The market is getting more and more saturated with various player models that share the same basic features and navigating this jungle of players is a difficult task. Way too often there are topics in the forum asking for the “best” player. There is no such thing. I doubt you’ll find two people on the planet who’s lives are exactly identical and with different lifestyles comes different MP3 player needs.
One player does one thing well, but that other player does something else better, and that third one has an awesome feature that might be useful. How do decide what feature is most important for you personally and what features should you even look for? Read on for a guide on how to decide what’s important to YOU.
Sound quality is the single biggest mistake people make when they prioritize features. In almost all topics regarding choosing a new player, people say they want “good sound quality” or even “the best sound quality”. In a lot of cases that’s the feature that should have the lowest priority. The sound quality that makes it to your ears is only as good as the headphones that actually spits out the sound and while the sound quality of the player does matter, it shouldn’t be the deciding factor if your headphones is a $40 pair of Koss PortaPro or something else cheap. You don’t need rocket fuel to run a lawnmower.
Upgrading from even the most crappy sounding player to a good sounding one will only improve the sound quality a little compared to investing in some good headphones. If you plan on using the cheapest consumer level headphones anyways, then over focusing on sound quality will mean that you down prioritize things like user experience and other features that in the end might be what you find most important. My advice is that if you’re making a thread asking for help on a new player, write “sound quality that fits XXX headphones” instead of always going for the “best sound quality”.
Also keep in mind what formats your music is in so that you get a player that will play it without conversion. Use this guide if you’re unsure of the format or need a crash course.
“Video support” is often thrown around as if it was a an absolute term. A lot of players have video support. The Creative Zen V Plus has video support, as 128×128 pixels worth of moving pictures is technically video. When looking for a player with video support, it’s very important that you know exactly how you’re going to use it. What screen size do you need? What resolution do you need? Widescreen or not? What formats do you need?
I’ve seen several people that have been looking for players with “avi support” and then come back pissed when the player wouldn’t play their downloaded AVI enclosed 624×352 pixel xvid/mp3 file with the latest episode of some TV show. AVI support, or any other format for that reason, doesn’t mean it will play any file that ends in .avi. It simple means it will play a format that is packaged in .avi. Confusing? Yes, and that’s why it’s so easy to take a wrong turn when it comes to choosing a video capable player. Luckily we already have a guide to video formats that paired with our guide to screen resolution will give you a much better idea of what to look for in a video player.
Typically there are four basic types of players that support video: The small ones, like the Zen Mozaic, Sansa Fuze etc where video is just a gimmick and not something you want to use due to poor video format support and low resolution screens. The medium ones, like the Zen X-fi and the Cowon D2 with 320×240 screens and decent video support, but that still requires you to convert the video before transferring. Large ones, such as the P3 and the Cowon S9, with 480×272 3″-3.5″ screens and decent video support that will play some formats and resolutions without conversion. Finally the extra large ones – often referred to as full PMPs (Portable Media Players) – such as the Archos 5 or the Cowon A3 which have massive 4″-5″ screens with a resolution of 800×480 and that will player most formats, even HD to some extent. The lagre and extra large players are normally widescreen, and the small and medium ones 4:3. This is important because watching widescreen on 4:3 means you’ll lose a lot of screen real estate and the same goes for 4:3 content on widescreen players. If video is a concern when you’re looking for a player, you should first decide which of these four groups fit you the best, as the better the video support is the larger and more expensive the player will be.
A lot of people today want a touchscreen on their player when they are buying a new one. I remember when I got my first touchscreen device, it was awesome and had a definite wow-factor. The excitement will disappear however and many people with touch screen devices wish they’d gone for normal controls once the initial rush is over and the player is used only for what it was supposed to and not as a showoff toy. Touch screens do have advantages, such as making room for bigger screens, easier to use interface (since the buttons changes with the menus and you don’t have to guess what button does what) and so on. They do however also have quite a few downsides. First off, you often lose the ability to operate the player without looking when having a touchscreen player. This is often a problem for people who work out or for some other reason need to be able to operate the player while it’s in their pocket.
Second of all, a touch screen player will always be a lot slower to navigate through than a good player with physical controls – such as the Sony players which are extremely fast and easy to navigate. Touch screen players often have more eyecandy, so it becomes a question of whether you’ll stay true to the eyecandy or if you in a month or two will be tired of it and just want to find the song quickly and efficiently. Also be aware of the difference between capacitive touch screen and resistive touch screens. Capacitive screens basically detect your finger’s electrical current and detects the position from that, which means you won’t be able to use a (normal) stylus but it’s also a lot more finger friendly and the screens are better protected. Resistance based touch screens detect pressure and are less finger friendly and react to any touch be it a finger, stylus or random stuff in your pocket.
There’s also the issue of fingerprints with touch screen devices. If you’re watching a video, you often have to touch the screen to make it play, and that leaves a fingerprint. If you have a resistance based touch screen then wiping it off might trigger all sorts of buttons that the cloth is accidentally touching. It also means you’ll leave more fingerprints and have to wipe all over again every time you pause for a few seconds. I use a touch screen device at the moment and I can testify to how annoying this little problem is.
All in all the player control method is about personal preference, but please think about whether you really want a touch screen before going after players based on that criteria alone as it will limit your choices considerably.
By physical specs I’m first and foremost talking about size, battery life and capacity. Players come in literally all sizes and shapes and you don’t want to work out with a 5″ Archos 5 any more than you want to watch long movies on a tiny MobiBlu Cube2. If you’re unsure how big a player actually is, paper cutouts might be a smart thing to make to give you the feel of the player.
