Move to the Beat

By Bhaskar Banik and Deepak Dhingra Published Date
01 - Dec - 2004
| Last Updated
01 - Dec - 2004
Move to the Beat

The Portable Digital Music Player—the new music carrybag—keeps your music at hand. Here are a few notes to help you make your choice

You are travelling in a train and its raining outside. You are listening to your Walkman, and suddenly you get the urge to hear your favourite ‘rainy season’ track. It’s not on the tape you are playing, and not on the other two cassettes in your bag, or even on the four tapes in the office locker. Arrgh! You can’t hear it until you get home.

On another occassion, you are riding the bus to work; you are listening to your Discman, and it’s skipping more than a boxer training for a fight. Stupid potholes!

If only you had a player that could hold your entire music collection, and also handle all the bumps and shakes that we are accustomed to when travelling in India.

Let’s face it, if you still depend on tapes and Discmans, it’s time for an upgrade. You need a Portable Digital music Player!

Sourcing Your Music

A portable digital music player lets you carry everything you need in the palm of your hand. It plays songs, radio, and in some cases can also record voice and FM. But how do you extract the music from all your CDs? Simple: just rip your music CDs, convert the songs to MP3s, and transfer them over to your player. Just pop a CD into your CD drive, and use ripping software to rip the songs to either MP3 or WMA.

You can also download free tracks off the Internet. With the portable digital player around, all you need is a USB transfer cable and a regular supply of batteries.

To download music from the Internet, log on to a Web site that offers free MP3s, such as, or, and download songs by independent artists. Or, if your player supports the AAC format, you can pay for, download and listen to high-quality songs from the iTunes ( Web site. Software such as  Musicmatch and RealPlayer also let you listen to online radio stations that feature top-of-the-charts artists, and let you download MP3s for a small fee.

Of course, you can also use P2P applications and download just about any song you want—but this is illegal. That said, let’s check out some software that will get your player rocking.

Apacer AP510

The Essentials

The friendly Windows Media Player installs along with a default installation of Windows. Windows Media Player is a complete suite that will help you organise your music as well as sync it with your portable player.

WMP 10 is the latest avatar of the Windows Media Series (find it on the Digit December DVD), and by far the most accessible—the only downside is that it can only be used in Windows XP. The clearly marked tabs on the top let you arrange your songs using the Library function, and sync your songs with the portable player using the Sync function. If you want to delete a song from the portable player, click on the song that you want to delete, and click the cross button at the top.

We recommend using Windows Media 9 series on machines running Windows 98 or ME, and Windows Media Player 10 on machines running Windows XP.

One thing the Windows Media 9 series does not support is direct ripping of CDs to MP3s: you will need to install an additional codec, available for a price, from either Cyberlink or InterVideo to get MP3 ripping functionality into Windows Media Player 9. On the other hand, WMP10 comes with inbuilt MP3 ripping functionality.

But MP3 is not the only option you have; you can rip your CDs into the WMA format, and you can set the bitrate at which the CD will be ripped. Generally, ripping at 128 Kbps in WMA format is more than enough for listening pleasure, and results in a smaller filesize.

Freeware CD rippers such as EAC (Exact Audio Copy), Musicmatch Jukebox and dBPowerAmp are also available to rip and burn CDs. Although the free version of Musicmatch jukebox is crippled—you can only burn and rip CDs at a speed of 5X. EAC is by far the best in terms of high-quality CD ripping. The only extra software you will need to download to use EAC to rip directly to MP3 is the LAME codec, which is available for free on the Internet. dBPowerAmp, on the other hand, does a blazing fast job of CD ripping to MP3s, at any bitrate you specify, and is recommended for a “no-hassles” CD-ripping experience.

