June 2001

Vacation Time: Audio/Video Portables

In the late 1950s I remember my father coming home with two brand new radios, large breadbox-sized wooden affairs chock-full of glowing tubes and powerful enough, at least after the sun went down, to pick up exotic lands like Chicago and Nashville—heady stuff for an obsessively curious boy in Shawnee, Okla.

Then a couple of years later, the result of the burgeoning solid-state revolution that is still underway, I remember coveting, but never owning because of its out-of-reach 12-buck price, a small, eight-transistor radio that could “fit in a shirt pocket,” a claim I found almost unbelievable in those techno-dark ages of 1961. Eight transistors! All compact enough to fit in your hand—and potent enough to pick up Oklahoma City, no doubt. Johnny Otis, Ray Charles and Buck Owens were just a click away, even on the school bus, meaning I could take my music with me wherever I went. But that fantasy was not meant to be, at least for me.

Fast-forward about 20 years to the early ’80s, when the seemingly endless brilliance of the mad scientists at Sony (they had introduced the first transistor radio back in the ’50s) brought forth the miracle of truly personal portable music: the Walkman. In case you don’t remember (or maybe you were still in Pampers then), the Walkman was the first miniature cassette player designed to offer high-quality playback via what were then considered to be (and still are) honestly small, high-fidelity earphones and to fit inside a shirt pocket. When prices finally dipped below a C-note, I bought one and immediately began enjoying Pat Metheny, Toninho Horta and countless other jazz and Brazilian faves right at my desk as I cranked out mindless press releases, radio playlists and other drivel. The dream of having my music in private and always with me finally came true—even in the car, my Walkman was a dream come true since my ’68 VW Squareback was sans cassette, FM or even AM.

Now, nearly 20 more years have passed and it seems that, though the means and the technology are changing almost weekly, the impact of the Walkman idea is still being felt: offer the public a personally programmable music source with the highest reliability, stability and fidelity in the smallest package emerging silicon wizardry will allow.

And since we are entering the annual celebration of summer and the weather-induced travel that the season promises, it’s time to examine some of the latest ideas in portable audio and video devices. Of course, since these things change so rapidly, by the time this magazine hits the stands we might be listening to Miles via some miniature cerebral upgrade implanted at your local Kind of Blue Cross X-File office. Come on, you know it’s coming.

Of course the hottest thing going these days is the MP3 player, first introduced a couple of years ago by Diamond Multimedia in the form of the Rio. Now you can even get a watch or a cell phone with MP3 capability, though the storage capacity of those devices is limited to only a handful of tunes, and the very cool Handspring Visor PDA has a module that converts this handheld computer into an MP3 player.

MP3 is a compression/storage format that compacts the already compact digital CD file by as much as 10 times, meaning you can burn up to 10 or more CDs worth of MP3 files (downloaded from your computer) onto a typical CD. While an hour or so of music requires about 64 megabytes (MB) of memory, which is the standard capacity of most portable MP3 players on the market today, that number is growing by a leap here and a bound there. Iomega, manufacturer of the now ubiquitous Zip (and Jaz) drives, now produces a nifty portable MP3 unit called the HipZip which features removable 40MB PocketZip disks for about 40 minutes of music. Even though PocketZip’s capacity is under an hour, you can build a library of hundreds of disks if you want, so the sky is the limit as far as building an MP3 collection for this baby is concerned.

On the other end of the memory scale is Creative Labs’ Nomad Jukebox, which is really a very small hard drive about the size of a portable CD player. The Nomad’s 6 gigabyte (!) memory will hold the equivalent of 150 CDs (over 100 hours) and can load them at a very fast clip off your computer. Complaints about the Jukebox are minor: it can be slow searching for specific titles, the battery is consumed relatively quickly and it is not as shock resistant as a standard MP3 player that uses a memory card or chip to store music.

For this kind of memory-card-based player, there are many great choices. Just make sure you determine the price of additional memory and factor that into the purchase price of the actual player; expensive storage media adds up quickly. SONICblue bought Diamond Multimedia and now makes the Rio in many different configurations; they also offer the Nike psa[play120, a 2.2-ounce player designed for jogging and exercising and capable of storing up to two hours of music. Creative Labs offers several styles of Nomad players in addition to the Jukebox. Intel has just introduced their new Pocket Concert player with 128MB of memory (more than two hours of music). Compaq, one of the first producers of portable computers, is marketing the Personal Audio Player, which is about the size of a pager and can store about an hour’s worth of music, and Samsung’s Hip-Hop Yepp is compact (only a bit over three inches long) and quite stylish in several colors—and the sound quality is good, especially for the size.

