Even though many of us have ditched our MP3 players in favour of phones or tablets that can play our digital music, the dedicated portable media player (PMP) market does still exist. It might not feel like it, though, since Apple's iPod line has evolved dramatically in the ten-plus years since its inception, and enjoys the lion's share of that shrinking market. But an iPod isn't an automatic choice for everyone, and there are still some worthy competitors to consider. Whether you live in the iTunes ecosystem or not, considering the following points will help you choose your ideal PMP.
Capacity: Flash memory or hard drive?
While there are very few models available these days, hard disk-based players offer the highest storage capacities. They're ideal if you want to carry all of your media in your pocket, or if you want your player to double as an external hard drive. They're also great for audiophiles who prefer to listen to Apple Lossless or uncompressed WAV files, which duplicate exactly what you'd hear on an audio CD.
Most people don't need that much storage, however, and hard disk players have a serious disadvantage: They're far more fragile than their flash memory-based counterparts. While Apple still currently offers the iPod line in hard disk and flash memory flavours, most other companies have phased out hard disk devices altogether, though you might still find an older Archos or Creative player from a third-party online retailer or on eBay for a great price.
The largest, major brand flash players available currently top out at 64GB of on board storage, and have been stuck there for a couple of years, but if they advance to 128GB, it will likely kill the hard drive player altogether. Luckily, many (non-Apple) players integrate an SD card slot to expand your storage space. Overall, if you're looking for maximum capacity right now, your best (and possibly only) bet is the hard drive-based 160GB Apple iPod Classic.
It's not all about how much music or video you can cram on, however, it's about the actual device itself. What are you going to use it for? If you want to work out with your player, it's best to look for a smaller model that you can strap to your arm or clip to your shirt. Also, you probably want a more durable player to exercise with. The tiny Motorola MotoActv is more fitness gadget than MP3 player, but it does integrate 8GB or 16GB of storage for your music, making it worth considering for the gym. The delicate, largely glass iPod Touch, on the other hand, might not survive a drop on the pavement during your morning run.
Controls are important, too: Do you want to put some music on your device and just listen? The tiny iPod Shuffle will do the trick, offering minimal physical controls and no screen. Or do you want to be able to see what's playing and visually move around the user interface? Then you need a player with a display...
Screen size and resolution
If you want to see your album art, plan on watching movies or TV shows, or viewing your photos, you should look for a PMP with a large, high resolution screen. Right now, you can't beat the ultra-sharp 4in 1,136 x 640-pixel retina display on the latest iPod Touch, but it's not the only game in town. For example, while not as tightly packed with pixels, the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 has a 4in 800 x 480 touchscreen.
And the latest version of the iPod Nano (above) once again supports video playback, and comes with a bright, albeit smallish, 432 x 240-pixel 2.5in screen.
If you own a lot of protected content – be it audio or video – you'll want to make sure the file types you have will work with the player you choose. If you opt for an iPod, you don't have a lot of choice, but there are also file formats common to, ahem, some "sharing" sites that won't play on every device – such as Xvid for video, or the audiophile favourite, FLAC. If you're counting on loading a device up with FLAC files, you'll want to make sure your device actually supports it first. (iPods don't support FLAC, so you'll need to either go a with a different player – like the Samsung Galaxy Player – or first convert your files with a program like XLD).
These days, to keep competitive with phones and tablets, pretty much all MP3 players do more than simply play music. The Sony W Series Walkman (NWZ-W262), for example, builds the player into a pair of high quality, gym-friendly earphones. At the higher end, the iPod Touch and aforementioned Samsung Galaxy Player offer up access to tons of third-party apps and games, so they're just like smartphones without pesky monthly contracts. Just keep in mind that more features tends to mean a higher price tag, which leads us to...
The most important part: Price
One feature everyone wants? Affordability – especially if you're also paying for a cell phone and/or tablet. While some players will cost you an arm and a leg (the new iPod Touch now starts at £249!), inexpensive options abound, for example the Sony NWZ-W262 we've just mentioned can be had for £40. The SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip is another budget player which can be had for around the £40 mark, and comes with a small 1.1in colour display, too. And if you do some smart online shopping, you can score a real bargain – even on a discontinued, but perfectly useable, player. It pays to hunt around, as ever.