How we tested
We kept the process of testing the portable digital music players very simple, so that it not only helped in judging the quality of the player, but also allowed the scores to reflect the real-life performance of the player.
The test system we used consisted of a Pentium 4 3.2 GHz running on a MSI NEO P-875 motherboard with onboard sound and a GeForce4 Ti 4600 video card. Two Corsair TwinX 256MB memory modules running at 400 MHz provided the system memory, while a Seagate 120 GB SATA hard drive was loaded with Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 (for USB 2.0 functionality).
In the Features test, we included all the features that a player could possibly have, including storage capacity, FM recording, USB 2.0, audio formats supported, etc. Features that were unique to a player were given extra points.
In the Ergonomics and Ease of Use sections, we allotted the most weight to the interface and the intuitiveness of the button placement on the player. This was followed by the earphone comfort factor, which is one of the most important factors when you are looking for a portable digital music player. Build quality was another criterion we looked at: players should be able to handle a fair amount of wear and tear.
The Performance section included playing selected audio files on the players and transferring data to the player. If the player supported recording, we also recorded a small paragraph at default settings to check the recording quality.
The songs we used for the testing included a heavy bass file, a flange and bass track, Hotel California by the Eagles, and two Hindi tracks, Anjaane by Strings and Tanha Dil by Shaan. Both tracks are guitar- heavy, with extremely well-laid out vocals.
A real world test was also done, in which files amounting to 100 MB were transferred from computer to player, and the time taken was recorded. In the case of microdrive and hard drive-based players, we transferred 1 GB of music to gauge data transfer speeds.
The battery test was important. Amazingly, some players surpassed their rated times by good margins. For the battery tests, we played all the songs in a loop and kept the "repeat all" option turned on, while the player’s display was turned on from time to time.

Tagging Your Music Using ID3 Tags

After you have ripped your collection of Audio CDs, most of the ripped audio tracks on your computer will be labelled with names such as Track01.mp3 or Track01.wma. On a portable player, it would be difficult to figure out what song is playing if all of them are labelled Track01, Track02, and so on. ID3 tagging of songs will not only help you overcome this mess, but also to organise your collection on and off your portable player.

ID3 tagging, basically, helps you organise your songs. The information you can include is title, artist, album, year, genre and a comment field. This was in ID3 tag version 1.1, and the drawback of this version was that it was limited to a maximum of 30 characters. So if you had to tag the song "Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai," from the movie by the same name, you wouldn’t be able to use the full name. To resolve this, ID3 V2 was devised, and now has become the de-facto standard for tagging in most audio players.

Once this tagging is done, you can use any of your favourite players such as Windows Media Player or iTunes to sync the songs with your MP3 player. And if you don’t want to do that, you can simply drag and drop any song that you want into the player (if it shows up as a removable drive in Windows Explorer.)

You have completed all the steps to experience digital music on the go!

Regular earphones bundled with portable digital audio players may or may not complement the player itself. For instance, the earphones provided with the Samsung YP-T5 and the Creatives were extremely good, and reproduced sound with little or no distortion at all, at high volume levels. On the other hand, the earphones bundled with both the Umax Vega and Draco are below par, and do not do justice to the players. To check if the player actually contributed to the degradation of sound reproduction, we plugged in a Sennheiser MX300 (retailing for around $9.95) earphone into the Umax Draco. The results were very good. These results proved conclusively that the bundled earphones were to be blamed for the degradation of sound quality.
Since you want to listen to music on the go, you can opt for noise-cancellation or isolation earphones. These earphones are very expensive, but the end result is pure listening pleasure. Both the techniques work in different manners to achieve the same result of getting optimum sound quality without outside interference.
The technique used in noise cancellation headphones is to determine the kind of ambient noise that is being generated, and then produce an inverse sine wave to counter the ambient noise. Consequently, the process cancels the ambient noise and gives a better reproduction.
On the other hand, isolation earphones act in a physical manner, and plug right into your ear canal. An isolation chamber is created, and this way the sound emitted falls directly on your eardrums. No ambient sound is allowed to enter the ear canal. This is called the Acoustic Seal.
Isolation earphones are available from Shure Technologies and Etymotic Research, and are in the price range of $99 and upwards (and upwards literally means that the sky is the limit!). Noise cancellation earphones are available from companies such as Maxell, JVC, Sennheiser, Bose, etc. Bose has the Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancellation Headphones available in India, which retail at Rs 21,900 plus applicable taxes.
High-quality earphones (but not isolation or noise cancellation) are available from Bose, Philips, Technics, Sennheiser, JVC, Panasonic and a range of other brands.
The earphones mentioned above are freely available in the grey market, although you will need someone with some ‘pehchaan’ to help you get the real thing!