Battery life is another important factor. There are players with 10 hour battery life and there are players with 60 hour battery life. Normally small players have about 15-20, medium/large players have 25-35 for audio and 5-7 for video and extra large players have 15-20 for audio and 5-8 for video. There are exceptions, like the Cowon S9 with 55 hour battery life for audio and 11 for video.
Capacity is of course very important when choosing a player. The lowest capacity players are normally 1GB, while the current highest capacity player is the 320GB Archos 5. Don’t underestimate how much space you’ll need, but also don’t go for the biggest capacity just because it’s there – if your average music collection the last 5 years has been 5GB, it’s unlikely that you need 320GB of storage. Large capacity players also use hard drives intstead of flash memory, which take up more space, use more battery and can break if you drop the player. Flash memory is getting so high capacity these days so most peopl
e will find a flash player that will do the job. Remember that some players are expandable through SD or microSD card slots, such as the Cowon D2 which has a maximum capacity of 16GB of internal memory but support SDHC cards up to 32GB for a total of 48GB of flash memory.
There are 3 different types of connection protocols that MP3 players use: MTP, MSC, and “other” or proprietary. The majority of players will be MTP or MSC but players such as the iPod or the Zune use a proprietary method of connection and you must use the included software, short of various hacks.
The MTP vs MSC debate still blazes on but in reality if you are running a modern version of Windows you likely won’t see a difference. Both can be loaded by dragging and dropping files like a thumb drive. Where you might want to pay attention to this is if you want plug you player into an OS other than Windows since MTP players may require hacks or additional installations on Linux or Mac.
Music Browsing Method
Some players use filenames to sort the music while others use ID3 tags. Many first time MP3 player users (or people who have previously had players that browse by filename) have learned first hand how messy a player can look if the music library has never been tagged correctly. If you have 10GB of untagged music, the hassle of tagging it properly is probably a reason in itself to stay away from ID3 based players and some people simply prefer one method over the other.
You should also think of whether or not you need any accessories for your player. A lot of players can only use generic accessories such as chargers, FM transmitters and so on, but the big brand ones often have docking ports which allows for things like docks, remote controls, TV out cables and so on. The Zune is the player beside the iPod with most accessories, such as alarm clocks and car stereo kits. USB cable type is also something you might want to think about, some people don’t like players that use proprietary cables because it takes up more space and they’re expensive to replace if you lose it or need a spare one, maybe for your office. Proprietary connectors do have their pros as well, so if you’re unsure about this then check our guide.
Extremely few MP3 players come with an AC adapter these days, so be aware that USB charging is the common charging method. As stated above there are USB AC adapters out there, but some greedy companies have put in blocks for such chargers so only their own official accessories will work. If you plan on being away from a computer for a while, make sure you’re either willing to pay for expensive accessories or that your player can use generic USB chargers.
A lot of people want a decent radio in their player, which is a problem since a lot of players that have radios might as well not have them considering the quality. If radio is a high priority, makes sure to find or ask for a player with good radio quality and features. Some radio enabled players can record from the radio, and some can even record at specific times – like a VCR. Also be aware that there are two options beside normal radio: DAB and Internet radio. DAB is most commonly found on the European Cowon D2 DAB versions, so if your country have DAB that’s something worth checking out. Internet radio is limited to Wi-Fi for very large players when it comes to MP3 players, but remember that cellphones have 3G access and many of them have Internet radios which is an alternative to consider if you can afford a data plan and if the radio part is that important to you.
Extra features such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and so on might sound exciting but make sure you actually need it before making it a priority. For instance Bluetooth may be cool, but its only useful if you make another investment in Bluetooth headphones. These headphones open up another set of considerations and issues such as having to recharge them, typically weaker sound quality, and extra expense. Though some players such as the Samsung P2 & P3 take advantage your cellphones dialer and contacts.
Other features to look for are podcast support, Audible compatibility, voice recording, integrated speakers, equalizer and other sound enhancements, bookmarking and so on. I guess the moral of the story is to make sure the “bells and whistles” are worth your investment.
If there are any special criteria that needs to be considered, make sure to include that in your list of specs when you look for a player. Maybe you need pan/balance to cancel out a hearing problem, maybe you need the player to have large text and icons due to problems with your eyesight, or maybe the player is for a kid and it needs to be easy to use and handle a bit of a beating? Any of the features mentioned in extras might also be so important to you that it’s the most important criteria. The tiniest thing might make or break your experience with the player so make sure to think it through and see if there are any special considerations you need to make.
Price, the Complete Package
The budget might be what decides the player in the end, as the more advanced the player is the more expensive it will be as you would expect. A lot of people have asked me about the best combination of headphones and player for a certain amount of money, which would give them the best sound quality and have thought I’ve been kidding when I’ve pointed them to a cheap plastic looking Sansa Clip and whatever headphones the rest of the money could buy. Point being that you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a good pair of headphones and if you’re buying a new player and only have cheap headphones you won’t get the most out of your new player sound quality wise.
I’m not saying you need to have a yes/no answer to every feature on this list, but you should at least think about whether any of these matter to you. You might be happy with whatever player you get as long as it plays music, but the more criteria you have the fewer choices there will be and the more suitable for you the remaining players on the list will be. Hopefully this article will help give you some ideas on what to keep in mind when buying a new player. We have a fantastic forum with lots of great info and user opinions, but take statements like “Player-A is the best player” with a grain of salt, since every person has their own set of needs.