MP3 players are definitely not one-size-fits-all. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, use different types of memory, and support different formats. Based on these and other features, certain players are better suited to certain uses--you should choose the player (or players) that meets your needs. Check out the various uses for an MP3 player and figure out which players are up to the task.
As we see it, here are some top uses for MP3 players, as well as some questions that you should consider in order to figure out if one or more of these usage models will suit you. Some people align with more than one use, and they should possibly consider buying more than one MP3 player to address various needs. For instance, you might want an ultracompact flash player for jogging or skiing and a high-capacity hard-drive-based device for traveling.
Of course, plenty of people just want an MP3 player for general, day-to-day use. If you're simply after a device that plays good-sounding music and is easy to use, any of the top products listed are perfectly suited for this. However, if you're looking for a device for a particular use, read on.
You listen to your stereo at home and to your computer at work, but filling your commute with tunes requires a portable player. If you commute by car, look for a hard-drive-based model; size doesn't matter much in this situation, so you may as well maximize your value. Connecting your MP3 player to your car audio system can be done with an FM transmitter, cassette adapter, Bluetooth transmitter (if your stereo is Bluetooth compatible), or by purchasing an aftermarket car stereo with an iPod dock or line-input connection. If you commute via subway or bus, look for a compact flash-based player and, to seal out as much of the din as possible, a pair of noise-canceling or sound-isolating headphones.
» MP3 players for your commute
If you spend all your free time in the gym, you need an MP3 player that can keep pace. It should be compact and easy to operate with one hand. Rather than looking for one with massive storage, choose a flash-based model (1GB of storage should be plenty, but more can't hurt) that can also withstand tough workouts better than hard-drive-based players. You may also want an armband, an option on many ultracompact models, and a set of headphones that will stay in place rather than the cheap earbuds typically included. Also, look for sweat-resistant models and other fitness-friendly extras, such as a calorie counter or pedometer. And remember: many gyms offer TVs that you can tune into with an FM radio, so be sure to consider players that include that feature as well.
» Fitness-friendly MP3 players
» MP3 players with the best FM tuners
If you spend a lot of time on the road, you need an MP3 player that will enhance your journeys with music yet doesn't add undue weight to your carry-on. If you travel with the same laptop that stores your music, a compact flash-based player is the way to go, but if you'd rather leave the laptop at home, try a higher-capacity player that will hold all or most of your music--bonus points for one that has an easily removable and replaceable battery. Accessories worthy of consideration include noise-canceling or sound-isolating headphones for the plane, as well as a portable speaker setup for your hotel room.
» Travel-worthy MP3 players
Listening to audiobooks
MP3 players have quickly become the medium of choice for listening to audiobooks. Compared to CD and cassette players, an average MP3 player is small and has the capacity to hold many hours worth of audio. With download-only audiobook vendors such as Audible.com and iTunes offering a relatively inexpensive alternative to purchasing or renting audiobooks on CD or cassette, there's more incentive than ever for travelers and book lovers to take a listen. If you're looking to purchase an MP3 player that works well with audiobooks, there's a couple things to keep in mind. The first is whether it's compatible with popular audiobook sites Audible.com or iTunes. The second is if the player has bookmarking, a rather critical feature that will keep you from having to fast-forward through extra-long audio files.
» Best MP3 players for audiobooks
If your appetite for digital music has your computer's hard drives bursting at the seams, you fit the description of the file hoarder. While sound quality and features are important to you, what you need most is an enormous capacity. With portable music devices reaching up to 160GB, it shouldn't be difficult for you to find a hard-drive player with enough storage to suit your needs.
» MP3 players for file hoarders
For some reason, MP3 player manufacturers have been loath to embrace tapers and other portable-recording aficionados and rarely include a mike-level input. That said, a number of players on the market can record from line-level sources such as CD players or stereo outputs, so they're great for converting CDs, tapes, and vinyl records to digital formats such as MP3, WAV, or WMA. Those wishing to record live audio can do the same, although they'll need a powered microphone that can output a line-level signal. Or if voice recording is all you need, look for a model with a built-in mic.
» MP3 players with line-in recording
» MP3 players with voice recording
Nowadays, the line between MP3 players and portable video players (PVPs) is blurrier than ever, as the majority of devices hitting the market include video playback as a feature. Although the screen on a typical MP3 player is too small for extended video viewing, it can be a nice bonus for certain users. Undeniably, MP3 players with relatively large screens make the best substitute PVPs--make sure you look for those that are at least 2-inches diagonal. No denying it's nice to have that extra distraction in certain situations, such as doctors' waiting rooms and airport terminals.
» MP3 players that play video
» Editors' top PVPs