Audio Formats And DRM

All the players we received for testing supported the MP3 and WMA formats. While this is good, we did test some players that tread new paths. The Samsung Yepp Sports supports the Ogg Vorbis format, while iPods such as the iPod Mini traditionally support AAC. So is it more feasible to purchase a player that supports newer audio formats? Definitely; because the MP3 format has been done to death, and because there is hardly any development being done on this format. Formats such as WMA, AAC and OGG can give better quality audio files at almost half the size. If you want a high quality MP3 song, the file size increases dramatically. The other formats are therefore fast gaining acceptance.


AAC is the biggest, and thus far, the best format on the audio ripping scene today. This is primarily because you can tweak it to your heart’s content, and you will have better sounding files with smaller filesizes. On the other hand, OGG is an open-source format, and there are therefore no royalty issues associated with it. Plus, it gives better quality audio files, almost as good as AAC.

And with this acceptance of alternative formats comes DRM (Digital Rights Management). AAC and WMA content can be uniquely protected using algorithms that will only let you play the content on some limited devices, including computers and portable players. DRM was devised to take care of illegal copying and sharing of content over the Internet. It has been there with all the new formats, and prevents illegal sharing of music. So a word of warning: if you like alternative formats such as AAC or Ogg, check if the songs that you download are protected by DRM or not, since that will ultimately let you (or not) play the song on your portable player. Songs you rip from CDs do not have DRM, unless you explicitly choose for it to be that way.

Sony Network Walkman

Portable Audio Players

Portable Audio Players can generally be classified as the Walkman, Discman and the digital audio player. Digital audio players can be further divided into solid-state and hard drive-based players. Each with its own set of advantages and drawbacks.

If you have a huge music collection, and want to transfer the entire collection to your portable player in one go, a hard drive-based portable player is the way to go. However, if you regularly need fresh music to listen to, and also do not want to invest money in a hard drive-based solution, a flash memory-based solution will work just fine.

Flash-based Portable Audio Players

All the players we received had two things in common. The first was that they could play MP3 songs (except for the Sony Network Walkman) and also act as portable data storage medium. Let’s get our hands dirty then with these gizmos and see how they fared against each other.


Before you choose to purchase a device like this, you need to decide whether your primary use for the device would be for listening to music or for portable data storage, or a mix of both. Most users opt for a combination of both. In this case, a minimum of 128 MB of memory will be required.

Ennyah Digisound ll

The players we received had memory capacities that varied from 128 MB to 256 MB. Higher-memory versions are also available. A 128 MB MP3 player can easily fit in 15 to 18 songs—this translates to around an hour of music. The MP3 players from ACi, MSI, Transcend, Sony, Samsung and Creative have 256 MB of storage space.

Syncing Lyrics On Your Portable Player
Listening to songs on a portable player is fun, but if you could display the lyrics for a song on the player, it would be absolutely fantastic! Players such as the Orite Music Cookie and the DMS MP301 player can let you do that.

Here’s how you go about getting the lyrics for your songs. You can either play a song and search for the lyrics using a search engine using the song name as the keyword. Or, you can install a nifty little freeware called EvilLyrics, which displays the lyrics for the song as you play it on Winamp or Media player. You can then save the lyrics to a text file, and using the software bundled with the portable player, sync the lyrics to the player.

Any generic portable audio solution will perform all the functions that an MP3 player should. However, if an MP3 player could provide us with more useful features, that would be more value for money. The Umax Vega, Apacer AudioSteno AP510 and the Sony Network Walkman all feature memory card readers.

The upside to this feature is that you can not only store data onto a memory card that can be read by the player, but also play songs off it. The Apacer Audio Steno AP510 and the Network Walkman both feature docking stations, which come in handy while charging the players, as well as while transferring data onto the player at the same time.

Another interesting feature of the Apacer Audio Steno AP510 docking station is the stereo speakers. The catch is, you can only use the stereo speakers when the docking station is connected to the PC; besides, the speakers are quite tinny—you’d be better off with the bundled earphones.

The ACi Truly MP-301 stood out as a one-of-its-kind MP3 player. It is small, sleek device that offers a 65K colour DST display. You can view photos on it, read text files and also listen to music—all at the same time.

The Creative Rhomba NX, on the other hand, has a feature that will find favour with users who like to listen to FM. It has a built-in FM sensitivity option that lets you adjust the signal strength reception of the FM tuner.

