Product Review: Internet music on the go!

When I want to hear music I like, I turn to Rio. No, not the South American city, but Diamond Multimedia's new MP3 digital music player, the Rio PMP300. This $449 pager-size device functions as a sort of custom Walkman: I can download favorite music from various Internet sites or from CDs and listen to it anywhere.

MP3 is short for MPEG Layer 3, the compression technology that can create near-CD-quality music files that are small enough to send over the Internet. MP3 recordings are so faithful to the originals that the Record Industry Association of America sued to stop Diamond Multimedia from releasing the Rio, alleging that it encouraged music piracy. Diamond won, but the case is currently on appeal.

The Rio uses 32MB of on-board flash memory (think of it as a virtual hard disk) to hold music. Diamond says the device will hold up to an hour of music, but I maxed out the memory with 35 minutes' worth in my test of a shipping unit.

Because the Rio has no moving parts, no skipping or flutter occurs as it does on tape, CD, or minidisc players. A single AA battery gave me 12 hours of play and record time.

The device comes with a small but robust program to load music from your PC to the Rio (through an included parallel-port cable), shuffle its playing order, and preview selections on your PC speakers. Another included program, MusicMatch, converts audio CD tracks to MP3 format. Using the software, I converted a four-minute song from CD to MP3 in 48 seconds and saved it on my PC's hard drive; it then took me less than 30 seconds to transfer the song from my PC to the Rio.

Downloading music from the Net is appealing, as is the ability to create your own program mix of songs. But its relatively small capacity and high cost make the Rio more of a promising first try than a worthwhile gadget.

Rio PMP300

PRO: Pocket-size device plays near-CD-quality customisable music.

CON: Holds just 35 minutes of music, extra memory is expensive.

VALUE: A pricey music player.

Street price: $449

For your nearest retailer, contact Diamond Multimedia's Australian distributor, Chips & Bits on (03) 9696 1911.

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