Almost exactly four years ago Apple Computer (www.apple.com) helped start the portable digital music revolution with the original iPod player, writes Paul Taylor.

The iPod was not the first digital music player and, arguably, it is not the most flexible since it is based on some proprietary technology that ties it closely to Apple’s iTunes playback software and music download service. Nevertheless its sleek design, ease of use and tight integration with iTunes has ensured its dominance of the market for portable music players with an estimated market share of at least 75 per cent. plus market share.

Like most other iPod owners, I am smitten. My latest iPod, a 40Gb Photo model, contains almost 4,000 music tracks, a selection of podcasts and some photos that travel with me virtually everywhere.

Recently, however, there has been lots of buzz about “music phones”, mobile phones designed specifically to store and play back digital music content. These new phones include the iTunes ROKR launched earlier this month by Apple and Motorola, Sony Ericsson’s W800i Walkman phone which was launched in the summer, and the Nokia 3250 unveiled just this week in the US as well as devices from Samsung, LG and Kyocera.

I have been testing two of these devices: the Sony Ericsson W800i, which costs about $500 in the US, and the iTunes ROKR, which is $250 with a service plan from Cingular Wireless, the biggest US mobile carrier.

Despite their limitations, I have to admit that I have been mostly pleasantly surprised. While these first or second generation devices do not yet have the capacity or the sound quality of a dedicated hard drive-based digital music player like the iPod, such comparisons are probably somewhat unfair.

Even the iTunes ROKR is not intended to be a straight iPod replacement – rather it is a revamped version of an earlier Motorola phone that has had the iTunes software loaded on to it. What the ROKR and its rivals do uniquely well is enable users to carry a single pocket-sized device that combines the functions of an advanced mobile phone, flash-memory style digital music player and, often, a digital camera. Most mobile phones can play back music clips and ringtones, but what makes music phones different is that they come with souped-up audio capabilities and software designed specifically for music capture, organisation and playback.

The next generation of music phones is likely to enable users to download digital tracks directly over wireless networks, but both the iTunes ROKR and the W800i need to be hooked up to a PC or Apple Mac using a supplied USB (Universal Serial Bus) cable. in order to import songs. Such limitations are likely to disappear as higher capacity 3G networks become more widespread.

Out of the box, the two music phones are surprisingly similar – both are shaped like slightly squashed Mars bars, have colour screens and have camera lenses on the back – I particularly like the camera built in to the Sony Ericsson machine which comes with a built-in lens cover and flash.

Both also come with built-in stereo speakers although the ROKR produces better and louder sound in this mode – good enough in fact to listen to sit the phone down on a table and listen from several feet away. However, as with other music phones, they are really designed to be used with headphones. Both come with ear-bud style headphones which that switch automatically to phone mode to accept incoming calls.

While the earbuds supplied are tolerable, both the Motorola and Sony Ericsson phones benefit from plugging in more expensive headsets from Plantronics, Jabra or one of the other headphone specialists.

Both phones also feature a mini-joystick to help users navigate through the onscreen menus and control music selection and playback. While these are easier to use than multiple buttons, they sadly do not match the simplicity or ease of use of the iPod scroll wheel or touch pad found on Creative’s Zen players.

When it comes to loading music into the two phones the biggest difference is speed. While the iTunes ROKR uses the older style USB 1.1 technology, the Sony Ericsson uses the much speedier USB 2.0 to make the transfer and the difference is very noticeable. If you plan to load more than a few tracks on to the ROKR do it overnight orbe prepared to find something else to do in the meantime.

Of course, where the ROKR really scores is in its use of Apple’s iTunes software, which is one of the best media player software packages around. If you are already an iTunes user, the iTunes interface will be immediately familiar and the iTunes software will try to “synch up” your ROKR phone as soon as you plug it into the PC USB port. If you are not already an iTunes user, you may be converted.

Transferring tracks to the W800i requires a few more mouse clicks but is also quite easy using the supplied Sony Disc2Phone software, though I personally prefer the iTunes software interface. Once the music is on the phone, it is easy to select and play back on both devices although the Sony Ericsson phone also allows you to construct music playlists on the fly.

The W800i has one other big advantage. The number of tracks you can store on the phone is limited only by the size of the flash memory card plugged into a socket on the side of the phone. My test unit came with a 512MbMegabyte SanDisk Memory Stick Duo card sufficient to hold several hundred tracks.(Memory Stick is the Sony proprietary flash memory format).

In contrast, the iTunes ROKR is limited to storing 100 tracks, no matter how much memory is installed. – it comes with a tiny 512Mb Transflash card. This limit is almost certainly an artificial constraintimposed by Apple and designed to protect sales of the iTunes Shuffle. – Apple’sdedicated flash-memory based music player. Since most research suggests that digital music player buyers look for machines capable of storing at least 250 tracks, this could be a serious limitation.

Without such artificial limits the rapidly falling price of high capacity flash memory cards and the arrival of tiny hard drives capable of storing several Gigabytes of digital content means next generation music phones could easily store and play back thousands of songs.

At that point music phones could pose a real challenge to stand-alone hard drive-based digital music players. In the meantime, music phones may be great for casual music but, for serious fun, I will stick with my iPod.

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