The downside is that the player drains more juice from the battery if this feature is turned on.

For those who like to use portable digital audio players as a storage option as well, the Creative MuVo NX and TX, the Apacer AV 220 and the Transcend 256 MB let you use the device as portable storage without a battery. If you want to listen to MP3s, just connect the memory stick to the MP3 dock (which needs a battery), and voilà, you have an MP3 player! The Transcend is more of a memory stick, with all the controls built on the same unit, but it too requires a battery to function as an MP3 player.

Another unique portable audio player was the Samsung Yepp Sports YP-60, which is targeted towards those whose lifestyle includes regular sporting activities. In fact, this player will find favour with those who are health conscious, since it is the only one that features a heart beat rate monitor and a calorie counter.

Other features that we found particularly useful included the Line-in encoding option on the Creative Rhomba NX, S-Media and the Samsung models.

This is helpful since your old Walkman with a cassette tape can be directly connected to the MP3 player, and the tape can be converted to MP3s using the Line-in encoding option. You can connect an external tape deck instead of a Walkman, or a microphone source, or an external FM tuner (if your player doesn’t have one).

Customisable equalisers are a must in MP3 players. Most players only offered presets; some, such as the Sony, Samsung, Creative, ACi and S-Media, offered customisable equalisers.

Voice recording and FM recording were other features that some MP3 players came equipped with, and this adds to the versatility of the player.

None of the players, except the Sony Network Walkman and the Apacer AV220, supported voice recording. The FM recording feature, on the other hand, was a mixed bag: 12 out of the 21 players supported this feature.

Ergonomics And Ease Of Use

Ideally, a portable digital music player should be usable by any user—like a Walkman—apart from any advanced things that it does. Clearly marked, intuitively placed buttons make the experience worthwhile, not to mention the interface.

The Apacer AP510 had an excellent 3-line OLED display, while the ACi was in a league of its own with an icon-based display that lets you access all the features. The S-Media Butterfly has a very good interface, not to mention the sound quality, but the buttons are way too small.

The BenQ Joybee 120 had a single line LCD display, which was completely below par, and for most parts did not serve any purpose. The Samsung Yepp YP-T5 is an tiny player that will definitely appeal to women. It is the only player featuring a joystick-based controller for accessing menus, skipping tracks and volume control.

The interface here is very intuitive, and you can start right from the word go. The only issue is that the joystick is fairly small given the size of the player, and will be irritating to users with large fingers.

Build quality is another important factor, and the Umax Draco was bad in this department. The battery cover of this device is small and extremely flimsy, and it required quite some effort just to insert a battery and put on the cover!

One of the most important things about any MP3 player are the earphones or headphones. The Apacer Audio Steno BP300 has cumbersome headphones with a bad finish. You can only use this MP3 player with the headphones for about a half hour before your ear starts aching.

The MSI MegaStick has the same kind of headphones bundled. The Creative, S-Media, Samsung and Sony earphones were the best that we listened to, especially the Sony and the Creative.

They not only scored well in the comfort department, but also provided excellent sound, although at very high levels the S-Media and the Samsung did show some distortion.

The last part is the portability factor. Almost all the players were quite light, except for the AudioSteno AP510, which was a bit bulky.

Performance is what finally matters. We played a variety of songs on each of the players and the response that some evoked was of pure pleasure, while others incited violence, with images of sledgehammers falling on them floating around our heads.

The Rhomba NX is a very good portable digital music player in terms of audio quality, and also acts as a pretty good portable storage system with USB 2.0 functionality. Similarly, the Samsung Yepp YP-T5 provided good audio quality results. The other mentionable players were the rest of the Creative players and the S-Media Butterfly.

Buying Tips
Here are a few buying tips to help you make up your mind.
  • First, check the interface of the player and the build quality. An intuitive interface and buttons are to be counted as a positive for any player.
  • If your travelling includes a lot of bumps and jerks, do not opt for a hard drive- based solution, no matter how lucrative a deal you may be getting. A flash-based solution will be the right one for you. However, if your travelling is less stressful, a hard drive-based player would be a very good buy.
  • Check the earphones. Flimsy earphones are a strict no-no. Try fitting the earphones in your ear and check the comfort level. If it feels even remotely irritating, do not buy the set.
  • Check the claimed battery life of the player. If it is rated at 10 hours plus, that is a a positive.
  • In solid state players, check for features such as voice recording and FM recording. If it fits within your budget, check for the rest of the criteria.
  • Check the number of formats that the player can support. The more the better.
  • Finally, check all the possible places that you can for the player you like. Web sites such as and offer excellent deals, and you might just be lucky enough to get one!

