod offers half the battery life of either the Rio Karma or Dell DJ. All power handling is done via a docking station, which is fine at home, but inconvenient when packing for a trip.

Dell Digital Jukebox

The Dell DJ is a clear winner on price, coming in at a current $269. If you need to make audio notes, a built-in microphone handles the job nicely. Support for both WMA and MP3 provides a wide range of online music store options. The limited onscreen menu is easy to navigate, mostly because it lacks menu options included on the Rio and iPod. A remote is included with the DJ.

Of the three players, the Dell DJ is my least favorite. Dell made the device good enough, without adding software extras in the device operating system. Not having better onboard song sorting is just plain poor design. A two-part power supply, similar to the ones used by Dell laptops is absolutely silly (although the attached cable wrap is a nice touch). Because I’m left handed, the power button is in a perfect spot for me to accidentally turn off the player. At 7.6 ounces, the DJ weighs 30% more than either the iPod or Karma, which matters when you are carrying a cell phone, digital camera, wallet, and normal pocket stuff.

Rio Karma

This device makes great use of available space, weighing slightly less than the iPod, with a form factor almost twice as thick. Karma fits nicely in the hand, with a thumb control system providing better navigation than the current iPod wheel. A docking station for connecting easily to home theater systems via RCA jacks is nice, as is the DHCP capable Ethernet connection (WiFi would make this the perfect player). Docking provides a true line-out, by passing onboard volume controls (a feature not found on the other devices). Software provides numerous playback options, allowing you to easily create on-the-fly playlists through a built-in DJ or via preset options. Karma includes audio bookmark management. Visualization support makes the screen more than just a menu. Support for OGG, in addition to MP3 and WMA makes Karma the player with the best format support. Ethernet and RCA cabling ships in the box. At $285 online, minus a $20 rebate, the Karma delivers iPod-like elegance for a Dell DJ price tag.

Like the Dell DJ, the Karma is designed for right-handed users, although button positioning on the Karma makes accidental adjustments or power-off unlikely. No remote is included, which hasn’t mattered so far. Only 5 preset EQ options require more user intervention, however, onboard gain control will automatically balance out fluctuations in volume between tracks (which should be listed as a plus).

Bottom Line

Rio Karma, Dell Digital Jukebox, and iPod represent three of the best choices in the market for hard disk players. In my opinion, the Rio Karma currently offers the best value for the money, providing an iPod equivalent user experience, with the added benefit of more formats supported, in addition to built-in Ethernet and RCA connectors. The added benefit of being able to integrate with all music stores except one (iTunes only works with iPod devices) allows me greater freedom of choice. Check out the side-by-side feature comparison below for further illustration of the differences and similarities between these three players.

Why I excluded Creative…

I owned a Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra for about 24 hours. The material used for the case seemed cheap. The front face detached too easily (which is supposed to make changing the battery possible). The onscreen navigation just didn’t make much sense to me, due partially to poor button placement on the device. Despite a $300 price for a 40GB player, I just didn’t feel like the value was there.

 iPodDell DJ
Player:Apple iPodDell Digital JukeboxRio Karma
Current Price$399.00$269.00$284.88
Storage Capacity20GB20GB20GB
File Types SupportedAAC, MP3, Audible, WAV, AIFFWMA, MP3, WAVWMA, MP3, OGG
Battery Life8 hours16 hours15 hours
Weight5.6 ounces7.6 ounces5.5 ounces
Size (HxWxD)4.1×2.4×0.62 inches4.1×2.7×0.86 inches2.7×3.0x1.10 inches
Display160×128 greyscale160×104 greyscale160×128 greyscale
Voice RecordingBelkin Add-onBuilt-inN/A
PC InterfaceUSB 2.0, FireWire via DockUSB 2.0USB 2.0
Equalizer20 Presets8 Presets, 4-band Custom5 Presets, 5-band Custom
Lock ButtonsYesYesYes
Audio Book BookmarkingYesNoYes
Notable ExtrasRemoteRemoteDock with Ethernet and RCA connectors
Charging Time3 hours3hr 30min3hr 30min
Box IncludesEarbud headphones, dock, remote, carrying case, AC adapter, FireWire cable and 4-pin-to-6-pin FireWire adapterEarbud headphones, slip cover, AC adapter, USB cable, RemoteSennheiser earbud headphones, docking station, USB cable, stereo RCA cable, Ethernet cable, AC adapter
Current Price$399.00$269.00$284.88