One of the key specs you mustn't ignore before purchasing an MP3 player is its battery life.
This number, whether it's 14 hours (the 30GB 5G iPod
) or up to 35 hours of audio playback (the 30GB Cowon iAudio X5L
), gives you an estimate of how long your gadget will play tunes on a single charge--in the best-case scenario.
For most manufacturers, the perfect scenario requires that you play only MP3s encoded at 128Kbps; you're wearing bundled earbuds; your volume level is at about 50 to 75 percent; the backlight of your screen turns off automatically within 5 to 10 seconds; your equalizer setting is flat or normal; there are no DSP settings (such as the iPod's Sound Check) enabled; you listen to your music in one, maybe two sessions; and if applicable, you don't view any photos or videos. Given that these conditions are rarely ever met in the real world, you'll never achieve the number x in "up to x hours."
That's OK. If battery life is your primary concern--and it may be for world travelers--then you'll naturally go with a player that has at least 20 hours of rated battery life per charge or AA (or AAA) battery, as stated in the player specifications. This figure is rarely ever left out of specs, by the way. The best hard drive-based players last more than 20 hours--such as the Sony NW-HD5 and the Cowon iAudio X5L; the best flash players--such as anything from Sony, Samsung's YP-T6, and iRiver's T10--last more than 40 hours.
You may read MP3 player reviews to verify battery life. Here at CNET, we drain MP3 players using a methodology that's similar to those found in the preceding paragraph. We know which players and brands outperform or underperform. Apple iPods typically outperform the company's ratings. In our tests, the 30GB 5G iPod lasted 14.5 hours, 30 minutes longer than what Apple claims. The Cowon iAudio X5L, on the other hand, tested at 27 hours when it was rated for 35. Factors such as sound quality, features, format compatibility, and looks may overshadow battery life, but when your player runs out of juice, it doesn't really matter which features it has or how good it sounds.
In the real world, there are plenty of factors that will help drain your battery much quicker than you'd like. For example, while the iPod's 14-hour audio-only rating is acceptable (the first iPods had 8 to 9 hours per charge), I never get that many hours, and in fact, I average less than 8 hours. My battery isn't dying prematurely; rather, I like to have my screen on and browse photos, as well as watch an occasional video and crank the volume up.
Adding to the battery drain is my tendency to use big headphones, which draw serious juice and therefore increase noise and distortion, and the fact that I am the type of user who constantly browses and switches tracks, which basically means my hard drive is in constant motion. My music library consists of higher-bit-rate MP3s, purchased iTunes tracks, and even a few WAV and Apple Lossless tracks--all of which require more decoding/processing power than a vanilla 128Kbps MP3. The same applies to variable bit-rate files.
Those who belong to subscription services such as Napster or Rhapsody have it worse. Music rented from these services arrive in the WMA DRM 10 format, and it takes extra processing power to ensure that the licenses making the tracks work are still valid and match up to the device itself. Heavy DRM not only slows down an MP3 player but also sucks the very life out of them. Take, for instance, the critically acclaimed Creative Zen Vision:M, with a rated battery life of up to 14 hours for audio and 4 hours for video. CNET tested it at nearly 16 hours, with MP3s--impressive indeed. Upon playing back only WMA subscription tracks, the Vision:M scored at just more than 12 hours. That's a loss of almost 4 hours, and you haven't even turned the backlight on yet.
Tell us about your battery experiences.
We found similar discrepancies with other PlaysForSure players. The Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder maxed out at 11 hours, but with DRM tracks, it played for less than 9 hours. The iRiver U10, with an astounding life of about 32 hours, came in at about 27 hours playing subscription tracks. Even the iPod, playing back only FairPlay AAC tracks, underperformed MP3s by about 8 percent. What I'm saying is that while battery life may not be a critical issue today, as it was when one of the original hard drive players--the Creative Nomad Jukebox--lasted a pathetic 4 hours running on four AA nickel-metal-hydride rechargeables (and much worse on alkalines), the industry needs to include battery specs for DRM audio tracks or the tracks we're buying or subscribing. Yet, here's another reason why we should still be ripping our music in MP3: better battery life, the most obvious reason being universal device compatibility.
Sony is one company that's been more up front about digital audio playback times. The company's players tend to have the best rated battery life, consistently more than 40 hours, but this is playing its own format, ATRAC3, at a lower-than-typical bit rate. The box of the NW-HD5 states that the device can get up to 40 hours of continuous playback when playing 48Kbps ATRAC3plus tracks, which are not the most common tracks. But it also states that actual battery life "may vary based on usage patterns." Basically, rated battery life should be used as a guide and never be taken literally.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET reviews.