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Some Yoda-like elder taught you well, as the cheapest of MP3 players are rarely worth the scratch. The lowest of low-end devices lack sufficient memory, and tend to break at the slightest hint of roughhousing. The flip side, as you note, is that the iPods of the world aren't priced for Joe Six-Packat least not yet. But there are some non-Apple options starting to bubble up, mid-range products that could do you right.
First, some MP3 schooling. Players basically break down into two types of devicesFlash and hard-drive. The former covers all those cheapies you've encountered, and relies on a special kind of memory chip. The pluses of Flash players are weight and size; if you're looking for something to tote along to Jazzercise, Flash is probably the way to go. Good examples include the Creative Nomad MuVo and the Samsung Yepp YP-700H, two lightweight yet feature-rich players that can be had for well under $150, if not $100.
The drawback with Flash players is memory. Best-case scenario, you'll get 256 mega-bytes pre-installed, and an expansion slot that can double that. For budget shoppers, it's more likely you'll end up with a paltry 128 megs. Let's do the math, shall we? If you encode your music at 128 kilobytes per second, your MP3 files will average around 3.5 megs or so. The final tally on your player's song count, then, is about 36fine for a pair of extended workouts, perhaps, but you'll get sick of that set pretty quickly. And who wants to waste precious life uploading songs over and over from a desktop?
That's why Mr. Roboto tends to recommend the second breed of MP3 players, hard-drivers. As the name suggests, these use miniaturized versions of the disks that hum inside your PC or Mac. Yes, they're clunkier, and they can skip a smidge when you trip on a subway grate. But the massive memory makes up for those shortcomings. Again, another mathematical exercise, this time a comparison between the just-dandy Creative Nomad MuVo (the 128 MB version) and the entry-level 10-gigabyte iPod. The cheapest MuVo goes for $84, but you're more likely to spend about $110 with shipping, tax, and whatnot. So a megabyte of storage on this player costs around 86 cents. Compare that to the $300 iPod, which has a per-meg storage cost of just three cents. Pretty sweet deal, man.
Mr. Roboto should add that you audiophiles out there will want to encode songs at higher bit ratesmore like 256 kbps. If that's the case, there's no way in heck a Flash player's going to do the trick. Hard drive's your destiny, for sure.
Don't think it's necessarily iPod or bust, though. Creative Labs (americas.creative.com) has released a promising alternative, the Nomad Jukebox Zen NX, which boasts a 20-gig hard drive for around $225. Yes, it's a load to carry around. This is why the Good Lord created baggy pants with big pockets.
There's also a nascent sector of best-of-both-world devices emerging, starting with Rio's (rioaudio.com) new line of pint-sized, high-capacity players. The gem of the bunch could be the Rio Nitrus, a 1.5 GB player that employs a tinier-than-normal hard drive. The whole contraption fits in your palm, and the sound quality's gorgeous. The downer's the price, $300. But with Christmas approachingyes, Christmasthe Nitrus could get more affordable, and fast.
The vote here's still for the low-end iPod as the best bang for your buck. But keep in mind that portability isn't much of an issue for Mr. Roboto; robots don't need Jazzercise.
Good to learn that a childhood idol, Ray Parker Jr., is still going strong, at least in cyberspace. The musical genius behind "Ghostbusters" has his own site, rayparkerjr.com, which includes a much needed "Where Is He?" FAQ. Beware, though, of the dreadful smooth-jazz WAV that plays automatically. And why hasn't the site been updated since that landmark November 2002 show in Osaka? Please, Ray, your adoring public needs you. Now, more than ever.
Input questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.