The Practical Mac

MP3s and Music to Go

- 2003.04.15 - Tip Jar

As today is Tax Day in the US, I thought we could all use a little pleasant distraction from the harsh reality of the IRS - so fire up your Mac, iTunes, and Disc Burner, and let's go!

If you are a music fan and computer user, chances are you have accumulated a collection of songs in MP3 format. You have also probably longed to be able to listen to your MP3 collection in places other than in front of your Mac.

MP3 is a method of compressing audio recordings to a very small size without noticeable loss of sound quality. Because of its ability to produce a small, relatively high-quality audio file, MP3 has become the standard for music distribution on the Internet as well as in portable applications.

If you have a Mac with a CD writer and the appropriate software (iTunes alone is enough), you can easily burn a CD of songs and play them on your car CD player. While there is certainly nothing wrong with doing it this way, recording time is limited to the length of a standard CD (typically 14-19 songs).

If your MP3 collection is extensive, you could go through a lot of CDs this way. Depending on the speed of your CD writer, you could also wind up spending an inordinate amount of time creating CDs.

Fortunately, other options exist for taking your MP3 collection with you. The last year has seen an explosion in the number of companies manufacturing portable MP3 players. These portable players can be divided into three broad categories. Each type has its unique advantages as well as drawbacks.

The CD/MP3 player looks like any other portable CD player. The difference is it can play MP3 CDs as well as standard audio CDs. To use this player, copy your MP3 files to a writeable CD in MP3 format rather than making an audio CD. In MP3 format, a typical CD will hold in the neighborhood of 150 songs. That translates to 7+ hours of music! When you first insert the writeable CD, be sure to select "MP3 CD" from the Disc Burner menu that will likely pop up.

MP3/CD players are typically the lowest cost portable MP3 players. Some lower end players sell for less than $50. The drawback to this type of player is that you still have to burn CDs. These players also tend to have limited functionality.

The newest MP3 players on the portable scene are the digital players. These systems use either built-in memory or replaceable solid state memory cards. Since they have no moving parts, these units are shockproof and skip-proof. They are also extremely small - some no larger than a magic marker. Compared to other players, storage capacity is limited. Some have as little as 32 megabytes of storage, enough for 9 or 10 songs, although capacities of 64 or 128 megabytes are more typical.

The player usually connects directly to the USB port of the Mac and appears on the desktop as another drive, allowing MP3 files to be copied onto it. Prices range from $85 to $200.

Some portable MP3 players have internal hard drives, just like a computer. Drive sizes start at 5 gigabytes, which easily holds 1,000 songs or more, and range up to 20 gigabytes. Even larger models are on the way.

The most prominent model of this type is the iPod. Since they have internal hard drives, these players are vulnerable to shock and skip. Lower priced models tend to scrimp on skip protection and may use USB to connect to the Mac; insist on a model with at least 10 minutes of skip protection (the iPod offers 20!) and a FireWire connection.

Most also double as an external hard drive, allowing them to hold data as well as music. Top of the line models have calendar and contact functionality close to that of a Palm. Prices range from $200 to $500. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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