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Best MP3 player buyers guide

Ever since the days of the Sony Walkman, people have come to enjoy the solitude offered by a personal music player. Formats have come and gone – we’ve so far seen the rise and fall of the personal tape player, the CD player and the mini-disc – but regardless of technological changes, music lovers are still plugging themselves in and zoning themselves out.

The current iteration of the personal music device comes in the form of the MP3 player, a gadget that stores hundreds – in some cases thousands, or even tens of thousands – of digital music files.

Although it was by no means the first, the market for MP3 players was essentially created in 2001 by the bods at Apple when the company released its world-conquering iPod MP3 player.

In the decade that’s passed since, MP3 players have evolved to cover a whole swathe of different options. Whether you’re after the latest all-singing, all-dancing touchscreen device, or are just in the market for cheap MP3 players, there is the perfect device for you out there.

This guide aims to give you the required knowledge to pick the best MP3 player for you. If you’re tired of wading through MP3 player reviews trying to find your dream device, look no further.

MP3 player or digital media player?

While the term ‘MP3 player’ has taken its place in common parlance, many of these devices are better described as digital media players. This is because they play more than just standard MP3 music files – we’re talking apps, videos and all sorts.

For the sake of simplicity, a ‘pure’ MP3 player should be considered any device that solely plays digital audio files. These tend to be the cheaper devices, with a basic button layout and small form factor, ideal for those that require a compact and mobile device. Apple’s iPod Shuffle range is probably the best known example.

These MP3 players tend to feature very basic navigation and options, with the emphasis being on simplicity rather than an extended feature list. That said, some premium devices (for instance, Apple’s ‘Nano’ range) come with extras such as a small touchscreen for easier navigation of your tunes.

At the other end of the scale, digital media players are usually more complex devices. They not only offer the user the opportunity to play music files, but also watch video, take photos and in some case even browse the web and use applications (such as games). The most popular of these devices is the Apple iPod Touch range, although other large manufacturers such as Sony and Samsung produce similar products.

MP3 player memory size

When looking for an MP3 player or a digital media player, it’s easy to get lost in a hail of jargon such as MBs and GBs. But what is a GB (or for that matter an MB) and how should it affect your buying decision?

MB stands for megabyte, which is a unit used to measure the size of a digital file. In relation to music, a very basic yard stick to use is that one minute of music is approximately one megabyte.

GB stands for gigabyte, which is one thousand megabytes. So a 1GB MP3 player will be able to hold roughly 1,000 minutes of music, or just under 17 hours.

Video files are much larger than audio files, although their size can vary widely depending on the quality of the video. A video that is considered ‘high definition’ will often be several times larger than the equivalent standard video, although a basic rule of thumb is that 90 minutes of video will take approximately 1GB.

The majority of MP3 and digital media players come with between 1GB and 64GB of data. If you plan on using your device solely for music, you will probably find that 16GB is plenty (unless you happen to have an especially large music collection). However, if you plan on using it for video and games as well, then a 32GB or 64GB device is recommended.

MP3 player Wi-Fi connectivity

Nowadays many top-end MP3 and digital media players come with a built-in Wi-Fi connection, meaning the user is able to access the internet when connected to a Wi-Fi network.

This opens up the device to a whole range of new features, such as the ability to browse the web, download applications and play online games.

Having in-built Wi-Fi usually means the MP3 player can go beyond being a music and media player, and become a fully-fledged communication device with access to instant messaging and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Wi-Fi can also be used with in conjunction with other features. For example, a device which features both Wi-Fi and a front-facing camera will often give you the option to make video calls using a service such as Skype.

Do I need a touchscreen MP3 player?

A lot of MP3 players, even those at the cheaper end of the market, feature a digital display, while at the other end of the scale the more expensive devices have touchscreens.

On the cheaper devices, the digital display will often be there solely as a means of navigating your music files (coupled with physical buttons), however in the more high-end devices the display will often take the form of a touchscreen.

Display size (often referred to as screen size) is always measured in inches (diagonally, from corner to corner.) Most devices come with a screen smaller than four inches, which should fit comfortably in the hand, although some digital media players, such as the Archos ‘5’ Series, come with larger displays.

These larger devices tend to not be very pocket friendly and as such generally aren’t recommended for those wishing to use their device mostly when out-and-about (or while doing activities such as jogging).

Over the last few years the trend in top-end MP3 and digital media players is to feature a touchscreen.

Having a touchscreen means that navigation is generally done by prodding and swiping the screen directly, rather than using physical buttons. This can make navigating your music and video files a much simpler and more pleasurable experience, although on the flip-side touchscreen devices usually to have a shorter battery life.

Touchscreen devices also tend to have a great selection of applications and games available for them, meaning it’s often possible to play ever-popular games such as Angry Birds.

It is worth remembering though that touchscreens are usually made of glass and are therefore rather fragile when knocked or dropped. For this reason they’re not recommended for those looking for a device to accompany them on more physical pursuits, such as mountain biking.

MP3 player ‘playtime’

Playtime is a gauge of how long you should expect the battery to last between charges.

Generally speaking, using your device for things such as films and games will use significantly more battery than just using it to listen to music.

Often the technical specifications for an MP3 or digital media player will include two playtime amounts, one for audio and one for video, although it’s worth remembering that the manufacturers are somewhat generous when publicising the battery life of a device.

Manufacturers will test their devices in ‘perfect’ conditions, and as such you shouldn’t expect to get the published playtime when using the device in the real world!

MP3 players with radios

When a device advertises that it contains an FM tuner, it essentially means that it can pick up FM radio. However, often the radio will only work when the headphones are plugged in as the device uses the headphones cable as an aerial – not usually an issue, but it may be a consideration for some.

MP3 player voice recorders

Some MP3 players contain an in-built microphone, meaning it can be used to record audio. However, the microphones are usually pretty poor resulting in low quality audio, making it suitable only for recording voices and not music.

What you get is akin to a dictaphone, perfect for recording an interview or perhaps just your thoughts as a memo/reminder.

What to do next

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution when picking an MP3 player, hopefully this guide will have furnished you with enough basic information to pick the best MP3 player for you without having to fight through hundreds of MP3 players reviews.

That said, once you’ve picked one or two devices you’d like to choose between, it is always worth doing a little extra research into each one.

Once you’ve decided, simply click the green button to be taken to a choice of retailers that sell that product. Either pick the retailer you trust most, or the cheapest one that suits you, and click through to their website to buy the item directly from them – simple!

Also, if you want a bit more information about some more advanced features, check out our blog post on other MP3 player features including memory and file types.

By Tim Pilgrim 

Infographic: Evolution of Portable Music Evolution of Portable Music by Tech King