In the area of portable storage, the AudioSteno AP220 acts as an extremely fast storage device; however, it is a mediocre MP3 player with the earphones only adding to its woes. On the other hand, the Sony is a very good player, but it comes with its own proprietary format called ATRAC, which is the only format the player will play.

So, if you want to transfer your MP3s or WMAs to the player, you will need to install the supplied SonicStage software, which will then convert the MP3s/WMAs to the ATRAC format, and then transfer them to the player.

This is cumbersome and sometimes unviable. The conversion and transfer takes a lot of time, and the format takes away the fun of using the player.

Samsung Yepp YPT5

Moreover, the ATRAC files are not only transferred to the player but are also stored on the computer’s hard drive, needlessly cluttering it up. This is a major disadvantage of the Sony Network Walkman and users will soon reject it outright.

The S-Media Butterfly is a very good quality MP3 player, but we encountered some skipping while browsing through the track list.

Voice recording was another test that we carried out in this category. The implementation on each player was different, but mostly varied between recording either in WAV (ADPCM) or MP3 formats. The recording quality of the Sony and the Creatives were the best, while the S-Media Butterfly fell flat in this department.

In both the data transfer tests, which included a real-world and a synthetic SiSoft Sandra test, the Apacer AP220 blew away the competition. None of the other players could even come close. The other players’ scores were quite in the same range when it came to either the USB 1.1 or USB 2.0 data transfer tests.

The last test involved battery life, and the Sony Network Walkman zoomed way ahead of the competition with a whopping battery life of 34 hours! If only this thing supported MP3s, you could go on a train journey and forget about the batteries for the player.

The Apacer AP510 followed the Sony with another whopping 21.5 hours of battery life—if only the player were a bit smaller! The Umax Draco again put in a bad performance, giving only 4 hours to a battery.

The ACi gives just an hour more than the Draco. The saving grace for the ACi is that it has an integrated rechargeable battery, and you can charge it using the accompanying USB cable.

The Price You Pay

Most MP3 players you get today cost the same as a Walkman did a few years ago. In fact, a good shockproof Discman from Panasonic or Sony will cost you just as much, and will not provide you with any of the functionalities such as portable data storage, FM recording or voice recording.

Most of the players that we received were sub-10K, and in fact, the Apacer Audio Steno AV220 is Rs 2,819, which is amazing value for money. Overall, the range of good quality MP3 players ranged between Rs 4,000 and Rs 7,000, and the functionalities ranged accordingly. Although the Samsung players are pretty good in the performance and the audio quality departments, they simply do not justify the hefty price tags. The Transcend 256 MB is excellent for the price, since it offers you more data space, voice recording, and also plays WMA and MP3 files. The only things missing are FM recording and an equaliser, but the price is justified.

The Sony Network Walkman is an excellent product—the sound is good, the compression ratio is better, but that’s about it. It provides 256 MB of storage space, and is priced at Rs 29,990, which is unjustifiable: you could buy six Transcends at the same cost and have 1.5 GB of space in your hands! And if you are not interested in solid-state players, you can always buy an iPod, which is still Rs 3,000 or 4,000 less than the Sony.

Flash-based audio players are   suitable for your
daily commutes and general listening


Infighting is common when there are lots of contenders for the throne. The Creative players fought it out amongst themselves, especially among the MuVo TX, Rhomba NX and the MuVo Slim. While one offered more space and data storage portability, the latter offered excellent audio quality with great features.

The MuVo Slim was one of the sleekest MP3 players we have ever tested. The Samsung Yepp YP-T5 offered a host of features including Line-in encoding, and also gave excellent audio performance. But it lost because of price.

Special mention is in order for the ACi Truly MP301 MP3 player. Not only did it sport the largest of all the displays, it also offered functionalities such as Line-in encoding and FM recording, not to mention support for text files and jpg images. The screen quality can be improved, but its flaunt value is extremely good. It retails at Rs 6,999, and provides 256 MB of space—but loses out on battery life. If you want an MP3 player that you would like to use for only around an hour a day, this one will definitely not disappoint you.

