[an error occurred while processing this directive] If you've been longing for a portable MP3 player but have no intention of shelling out $250 to $400 for an iPod or one of its many imitators, you'll be glad to know there's a much cheaper and in some ways equally cool choice: a flash-based MP3 player. These handy devices, which store songs on a small silicon chip, cost about $100 and are often as small and light as a pack of gum.
Unlike the iPod and similar music players that rely primarily on hard drives to store songs, flash players have no moving parts, which makes them less susceptible to damage if used while jogging or if dropped. And they are so petite, they fit into the tiniest handbag or pants pocket. In a unique design, Virgin's wearable 128-MB MP3 player ($100), only available in the U.S., is the size and shape of a small medallion and can hang like a pendant around your neck.
Because flash players are so inexpensive we found some for $35 on the comparison-shopping site BizRate.com manufacturers are making nearly three times as many of them as they are hard-drive-based models, according to research firm IDC. Most play both MP3 and Windows Media files and run on a single AAA battery, which lasts about 12 to 20 hours. FM-radio tuners and audio-record features are often built in (and rarely found on hard-drive players). Flash players weigh about 28 g, compared with 170 g for an iPod.
Of course, almost every good thing has a catch, and for flash players it's storage size: most have anywhere from 128 MB to 1 GB of memory, compared with 4 GB on an iPod mini or 15 GB to 40 GB for a full-size model. A 256-MB player holds about eight hours of music or 120 songs, which means you will be refreshing your playlist frequently. That is relatively easy, especially with devices like Creative Labs' Muvo TX FM ($80 for 128 MB or $100 for 256 MB), which has a standard usb port built in so that you can plug it directly into your computer.
Several other models are standouts: the Rio Forge ($139 for 128 MB, $169 for 256 MB or $199 for 512 MB) is a 7.5-cm-wide, disk-shape player with a rubberized rim and a slot for adding up to 1 GB of extra memory. JetAudio's iAudio U2 is one of the only flash players with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and comes in a jazzy red ($149 for 256 MB) and cool blue ($199 for 512 MB). And the upcoming Rocbox ($160 for 256 MB) from Roc Digital, a new company formed by hip-hop and fashion mogul Damon Dash, will come in a limited-edition pink tone when it goes on sale this month in the U.S. at CompUSA and Macy's. With so many styles to choose from, flash-based MP3 players are looking as fashionable as iPods.