Call it the "I get it" moment -- that epiphany when you witness a new technology in action for the first time, and suddenly the musings of sci-fi writers, visionaries and techno-pundits make sense. For years we've read that someday we'd be receiving all of our music digitally and instantly off the Internet. But it wasn't until I started playing with the new RioPMP300 MP3 player, from Diamond Multimedia, that this vision began to seem tangible and meaningful.
Like most first-generation technologies, the Rio is still more vision than function: The future possibilities are more impressive than what can currently be done with the product. The Rio is certainly cool -- every geek I showed mine to gushed at the prospect of fooling around with it -- but it's going to need a lot of enhancements before it becomes truly practical.
The $200 Rio is a snazzy-looking little portable music player, less than half the size of a Walkman, that stores and plays songs in the MP3 format -- a compression standard favored on the Net for storing and sharing sound files. The Rio will hold up to about an hour of music in its 32 megabytes of flash memory -- music you can either download from the Net orencode from your own CDs. The music quality is that of MPEG layer 3 -- that is to say, crisp, clear, nearly CD-quality sound. One battery will power the player for up to 12 hours.
The Rio incorporates many of the basic functions of a CD player -- it allows you to scroll through songs, randomly play tracks, use different equalization (or tone) settings and repeat tracks. There's a looping function for musicians who want to examine certain passages. And best of all, since the Rio uses no moving parts, the music will never skip no matter how much you throw it around. The functions are designed so intuitively, in fact, that your average 7-year-old could figure out how to play the thing.
Actually getting the music into the Rio, however, is a different story.
The device connects to your PC via the parallel printer port (sorry, Mac owners, there's no Rio for you) and comes with a CD-ROM of Rio software. To upload music from your PC to the Rio, you simply drag and drop the tracks you want to hear onto a playlist, and the software automatically moves the music for you. To remove a song, click on the title and hit delete.
But that's the simple part -- the problem starts with getting the music onto your PC in the first place. The Rio plays only MP3, which means you have to obtain music in that format, either by downloading MP3 tracks off the Web or "ripping" your own CDs (taking tracks from your music CD collection and encoding them in MP3 format).
I decided to start by downloading music off the Web, and headed to MP3.com, which compiles thousands of free MP3 songs by a wide variety of musicians. Unfortunately, the music is mostly by unknown artists, so it's difficult to find music you already know you want. I spent about half an hour scrolling through lists and selected a few tracks. Downloading them from the Net and uploading them into my Rio took a matter of mere minutes on an office T1 line -- it would, unfortunately, take considerably longer on a modem -- and of the three songs I downloaded, I found one that I actually liked.
But the MP3 tracks available at MP3.com (and through a growing number of similar sites offering free indie music) aren't the only MP3 tracks available on the Web: There are, of course, the illegal MP3 songs that the Recording Industry Association of America is making a fuss about. The RIAA sued Diamond to block the Rio's release in October because it felt that buyers would use the Rio mainly to listen to (and make) illegal MP3 copies of songs by major label artists -- the RIAA's premise being that music lovers would want to listen to the latest pirated Madonna song, instead of an unknown track off MP3.com.
The organization has a point: I certainly was interested in getting some music I already knew and loved. But the RIAA should be relieved to hear that illegal MP3 music isn't particularly easy to find: Although my searches for MP3 archive Web sites came up with pages of results, most had already been taken down, and I couldn't get into the rest. I even headed to IRC (Internet Relay Chat), where pirates swap the addresses of secret FTP sites that store illegal MP3 songs; that was a bust too. After several hours of fruitless searching for a good illegal MP3 song, I simply gave up.
The final music option for your Rio is to encode your own CDs into an MP3 format -- and the Rio comes packaged with MusicMatch, an encoding program that enables this. Simply stick your CD in the CD-ROM drive, select the songs you want to copy and MusicMatch will make MP3 copies. You will then need to load those MP3 files to the Rio, which requires a second round of compression. This is all fine except for the time it takes: Encoding, compressing and uploading one CD took almost two hours.
Getting content for the Rio isn't, of course, an inherent problem with the technology. The burden is on the music industry to start making music available on the Net -- ideally, to sell entire MP3 albums on the Net for download. Already, online record labels like Goodnoise and sites likesongs.com and MP3.com are working to make that a reality; some have signed up moderately recognizable musicians in their MP3 musician stable.
But some of Rio's drawbacks are rooted in its technology -- and memory is the biggest. Since the Rio only stores about 10 to 12 songs at once, you need to head back to your desk every time you want to change your music. Unlike with a Walkman or Discman, you can't bring your database of music with you. The Rio does have expandable memory -- you can buy flash memory cards that will double its memory -- but those cards are $50 a piece. Until that price comes way down, or some other solution arrives, the Rio has a big convenience problem.
The Rio could also use some manufacturing improvements -- physically, it's a bit shoddy. The battery door keeps popping open, for example, and the plastic seams are not firmly glued together. The function buttons are too sensitive -- they activate even if only lightly bumped.
But these are minor quibbles; overall, the Rio is a solid first-generation product. It's easy to imagine the enhancements of the next version, and how great it could be with more memory, more bandwidth, more music availability. Samsung will be releasing its own MP3 player next year,and competition ought to quickly improve the technology.
Should you spend $200 on the Rio today? It depends on how dedicated a music fan you are -- and whether you consider a Rio an investment in the future.
Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon. MORE FROM Janelle Brown
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