Creative Rhomba NX

Creative MuVo Slim

Finally, it was the Rhomba NX that won the Best Buy Gold, the reason being that we were primarily testing portable digital music players and not portable storage options. The Rhomba NX did not offer too much storage space, but it did offer excellent audio clarity.

Its intuitive menu and well placed buttons, not to mention the FM sensitivity feature, took it through to be the winner of our MP3 players comparison. The Creative MuVo Slim won the Best Buy Silver award because of its good battery life, audio quality and sleek looks.

Micro Hard Drive Based Portable Audio Players

Flash-based audio players are limited in terms of storage capacity, and are therefore mainly suitable for your daily commutes and general listening. However, if you are a frequent traveller or find that one or two hours of music just isn’t enough, micro hard drive portable audio players are the solution for you. These devices offer a good balance between storage capacity and pocketability. Here we take a look at the Apple iPod Mini and three contenders from Creative.


On the storage space front, the iPod Mini offers 4 GB, while the Creative MuVo2 is available in capacities of 1.5 GB and 4 GB. The MuVo2 FM offers 5 GB. The large display on the iPod Mini is a pleasure to use; it displays six lines at a time, making browsing through hundreds of tracks easier.

The Creatives only have a two-line display. The Creative MuVo2 FM is the only model in this category to be bundled with a wired remote. For the others, you would have to purchase one separately.

The MuVo2 FM also boasts of an FM tuner and voice recording capabilities, features not present on the other contenders.

In terms of playback features, the Creative devices provide standard equaliser presets and also allow you to set the equaliser manually. The iPod Mini does not have a customisable equaliser, but makes up for it by offering about 22 presets.

Support for music formats in the Mini is also impressive—it includes support for AAC, MP3, WAV and Audible, in comparison to the Creatives, which support MP3, WMA and WAV. Additional features on the iPod include an alarm, a calendar, Contacts, and games. However, the internal battery in the iPod is not user-replaceable, in contrast to the Creative MuVo2 devices.

Ergonomics And Ease Of Use

The Creative MuVo2 players are designed the same way—square, and just under a hundred grams in weight. However, with its tubular shape, the smooth-finished iPod Mini is definitely more pocketable. Housed in an aluminium casing, the Mini is also more solidly built compared to the MuVo2 players, which have a plastic body. All three Creative MuVo2 players have the same controls and interface.

With a five-way navigation button and a Play/Pause button on the front, the menu interface is simple and does not require you to refer to the manual. The five-way button is replaced with a joystick on the MuVo2 FM, which makes browsing a little easier. However, the two line display leaves much to be desired, as it is cumbersome to locate a track by scrolling through hundreds of stored ones.

The iPod Mini, on the other hand, has a much larger screen, and its click wheel allows for accelerated scrolling through tracks. The select button is in the centre of the touch-sensitive click wheel, and you can access the menu and playback functions through this single control, without using your other hand. It is very intuitive and makes life on the go easier.


The earphones provided with the iPod Mini provide excellent sound output and do not distort even at the maximum volume. They reproduce all types of music quite well, and will not disappoint audiophiles.

The output from the earphones of the Creative MuVo2 players is pretty much similar: we found them quite comfortable, and you will not get a earache after using them for hours. However, where the Creative MuVo2 scores best is battery life.

Apple iPod Mini

The iPod Mini gave us 7.5 hours of continuous playtime, whereas both the MuVo2 4GB as well as the FM 5GB gave us more than double that—15.5 hours.


We had a hard time deciding the winner between the iPod Mini and the Creative MuVo2 FM 5GB. Apart from the additional storage capacity, the latter also offers an FM tuner and voice recording. Moreover, the battery life is amazing.

The iPod Mini, on the other hand, has much better build quality and is extremely easy to use, especially while browsing through loads of tracks. Ease of use ultimately won over, and the iPod Mini gets the Best Buy Gold award. If battery life is extremely important, go for the Creative MuVo2 FM.

Earphones add to the pleasure of listening to music.
Make sure you get your comfort level right with them

Hard Drive based portable audio players

Not all of us are happy carrying around a few MB of our favourite audio tracks. Some of us have GBs of audio collections, and need to have them wherever we go. Hard drive-based MP3 players are ideal for such audiophiles. With mammoth storage capacities, these devices are, however, heavier than micro hard drive-based and flash-based audio players. We have three players featured here, one each from Apple, Creative and S-Media.


