Review: Rio Player 500
Company: Diamond Multimedia
Requirements: Macintosh with USB support, Mac OS 8.6 or later (might not work with all 3rd party USB cards, but works with iMac, B&W G3, and G4s); PC with Windows 98 and USB (for audible.com support)
The MP3 music format is very enticing to many computer users, but it might not be as enticing to those who don’t want to be chained to their computer or laptop in order to be able to listen to music. The solution: a hardware MP3 player. While there are a handful of these around, so far only two are compatible with the Mac. One is the MPlayer 3 from the German company Pontis; for more information take a look at MacNN’s review. The other (and better one in my opinion) is Diamond Multimedia’s Rio Player 500.
The advantages of hardware MP3 players compared to other alternatives are subtle but important. The first one is size. MP3 players are plain tiny compared to CD players or Walkmans. The Rio 500 is smaller than the palm of my (admittedly large) hand, a handy attribute for a portable device.
The second advantage of MP3 players is their shock-resistance. Unlike CD players and other sound reproduction devices, MP3 players have no moving parts. They operate entirely electronically. This means you can shake a Rio Player as much as you want and playback will not be disturbed a bit—but that doesn’t mean you can drop it on the floor!
Some will argue that MiniDisc players have better sound quality, and they do. However, I cannot hear a big difference. The simplicity of MP3 players and their tight integration with your computer heavily outweigh this small sound quality difference for me.
The Rio has 64 MB of built-in memory, enough for about one hour of standard-quality music. You can expand its memory using its SmartMedia slot (using either 16 or 32 MB media). Be aware that once the SmartMedia card has been formatted for use in the Rio, it might be hard to convert it for use in a digital camera. The Rio 500 only uses a single AA battery as its power source, and Diamond claims it features 13 hours of continuous playback on 1 battery. While I have never used the Rio 500 for 13 hours in a row, I can tell you that the total usage time on a single battery is more than 13 hours. Note that battery performance depends on factors such as temperature and whether you are using a memory expansion card, so your mileage may vary.
The Rio 500 comes with pretty nice headphones and a ‘carry case,’ though I found it to be rather useless. I guess Diamond wants to be able to sell its leather case accessory. Other accessories—not all available at this point—include a remote headphone control (so you can access some functions without having to pull the player out of your pocket), a car stereo adapter (to hook up the player to your car stereo via the cassette input like some CD players do), and more. The included sample music is not very good, by my personal standards.
On the Wintel side the player comes with its own software for playback, encoding, ‘spoken audio’ support, and uploading songs to the player. For the Mac, a light version of SoundJam MP is included. If you already own the full version of SoundJam MP and have updated it to the recent version, it will work with the Rio 500 as well.
Once you install the Rio USB drivers on your computer, uploading music to the player is pretty easy. All you do is plug the player into an empty USB port with the included cable, start SoundJam MP, open the Rio 500 window, and drag MP3 files onto it. SoundJam MP will upload the files in the background, and you can add more files to the queue while it is uploading. The upload is pretty speedy too, taking just a few minutes to fill up the memory of the Rio 500. A nice feature about the Rio 500 is the ability to create ‘folders’ in the player’s memory. You could have a folder for your favorite Britney Spear’s songs and one for your favorite classical music. The Rio 500 lets you switch between folders using a simple hardware interface, giving you the choice to play a single song, all songs in a particular folder, or all songs in memory.
The player’s hardware interface is wonderfully designed. All functions can be accessed with very few controls. One button acts as both start and pause, one button is the stop button, two buttons take care of fast forward and backward if you keep them depressed. If you just quickly press them once, they jump back and forth between songs. On the left side is a bookmark button, that allows you to save a bookmark of the position in the current song for later recalling. On the top are the headphone out, the extra memory slot, and the power on/off/hold slider. In hold mode, the Rio doesn’t react to input, which is nice if you carry it around in a bag where you might press a key by accident. On the right are the USB port, the browse button, and the multi button.
Most functions are controlled using the latter two buttons. With the browse button you can switch between song view, folder view, and bookmark view. You use the multi button to scroll up and down to the song/folder/bookmark/function that you want, and then press the multi button down to play the song, open the folder, jump to the bookmark, or execute the function. Pressing the multi button by itself brings up a menu that lets you chose between settings for repeat modes, shuffle play, the equalizer, and backlighting. The software that drives the player is in a flash ROM, so it can be updated for new functions.
The most prominent feature on the front of the player is the LCD display, which features two lines of text output and an extra line with status icons. The display shows the name of the current song being played (from the file name of the uploaded MP3 file), the song and folder numbers, and the playing time of the song. The status line indicates battery charge, repeat modes, and other functions.
Unlike the Mac version, the Windows version of the Rio’s software supports ‘spoken audio’ from audible.com. These are basically audio files of text (books and magazines are available) that can be bought from the audible.com Web site and downloaded into the player. You can download a book and have it read to you through the player.
The only two things that keep me from giving the Rio 500 an Excellent rating are the high price and the lack of Mac support for audible.com spoken audio. It comes in three colors: metallic grey (sometimes referred to as silver), translucent purple, and translucent teal.
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This issue contains other MP3-related articles. For more information about the MP3 format and other ways to make it portable check out the art department. To find out how to get MP3 files, take a look at the N2MP3 review and the Web sites.