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Review

Sounds good, wastes time: blame it on Rio

By CHRISTOPHER BLANK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 1999


It looks cool, and it plays music that sounds good. But is Diamond Multimedia's Rio the best way to listen to your favorite tunes?

Maybe for a 15-year-old with an excess of free time. After testing the Rio, I decided to stick with my CD player and wobbly tape player.

The Rio resembles a Walkman, only it doesn't play tapes or pick up radio stations. It plays music files called MP3s, which must be downloaded from your computer. With no moving parts, the pocket-sized Rio doesn't skip if jostled, and the sound is, for the most part, CD quality.

The Rio comes with enough storage for about an hour's worth of music. The main buttons are conveniently grouped in the front. Unlike some portable mini-disc players that can show song titles, the Rio's LCD display is rather chintzy.

The alluring quality of the Rio, which costs about $200, is that if you get sick of one tune, just erase it and download another in its place. It's like a wallet for music. Tunes can be added or subtracted like business cards.

The Rio's biggest drawback: It is a time-consuming device to own. Only after hours of labor did I finally enjoy music from the Rio.

First, the Rio's software has to be installed on your computer. On the screen the software looks like other MP3 players but with the added capability to download files into the Rio, which connects to the computer via a parallel cable.

After I installed the software, the search for music began. I imagine Arthur, King of the Britons, had an easier time in his search for the Holy Grail. Diamond packages the Rio with a disc of tunes in the MP3 format. It's a nice gesture, but I wanted good music. The company suggests that Rio owners copy their CDs into MP3 format, which can be done on the computer. But be prepared to add more software.

One buys a Rio with the assumption that there are millions upon millions of free MP3 files floating around the Internet, offering music that was not previously in one's collection.

Once I started looking, I discovered that if I want to do this legally, downloading only those MP3 files approved by the copyright holders, I have to settle for junk. I also could purchase songs with a credit card, but since most 15-year-olds (the Rio's target audience) don't carry plastic, I remained within the realm of plausibility. I went to a search engine and -- fingers trembling -- typed: "illegal MP3s."

How does a law-abiding citizen so easily become a criminal? According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the very act of owning a Rio infringes on serial copyright restrictions. So don't blame me for downloading a few good tunes, just in the interest of research.

Here is where I literally watched the hours drag by. I clicked from site to site looking for viable MP3 links. Few were much use. After more than five hours, I finally downloaded enough music to fill the Rio. By the way, the files are saved on your computer, so you'd better have plenty of storage space if you want a jukebox-sized selection.

I was excited to finally hear the music I had spent hours downloading. The Rio's sound quality was mildly impressive, which is really a reflection of MP3's sound quality. Some tunes had flaws in the recording. Others, I discovered, were only snippets of tunes.

Sure, it beats my cassette player for tunes that are interchangeable and lack tape hiss, but at 200 bucks, plus the Internet's lack of (legal) quality music -- not to mention time for my own social life to consider -- Rio is not the alternative it was designed to be.

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