New flash-based players from Apple, Creative, and others now rival the capacities of larger hard-disk-based devices.
1. Creative Zen
Creative's superslim Zen has an attractive 2.5-inch color display, an FM tuner, a built-in microphone, robust video- and photo-viewing capabilities, and the ability to import contact management information--and it plays music. The player is about the size and shape of a standard-issue business-card case and comes in capacities ranging from 2GB (US$80) to 32GB ($300). All models have a built-in SD Card slot to permit an instant storage upgrade. It handles most audio formats, including unprotected iTunes AAC files, but it lacks support for FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. For video, the Zen works with MPEG-4, DivX4, DivX5, XviD, and WMV files and comes with simple Video Converter software. A standard mini-USB jack lets you sync and power the device, which has a 30-hour play time for audio files (5 hours for video).
2. Creative Zen V Plus
Available in 2GB ($70) and 4GB ($90) capacities, this compact but aging player's 1.5-inch OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen displays photos with great clarity--indoors, at least. The V Plus also plays video and has an FM radio tuner. It supports PlaysForSure subscription content and the standard array of MP3, WMA, and Audible files. With a five-band equalizer for tweaking audio, the Zen V Plus sounded great in our audio tests, where it played various high-bit-rate MP3 files. Though the device includes Creative's Video Converter software, watching anything that runs longer than a minute on the 128-by-128-pixel screen seems silly.
3. Apple iPod Nano
The first things you'll notice about the third-generation Apple iPod Nano are its video-capable 2-inch display and its revised shape. The brushed-aluminum device--available in silver (4GB and 8GB), black, red, turquoise, mint green, and pink--is well designed for one-handed operation. The LED-backlit display is bright and beautiful, making photos and videos look crisp and brilliant. The larger screen also accommodates Apple's refreshed iPod interface, which introduced right-side content previews and Cover Flow visual album-cover navigation. Unfortunately, you'll have to pay extra for a built-in microphone or an FM tuner. Apple rates the Nano's battery life at 24 hours for audio and 5 hours for video.
4. Apple iPod Touch
The Touch is an amazing piece of technology. Though Mobile Safari is far from perfect, it's the best portable Web browser around; Cover Flow looks fantastic and works beautifully; and the iTunes Wi-Fi Store is extremely slick and easy to use. The Touch is available in 8GB ($299), 16GB ($399), and 32GB ($499) capacities. It has the same 3.5-inch multitouch screen with 480 by 320 resolution as the iPhone; and a recent update finally added the Mail, Maps, Stocks, Weather, and Notes apps. Both devices are set to gain access to third-party programs through Apple's Apps Store, starting in June. The tap, scroll, and pinch gestures that make the iPhone a joy to use work just as well on the Touch. You can view gorgeous videos at resolutions of up to 640 by 480 pixels, in either H.264 or MPEG-4 format. Apple rates the Touch for 22 hours of audio playback and 5 hours of video.
5. iRiver Clix Gen 2
The main draws of this sleek player (available as a 4GB model for $190 or as an 8GB model for $240) are its beautiful display and its unique controls. The 1.9-ounce device plays MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and WMA music files; and it's compatible with the eMusic, Napster, Sony, and Urge online music subscription services. It will also play back WMV- or MPEG-format video files. Video looked crisp and bright on the unit's 2.2-inch, AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) display. The Clix Gen 2 can play and record FM radio, and has integrated voice-recording capabilities, too. The entire front panel functions as a directional pad. By clicking up-down or left-right, you can quickly navigate the menus and make selections.