As far as portable music players go, it’s a flash world. Solid-state flash memory, more compact and less power-taxing than a hard disk (since it has no moving parts), is now the storage medium of choice for the digital-music set. In the scope of a year, flash has taken over the portable market, shooting up from 27 percent to 73 percent of all players sold, according to research group NPD. That’s not an increase—it’s an explosion. It’s not hard to see how it happened. Advances in technology have made it possible to cram gigabytes where only megabytes fit before, and 2 to 4GB is the norm for a flash player these days, with some models offering 8GB. It also helps that a certain Cupertino, CA, company is practically giving away some of its players. In fact, flash’s potential has inspired some manufacturers to abandon hard-disk players altogether. All this translates into a flash club with more players than ever before.
Before you reach for that iPod nano, give one of the three flash dancers reviewed here a look. One benefit of having a large selection of players is that the candidates have to work harder to stand out from the crowd, and each of these guys does a special trick. Between the mobiBLU B153’s marathon battery, the solid feature package in Creative’s Zen V, and the promising Wi-Fi abilities of MusicGremlin’s MG-1000, you should be able to find a player that offers you more than just stylish earbuds.
Clearly aiming to knock the iPod Nano on its ultra thin butt, Creative’s Zen V (is that “Zen vee” or “Zen five”?) does almost everything the nano can do, in a package that’s shorter but thicker. The 4 gigs onboard can store a generous 1,300 songs, and the controls are blissfully simple: Three buttons on the front (for navigating, playing/pausing, and going back) are all you need 80 percent of the time, with the other 20 percent covered by buttons on the side.
The Zen V has its share of extra features, including an organizer and a photo viewer, though its recording abilities—both voice and line-in—are the only ones you won’t find on anything made by Apple. The 1.5-inch OLED screen is just fine for album art. Sound quality was good, although the bass was a bit thin compared with other players. Any number of the EQ presets, particularly the bass boost, can compensate for that, though.
Creative provides a slew of software for downloading, organizing, and transferring media, but you don’t have to use any of it if you just want to use Windows Media Player. I don’t know why you would, though—every time I try to sync anything in WMP, I feel like I need a drink afterward. I found Creative’s Media Explorer to be a savior in comparison; the app somehow manages to give you a lot of options while keeping the syncing experience as painless as possible. Very nice, guys.
With ease of use going for it, the Zen V should top the shortlist of portables for anyone who likes subscription downloading. And its diminutive size will find fans among gym-goers.
The mobiBLU B153 claims to be the Energizer Bunny of digital music players, with a battery rated to keep going and going for 153 hours—almost a week straight. Such incredible mileage comes at a price, however: you need to keep the volume at two-thirds maximum or lower and play only music encoded at 128kbps, since files with higher bit rates have a larger drain factor. I found the claimed lifespan to be about right, and you can probably stretch it out even further if you don’t monkey with it too much, thus keeping the screen off.
display goes a long way toward making the interface pleasant. Unfortunately, not far enough. Although doing basic stuff such as adjusting volume or switching over to the FM radio is easy enough, doing anything detailed—such as, increasing the bit rate for voice recording or picking an audio EQ—is a pretty clumsy affair, involving applying just the right amount of pressure for just the right duration to the player’s tiny thumbstick. The B153 doesn’t hurt for extras, though, packing an FM tuner/recorder, a voice recorder, and line-in recording into its small chassis. The radio works surprisingly well, with intuitive controls and clean reception of most signals.