All three contenders featured the same storage capacity—20GB. The S-Media Cocopod was the only device in this category to boast of an FM tuner, voice recording and Line-in recording capabilities. The iPod offers both USB 2.0 and FireWire interfaces, and can play AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF and Audible file formats.

Both the Creative Zen Touch and the Cocopod feature only a USB2.0 interface and only support MP3, WMA and WAV formats.

Apart from features such as alarm, calendar, notes, contacts and games, the iPod also has a rating feature that allows you to rate songs on the go. Tracks that are rated higher are repeated more often while in shuffle mode.

Tracks for the iPod can also be purchased online from the iTunes Music Store. The special features of the Zen Touch include an alphabetical search function and customisable touch sensitivity, while the Cocopod boasts of a bookmark feature that lets you play back from where you left off. It also has a very handy memory slot supporting SD and MMC cards. This can be used to transfer data on to the device.

Ergonomics And Ease Of Use

The Cocopod sports a roller scroll wheel placed inside a thumb recess on the front panel that also doubles up as a select control. It is flanked by a butterfly shaped four-way key that controls playback operations. The two volume keys are placed on either side, its main menu is icon-based. Vertical scrolling through menu options is simple, but scrolling through a very long list of songs is a nightmare. Moreover, it takes a long time to load track lists and play selected songs.

The Creative Zen Touch attempts to emulate the iPod by featuring a touch sensitive vertical scroll area. There is an OK button just above the vertical touch-area, and they are flanked by three buttons on either side. The buttons allow access to the menu and controlling playback.

The power button and two keys for controlling volume are located on the left side of the device. Scrolling here is not as intuitive as the click wheel on the iPod. It’s hard to avoid hitting the OK button, or one of the menu buttons accidentally when scrolling, and the over-sensitive touchpad just sends you into the wrong menus.

The iPod scores the best in terms of its interface and ease of use.

The Apple iPod is to hard drive players what
Xerox is to photocopiers


For the performance test, there was no way that either the Apple iPod or the Creative Zen touch could compete with the S-Media Cocopod in terms of data transfer speeds.

In the audio performance tests, the iPod was in a class of its own. Listening to music is sheer pleasure on this baby—all the songs that we used in our tests came through crystal clear with no distortion at all. However, at high volumes, the Bass Booster equalizer humbles the bundled headphones.

The Creative Zen comes in second here, though nowhere close to the iPod. The Zen’s sound quality is very good and clear with no evident distortion. However, as you pump up the volume, the treble overpowers the bass, making it sound harsh. The earphones are of excellent build quality, and fit the ear snugly—even after hours of use, you will feel no discomfort.

The S-Media Cocopod disappointed us, and the earphones bundled with the device can only be described as sub-standard. Not wanting to base our decision on poor headphones, we plugged in Sennheiser MX300’s and got much better sound quality.

However, there was still distortion at high volumes, and the treble sounded too harsh for comfort—even on the Sennheisers.

Battery life was one major criterion in our comparison test. The Creative Zen Touch provided us with an excellent battery life of 25 hours. It was followed by the Apple iPod at 15 hours, while the S-Media Cocopod fell flat on its face at just 5.5 hours. What’s the point of a 20 GB hard drive, when you run out of battery before even listening to an iota of your collection.


The Apple iPod was chased insatiably by the Creative Zen—thanks to the Zen’s superior battery life. The price difference between these two products is exactly Rs 501, which is nothing at this level—so you should base your buying decision solely on performance and features. The Apple iPod has been refined over a period of four generations, and has become to hard drive MP3 players what Xerox is to photocopiers. Its excellent ergonomics, intuitive user interface and fast loading times makes it Digit’s Best Buy Gold winner in the hard drive-based portable audio player category.

Apple iPod 20GB

However, the Creative Zen cannot be dismissed off-hand. It looks good, has a higher battery life and is marginally cheaper, but still needs a lot of work in terms of ergonomics and features if it wants to dethrone the iPod.

Bhaskar Banik and Deepak DhingraBhaskar Banik and Deepak Dhingra