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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

New CD players handle MP3 files

Advertiser Staff and News Services

Portable CD players have gotten thinner and smaller, but to use them with a wide selection of music, you still have to tote a bulky case housing a stack of CDs. Since each audio CD typically holds only 12 to 15 songs, having fresh music for a long trip requires plenty of disks. That's true whether you're using store-bought CDs, or disks you've burned on a PC in the traditional audio format understood by all CD players.

But there's a way to squeeze about 150 songs on a single CD, so you can leave that bulging case of disks at home. The trick is to burn the songs onto the disk in their native format as compressed MP3 files, instead of asking your software to blow them up into standard audio files, which are 10 times as large. These disks are called MP3-CDs.

Most CD players can't play back such disks, because they lack the circuitry to decode MP3 files. But some players can do it, and we've been testing three of them to see how they compare. For our test, we created a single CD containing 144 songs in native, compressed MP3 format.

We tested this disk on three slim MP3-CD players: iRiver's SlimX iMP-350, for $179; RCA's RP-2458 for $99; and SONICblue's Rio Volt SP90 for $99.95. The SlimX and Rio are available now. The RCA won't be out until September. All three players can handle regular CDs, store-bought and homemade, in addition to the MP3-CDs we focused on.

All three players played back our test disk fine. But that's not good enough with such disks. Because MP3-CDs are so capacious, and MP3s contain information about each song, we paid particular attention to the method the players employed for viewing and picking among the many songs on our test disk, and then displaying the title, artist and album of a song while it's playing.

The RCA RP-2458 takes the cake in these defining criteria. RCA uses SmartTrax, a navigation and labeling system that presents title, artist, album and genre information clearly in a small orange screen on the face of the unit.

The other players take a techie approach, crowding out the basic song information in favor of useless technical readouts. And the navigation menu on the SlimX sometimes shows the file name instead of the song title.

Hard drives get cheaper, smaller

Next to semiconductors that keep screaming more and more gigahertz, there's a quieter catalyst for ever more powerful and shrinking high-tech gadgets: hard drives.

Disk drives keep our personal digital data — from treasured e-mails and personal finance records to photos and music. On a larger level, they are repositories of critical databases, storing everything from bank transactions to government documents.

Now the magnetic drives are getting cheaper, smaller and denser than ever, cropping up in all kinds of devices, fueling society's unstoppable transition to all things digital.

Hard drives now come in packages almost as small as a quarter.

IBM Corp.'s 1-gigabyte Microdrive holds the equivalent of 700 floppy disks in a half-ounce, one-inch package. And credit-card sized hard drives in laptops can now hold 20 GB of data.

The cost of hard-drive storage has dropped from $10,000 per megabyte when IBM invented the hard drive in 1956 — a few years before Fairchild Semiconductor invented the integrated circuit — to about $1 per gigabyte today.

And that means hard drives are cheap enough to put anywhere we'd want to store data.

Seagate Technology, a leading drive maker, has now dedicated a lab to work exclusively with electronics manufacturers who are building hard drives into home media servers, personal digital video recorders, cable and satellite set-top boxes, game consoles, audio jukeboxes and home security systems.

Microsoft's Xbox game console has a hard drive and Sony plans to integrate one in its Playstation2.

Toshiba Corp.'s 1.8-inch hard disk allowed Apple Computer Inc.'s pocket-sized iPod to hold 5 GB of data, or 1,000 songs, when the portable music player debuted last year. Toshiba has since quadrupled the drive's capacity.

At the same time, more data is getting squeezed into smaller areas, with capacity doubling nearly each year. Hard drive makers are also switching to fluid- instead of ball-bearing motors.

These improvements have made hard drives more reliable, faster at finding blocks of data, and quieter.

But as incredible a technological feat as they are, hard drives — as mechanical devices with moving parts — have limited life spans.

Hard drives experience wear and tear each time a computer is turned on and off. They generally come with three- to five-year warranties and analysts say it's best not to trust them to last that long.

That's why for long-term storage of data, backups — either onto another hard disk or onto CDs or other hardier storage mediums — are always recommended.