21st Nov 1999

Rio MP3 player

For those not familiar with it, the Rio player is a compact portable music player capable of playing quality music files downloaded from the Internet or from CD’s. The player is about the size of a deck of cards and roughly the same weight. Even better, it has no moving parts so it won’t skip. It comes with 32MB of rewritable built-in flash memory which holds about 30-35 minutes of CD-quality music (128 kbps). A 16MB external flash card can increase playing time. Included with the Rio Player is a bonus MP3.com CD with over 100 songs and other software and music files. Also included is a single AA battery good for 12 hours playing time, headphones and a short User Guide booklet. All of this is available at a reasonable price of $200 (memory upgrade is $50).

I spent a couple days testing and playing with the Rio and I have to say it’s a great product and works as advertised. Some may think this is just another Walkman-type player. Like various music players, it promises to let you take music wherever you want to go. But don’t mistake the Rio for a minidisc or a new portable CD. The combination of several features make the Rio unique: the ability to play music files downloaded from the Internet, skip-free durability, CD-quality sound and rewritable media. However, I did find some room for improvement and have made some suggestions. Overall, it’s a more than worthy alternative to the conventional portable player.

Getting Started

I usually get nervous when connecting new hardware on my computer but installing the Rio was quick, painless and finished in under ten minutes. There were two parts to the installation process, hardware and software. The Rio interfaces with the PC through the computer’s printer port. I turned my computer off and replaced my printer cable connector with a Rio printer port connector (included). A special cable included connected the printer port and the player itself. Honestly, the most difficult part of this process was clearing the dust from the back of my computer!

Next, I followed the easy installation instructions. The software included a proprietary Diamond MP3 player and playlist editor and the MusicMatch Jukebox program which makes MP3 files from CD’s. The Rio is a relatively simple product and experienced MP3 users will have no problem getting started. However, beginners may have to spend extra time learning about MP3-basic concepts are explained only briefly in the sparse User Guide booklet. The MP3 format is attracting many new users and the Rio is a new kind of technology so a detailed guide is important.

Getting Songs to the Rio

After installing the hardware connection and software, I loaded the Rio player with music using the software. There are three main parts to the Rio Manager software: the MP3 software player, the playlist and the internal memory editor. All three software components had a clean and easy to use interface. The software player performed basic MP3 playing functions familiar in programs like Microsoft’s Media Player and WinAmp. The playlist editor was good for browsing MP3 files on my hard drive and creating a temporary playlist before downloading to the Rio player. The playlist editor can load playlists that have been previously saved using other MP3 programs. Finally, the internal memory editor is used to download songs to the Rio and shows which songs are currently being stored. The internal memory window contains info like the amount of memory remaining, song titles, song order, size and date of the download. Click on the “initialize” button and it only takes about three seconds to erase the songs stored on the player.

The actual downloading of the MP3 files was relatively simple. My routine was to “zero out” or initialize the Rio then search my hard drive for MP3 files using the playlist editor. Once I developed and narrowed down a playlist, I then drag and dropped the MP3 files from the playlist into the internal memory window where downloading begins. The download process from PC to Rio is actually faster than I expected. I transferred 8 songs with about 30MB of memory in 3 minutes 22 seconds. If you try to transfer too much data the Rio will drop songs from the end of your list. As a side note, a peculiarity which I did not encounter but is listed in the book is a possible error message if you try to copy a first generation copyrighted MP3 file.

While testing the downloading process, I did have one minor problem in the beginning which was quickly resolved. Occasionally I got an error message: “Unstable memory: refresh and initialize internal memory”. After checking all my cables and experimenting a bit I discovered my printer was sometimes interfering with the transfer process. I turned my printer off and everything worked perfectly. I didn’t have time to ask why-I didn’t care, I was ready to rock.

