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Friday, July 30, 2010

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History of the Portable Audio Player

"Most people nowadays enjoy listening to music. Some feel more relaxed, others become more energetic, but regardless the reason the fact is that music is an essential part of most peoples lives. You can see the proof in this by observing more and more people who have headphones in their years while walking, taking the subway or even during work. Portable audio players are now as popular as the Beatles were in the 60's.
But how did it all start?
Well, the audio players of today have their roots in the Sony Walkman brand. Aside from radio devices, Sony was the first to introduce a portable music player. The first Walkman devices used magnetic audio cassettes and where kind of bulky at first. Sony first advertised the series in Japan, in 1979. Walkmans where usually powered by two AA batteries and provided good music output provided the source (cassette) was of good quality. Later on came the CD Walkman. It featured the same basic concept: a portable audio player that instead of audio cassettes used CDs. The main problem of this device was that, despite being indeed considered “portable”, its size was nowhere near comfortable to use on a daily basis. The best way to carry the device was probably in a backpack.
One of its biggest problems was the fact that it used a laser beam in order to read data from the CD, and the beam orientation system was mainly mechanical, so when the device was moved it very often skipped parts of a song or sometimes fail to play at all. This problem was later solved by manufacturers by adding a buffer which was used to read ahead and store data. Thus, whenever “live” reading from the CD was not possible, the player continued to play data until the buffer was empty. An important problem related to CD players regarded limited music storage. A CD could store on average around 20 audio tracks and users would either have to limit themselves to this number or carry with them more CDs. This problem was not solved by the next wave of audio players, but rather the solution gave birth to the next generation of devices.
Enter the MP3

Karlheinz Brandenburg, along with other contributors, created the MP3 audio format. The idea behind the MP3 standard was a new compression algorithm that took advantage of a human hearing limitation called auditory masking. Brandenburg used a CD recording of Suzanne Vega's (named by some the mother of the MP3) song "Tom's Diner" in order to refine the compression algorithm.
MP3 greatly reduced the amount of data needed to store audio track information. Compared to a CD, an average-sized MP3-encoded song provides an improved compression ration of 1/10. This achievement paved the way of digital music as we know it today.
As flash storage technologies became cheaper, companies started developing portable MP3 players. One of the first companies to offer high quality products was Rio, with its PMP300. The player came with 32MB of internal memory and a SmartMedia slot for storage expansion. As far as dimensions go, the device was about as large as a deck of cards and connected to the PC using the parallel port.
Rio's success was moderate at most, since it was a bit ahead of its time. But a few years later, various companies started manufacturing en-masse USB, flash-based MP3 players. These where simple USB sticks that plugged in an USB port and allowed for any kind of file transfer, but could only play MP3 files. Most of them came with a small LCD that was designed to display the artist's name, song name and a bunch of other info. Although these devices were an immediate success, at the beginning, manufacturers also offered CD-based MP3 players, because flash modules were still a bit expensive, especially when compared to CDs. As so, most flash portable MP3 players toped at 512MB. However, over time, MP3 CD players lost the battle as the prices of flash memory continued to drop.Also, Sony still continued the MD Player brand. MD stands for Mini Disc and was introduced by Sony before MP3s were born. The device used discs whose size was just 2/3 of that of a CD and allowed music recording from the PC or from a microphone. Later on, the format was updated to store any kind of files, but the disc price was relatively high and users seemed to prefer MP3 players instead. Most USB MP3 players were very similar design-wise, the main differences between them being the casing or color. There were companies like Sony that provided some so called “deluxe” players with glossy finish and elegant design, but no manufacturer could really say that it had an innovative product.
The iPod makes its entrance - and the world of music changes forever
Everything changed when Apple announced its iPod audio player. The company's marketing was aggressive and propelled the iPod, despite its huge price compared to other players, in front of the pack. The first generation iPods were hard-drive based players (not the first of its kind as most might think, Creative was the first with the idea). The player was something new and users where intrigued by the Click-Wheel control ring (later to become touch sensitive) used for scrolling and the impressive storage capacity. The first iPods came with a 5GB hard drive, followed by a 10GB version.Another smart Apple marketing scheme was the use of its own on-line music store, the iTunes. The store provided users with the opportunity to buy single songs at very good prices, or build custom playlists that could later be synchronized with the iPod. This level of freedom made the player famous and everybody was considered cool or fashionable if spotted with an iPod.
Later on, the iPod evolved and it currently offers an impressive 160GB storage space and comes with a slim size factor and a sleek design, given by the chromed backplate.
 Apple also extended the iPod line with various derivatives like the iPod Shuffle, the Nano (a smaller flash based replica of the classic iPod with a smaller storage unit), and is now promoting the iPod touch which, might replace the original iPod design. The Touch features multi-touch user interface and a large, 3.5-inch LCD display.
Other well-respected companies involved in audio (and I say audio and not MP3 because most modern players support all kinds of audio formats) players manufacturing are iRiver, Cowon, Microsoft and Creative.
Today's portable audio players provide various features like movie playback, picture viewing, different web services and some of them (the ones with big enough screens) even allow users to play games.
I guess some are wondering why I enlisted Microsoft as a respected audio player manufacturer, but haven't mentioned anything about any of its products. Well, that's because it only has one product, called Zune. The device is meant to compete with Apple's iPod and has a large screen that allows movie watching and gaming, but, compared to its direct competitor, the device has integrated Wifi and can connect to the Zune MarketPlace for music and video downloads. The device also has a feature that allows Zune owners to exchange music and video files by using their devices' wireless capability.
Picking out an MP3 player is a tough choice these days. Users have hundreds of choices and most of them don't even know what exactly they want or where to start looking. My advice is to first decide what you really want. Do you want just a mp3 player or do you want a multimedia capable device? Do you want to take your entire music collection on the go, or will a flash device be enough? Just take a minute (or a day....or even a few days, but don't go over a month 'cause companies will announce something new and you will have to start all over again) and think about what you need/want. Everything will be a lot easier once you decide that. Next just ask a few friend about their audio players, use some Google magic and in you will have your music on the go in no time." Article source:

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