MP3 Portable Deluge Coming Soon

MP3 players are going to hit the market in waves this fall, and manufacturers will be trying hard to make their products stand out from the pack. Several companies are bringing out combi MP3/CD portables, including consumer-electronics newcomer Pine Technology USA, of Fremont, California. Pine has long experience in the manufacture of motherboards, modems, and other computer components. The company is now shipping its $189 D'Music SM-320V MP3 portable. Its $219 model SM-320 includes an FM tuner. Both players have 32Mb of embedded solid-state memory and will accept a 32Mb SmartMedia card. Pine's players operate on two AAA batteries, and can double as voice recorders with up to 4.5 hours of recording capacity. Retailers include Fry's Electronics and Office Depot.

Philips has announced an Internet music portable, to be brought to market at about $200 early next year. The Philips player will decode at least five different compressed-music formats, including MP3, Real Audio G2, Liquid Audio, a2b, and EMMS. Additional formats will be available as downloads.

Best Data Products has introduced the $239 Cabo portable MP3 player, available through retailers and websites. The Cabo has 64Mb of embedded memory and a slot for a 32Mb SmartMedia card, and runs for up to 10 hours on two AAA batteries. Music-management software for PCs, a microphone, "earbud" headphones, and memory storage for 250 phone numbers are included.

If RCA's Lyra player does well, parent company Thomson will develop its own CD/MP3 portable for the US market, to debut late in 2000. Probable features include the ability to decode and play back music from MP3 CDs and from a removable Type 1 or 2 CompactFlash card. Thomson also has shown prototype MP3-compatible shelf systems, including a 100-disc CD changer.

Early entries in the MP3 market will lack digital audio watermarking technology approved by the Secure Digital Music Initiative because of delays in arranging a licensing agreement with Aris Technologies, developer of the robust-but-supposedly-undetectable encryption technique. Buyers of RCA's Lyra player will be able to download the technology from the Internet at a later date, company officials stated, although it is not clear what advantage this would present to consumers.