The Hardware

I’ve gone into a lot of detail so far, probably more than necessary because the Rio player itself is fairly intuitive. Many of the same buttons found on the typical portable cassette or CD player are present: volume, rewind, fast forward, play/pause, stop, repeat and random. Individual tracks or all tracks can be programmed to repeat. You can hit the “intro” button to get a short intro to each song. Also, instead of having a power on and off button, the player’s “auto-off” function turns the Rio off automatically when it is not in use.

A small information display on the Rio shows the status of many of the settings including battery life, memory remaining in the player, current song number, time elapsed, and each track’s sampling quality (ie 128 kbps). The display was adequate but when out jogging at night I found myself looking for a light switch so I could see the settings. It may seem petty, but a simple light would be nice. Also, I was a little disappointed that track titles and artist info isn’t available. MP3 fans expect that info from their software players-why shouldn’t the Rio have it? The display also shows the EQ settings which affect the player’s bass, midrange and treble sound. The EQ settings include Normal, Classic, Jazz and Rock. I liked the warmer tone of the Jazz setting. You can adjust the tone to your particular taste, but the settings are pretty generic-I’d like to see better controls on future Rios to adjust bass and treble, balance and EQ settings.

The next step and most important in terms of testing the Rio’s usability was actually taking the player out jogging with me along the beach. Before subjecting the Rio to some rigorous testing I found the very useful “hold” button which locks the controls so they don’t move unintentionally. I turned the Rio on, slipped it in my back pocket and took off toward the beach bouncing up and down vigorously for the “Shake Test”. One of the main attractions of the Rio is it’s ability to play skip-free during exercise, so I was hoping it would not disappoint. I probably looked like an idiot bouncing up and down, but I can report that the Rio did not skip or lose power a single time during my personal thirty-minute marathon. Although the Rio survived my brief shaking test, I did find that it is far too easy to accidentally bump the battery cover off, which causes the battery to spring out and therefore turn off the player. Diamond should definitely make the battery cover more rugged and have a locking mechanism because “skip-free” doesn’t mean much if the battery pops out of the player.

The thirty-minute music storage time was sufficient for most of my outings because each time I went out the songs were fresh from the Internet and I didn’t mind listening to them again. Obviously it would be nice to have a couple hours of music, but I’m content with the current playing time until technology catches up with the music revolution. I do recommend spending the extra fifty bucks for the memory upgrade. While I’m on the subject of memory, it would be great if the Rio kicked it up a notch and made it possible to store data. A lot of students use campus computers for various projects even if they have a computer in the dorm. I’m sure students (a big market for the Rio) would like the idea of transporting term papers or notes alongside the music on their portable player instead of using a disk. That would have a certain useful cool factor to it. Data storage might also be useful for address book and other information-must the Rio be limited to music?

I thought the sound of the Rio was very good but the earphones were a bit uncomfortable. I’m accustomed to my own headphones so I started using them and noticed a big improvement in comfort and sound quality. As I mentioned earlier, EQ setting was generic but adequate. Also, keep in mind that there are various levels of compression for the MP3 format and that will affect both the quality of the music and the amount of listening time. If the songs are recorded using 64 kbps you should be able to fit an hour onto the player. However, you will be giving up sound quality and getting sub-Cd-quality sound. Personally, 128 kbps is the minimum encoding rate I find listenable, unless I am listening to spoken word. Another factor in the sound quality is the original quality of the file that was recorded. Homemade MP3 files often vary in their recording levels so that can affect quality.

Conclusion

In summary, the Rio is a great MP3 player with some room for improvement. I enjoyed using it and although I’ve mentioned some minor problems, I think it is a great value at the sub $250 dollar price range. The Rio is a definite winner when it comes to combining sound quality, simple installation, ease of use and reliable performance. A few adjustments could have easily put this player in the “classic” category. Just to recap some of the areas for improvement: I’d like to see song titles and artists names in the display window, better EQ controls, more informative User Guide for beginners, display light, document storage, greater song capacity, more rugged battery cover and better headphones. Despite all of these requests, the Rio is an excellent player and deserves to be a hot item this Christmas.

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