By Richard Menta 3/19/01
I met a fellow commuter on the train while testing the Nike MP3 player. His wife had picked one up for the gym and much to her chagrin, he was using it more than she was. It's easy to see why.
Even though other MP3 portables target the gym set in their marketing plans, Nike is the first and only player to be specifically designed and built for the exercise minded. In the process they developed a unit that is not only far more convenient when one is bouncing up and down on a treadmill, it further illustrates the power of the digital music format to transcend limitations on the size and shape of the device that plays it. 1's and 0's don't possess a physical shape like CD's and cassettes and this greater freedom of form is one of digital music's biggest competitive advantage. The Nike is a perfect example of this.
The Nike PSA[Play 120 comes with 64MB of memory and is expandable to a maximum of 128MB via an additional 64MB MMC format flash card. MMC cards are the smallest of the flash media that right now top off at 64MB. The Nike offers the ability to upgrade the firmware, which means it can be updated to accept larger MMC cards when they appear on the market.
As with all units that are capable of firmware upgrades there is probably an upgrade available the moment you crack open the package. The first thing we recommend is going to the RioHome.com site and downloading the upgrade for the Nike. The update was a simple straightforward process, we ran into no problems and quickly made the change. As of this writing the latest version is version 1.10.
The player uses a single AA battery and like the other Rio's we tested it is quite parsimonious with the power needs allowing the battery to go about 10-12 hours of playtime per cell. Tunes are downloaded via a fast USB connection.
The Nike has a unique oval shape that optimizes it for constant athletic motion by eliminating any sharp edges that can catch the skin. The best feature is a neoprene armband that comes with the unit and attaches to the back of the player. The user wraps the band around their biceps where the unit is cleverly out of the way of gyrating body parts. We took the player to our gym and did several exercises that required significant arm movement. The armband did its job wonderfully, far better than the belt clips we exercised with when testing other players. Free weights equally posed little problem.
The player on our arm certainly turned heads in the gym, especially from those sporting clunky cassette players in their hands. We were constantly asked about this interesting heart monitor we were using and when we told them it played music, eyes popped open and everyone wanted to know where they could get one. Their exhuberance was tempered by the $279.00 price tag of the PSA[Play 120 which is only a little above average for a 64MB MP3 player. Not surprisng, MP3 portables are yet to hit the mainstream so like any new technology prices are high.
Getting Started - B-
The Nike uses a version of the RioPort Audio Manager transfer software to upload songs. The program loaded on our Windows 98 machine without a hitch. The Rio 600 does not support the NT operating system.
Overall, the RioPort Audio Manager is a good program that gets the job done, the biggest plus is that it allows you to record directly to CD. Unfortunately, we are getting increasing frustrated with it as time goes on. The main culprit is that the software forces you to transfer files to your player from the software's database rather than directly from your folders. At installation the software only displayed files from our main song folder. You need to open the File menu in the program and select 'Search Hard Disk for Tracks' to load all of your tunes from other folders into this database. Until you do that they are inaccessible and the instruction manual doesn't bother to warn the user they need to do this. We had a tizzy of a time trying to figure out how to access music on other folders until we ran across 'Search Hard Disk for Tracks'.
We recently expanded our MP3 collection, converting a number of our CD tracks to MP3 and putting each album in a separate folder on our drive for easy location. The RioPort Audio Manager database essentially throws all those files into one big folder, which when you have over 1,000 songs can make finding a particular song laborious.
This is made worse by the fact that the database displays the ID3 track info, not the file name. As many Napster users will find, quite a few songs don't have complete ID3 info and on our system we had a couple of dozen files identified as nothing more than track 1 or track 2. Oddly you get the file name when you are in the 'copy to player' mode once you close the database window. This doesn't help you when selecting your tracks though. Overall, we find this drawback in the RioPort Audio Manager database to be annoying as hell, especially once our song library grew to be a couple of gigabytes strong.
The people at Rio need to allow the user to be able to switch the database display from ID3 tags to file names to make the selection process easier. Hopefully this will occur in furure updates of the program.
Controls - A-
The controls on the main body of the player are excellent with a well-designed topography for easy button manipulation without having to look at the player. The controls have a snug rubberized covering to keep sweat and other moisture out, another excellent touch. This also makes the PSA[Play 120 ideal for the beach as it will repel sand and corrosive salt spray.
The player comes with a remote control unit that worked well considering its diminutive size. The buttons on the remote are tiny and a little numb to the feel but overall worked fine.
Display - A-
What is unusual about the Nike is that there is no display on the body of the unit itself, instead it is on the remote unit that comes standard with the player. This was probably done to help keep the seal protecting the unit from moisture and such. Like the Rio 600 the Nike has a lens that magnifies the screen, but the screen is much smaller than on the 600. Fortunately, they did a good job with the Nike display. It was clear and we had no problem reading the track info from it. There is no back-light for dark conditions, but overall we were pleased with what we saw. To do as well as they did with so little real estate scores points with us.
You can also run the player without the remote, which we did during most of our gym workouts, but you lose the display at that point.
Sound - A
Fine. Like the Rio 600, the Nike has one of the loudest volume controls we have come across which is a good thing for some music files whose volume drops with the quality of recording. Also like the 600 the Nike player has 7 tone presets, but without the separate treble/bass control.
If you want an MP3 player for the gym you won't find any better than the PSA[Play 120. The armband setup was a brilliant idea executed perfectly and for that alone we highly recommend this portable. The rubber-covered control panel is another worthy feature that offers protection from both perspiration and the elements.
The only drawback to the Nike is not in the unit itself but in the transfer software it shares with the Rio line of players. The RioPort Audio Manager software makes you jump through a few too many hoops to download a song and needs a few significant improvements to make the selection and transfer of files from computer to player easier.
That said, don't let that deter you from picking up this otherwise excellent player as improved versions of the transfer software will eventually appear for free download on Rio's site. Overall, the Nike PSA[Play 120 is a groundbreaking portable that sets a new standard for what the MP3 format will bring in the future to mobile music. As prices come down, MP3 portables will eventually replace cassette players with the treadmill and body building set and the Nike will serve as the prototype for every other manufacturer who will soon better tailor their offerings to this large market segment.
Final Score: A-
Copyright 2001 MP3 Newswire
The Nike 128MB Portable Sports Audio Player is avaialble from Amazon
Other MP3 Portable Reviews:
We Test Drive the Rio 600
We Test Drive the Creative Nomad Jukebox
We Test Drive the Audio ReQuest MP3 Rack Player
Test Driving the Sensory Science Rave MP2200
Sony Memory Stick Walkman
Test Driving the i2Go eGo
Test Driving the Diamond Rio PMP 500
Review: AVC Soul/D-Link
Canadian to Set Up Napster Clone Offshore
Europe Passes 'Napster' Law
Thomson Upgrades the MP3 Format
Court Rules Musicians DO NOT Own the Digital Rights to Their Songs
Big Music's Best Tool Against Napster - DVD