The other main option for MP3 players is the MP3 CD player, which plays CDs of MP3s you make yourself using standard CD-Rs as the storage medium. The capacity per CD is tremendous, something like 12 to 14 albums on a disc, and the sound is good—most also have an antiskipping mechanism via about 40-60 seconds of music stored in flash memory so you can move about gingerly with the player in tow. The RioVolt offers everything you need in a portable music device, except long battery life—the major complaint about this genre of player—but the sound is excellent and the other features excel as well—it will play CDs, CD-Rs and CD-RWs and claims up to 20 hours of music per disc. Philips’ eXpanium is another great choice with sound quality and antiskipping that seems to lead the pack in this particular group.

Another way to take your music to that quiet beach, secluded mountaintop or noisy subway trek is the Sony-developed MiniDisc. This nifty little disc offers over 70 minutes of music for little more than a buck each, offering skip-proof playback. True to their name, MiniDiscs are smaller than a deck of cards and very versatile. The discs can be used and rerecorded on countless times from standard sources like CDs, cassettes or LPs, so you can update your compilations and favorite discs as you please. You also can connect the recorders to your computer and record MP3 and WAV files to the discs. Sony offers a complete line of player-recorders and simple players with a range of colors and features. But other manufacturers have gotten into the picture and are worth investigating, including Sharp and Casio, so this is a format that might be worth exploring, especially if you plan to use your player during lots of physical activity.

Of course there is still a wide range of more conventional personal music devices out there such as simple radios, cassette players and CD players in an infinite number of combinations of these. Look for features that fit your needs and always remember to ask about battery life expectancy when making a purchase. Some devices seem to eat batteries and others are much more gentle with their power consumption. As previously mentioned, take into consideration your need to use any device when jogging or exercising because some are just not suited for jostling about and others can accommodate just about any sort of movement.

If you are going to travel away from home, but just can’t stand the thought of being away from visual stimulation like movies and music videos, then you have to have some kind of small video player or television. And just as with music players, you can explore the latest in digital video playback equipment designed for the jazz fan on the go, or settle in with a simple portable TV to stay abreast of news, sports and other mind candy while on the road.

Not surprisingly, Sony and Panasonic have taken the lead in the field of portable DVD players—Sony’s DVP-FX1 portable DVD unit was chosen to entertain the crew aboard the International Space Station. Like Panasonic’s principal entry in this race, the DVD-LV75, Sony’s machine offers a 7-inch screen with surprisingly good color, resolution and sound. These things resemble miniature laptops, which I suppose is what they are, but they are much lighter (just over a pound) and much easier on the lap or airline tray table (only an inch thick), and their metal housings should offer some protection against damage while stored. Battery life on these is between three and four hours, enough for at least one long film or two shorter features. The Panasonic picture seemed to be a bit less grainy, but the color on the Sony was outstanding. Either way, these are fun little units that can make traveling much less of a chore—I had fun auditioning them. In addition to these, you might check out similar designs by Pioneer, Toshiba and Sharp.

For a more cumbersome approach, but offering a larger, sharper picture, look at Konka’s DT138U TV/DVD combination. You get a 13-inch television with a built-in DVD player. You won’t put it on your lap and it doesn’t offer a lot of frills, but it will travel easily in the car and will be useful on those hotel/motel trips across the country or when staying with friend and relatives with whom you want to share some prized video of Coltrane or T-Bone Walker.

If you just need a small screen, no, a really small screen, Sony offers a line of small hand-helds with a 2.2-inch screen that can at least keep you up with the latest scores. Citizen, RCA and others make similar tiny screen televisions. For a slightly larger picture, Memorex offers a CD player/television combo with a 5-inch black and white TV built in, but battery drain seems to be an issue, so use the AC cord as much as you can. GPX also offers a 5-inch black and white (no CD player) that comes in a range of pop-art colors and offers AC/DC or battery operation. Might be cool in a camper, but keep the volume down! And a new company called ToteVision offers a 5.6-inch LCD monitor, the LCD-563T, with tuner for a cool little television with a surprisingly sharp picture. They have other, larger monitors without built-in tuners that would work great in combination with an outboard VCR or DVD player.

Obviously we have come a long way since that little eight-transistor radio. That we can tote around a portable DVD player that weighs about a pound offering bright, exciting colors and stereo sound, or that we can neatly carry around over 100 hours of music on a small Nomad Jukebox with song titles displayed on an LCD boggles the 1950s-educated mind. But here we are, so let’s hit the road with some of these dandy toys that can surely make the summer more enjoyable.

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