Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
The Rio Cali measures 2.5 by 2.6 by 0.8 inches. Its elliptical shape makes it look like a fancy stopwatch, a feature that happens to be built into the player. At 2.2 ounces with the battery installed, the Cali is so light that you might doubt its build quality. It survived just fine through two weeks of rigorous testing; we just can't say how well it would hold up over several months. The unit comes in a green 256MB and a yellow 128MB version. Both have black rubber trim.
|You slide off this compartment's cover to insert a battery or SD/MMC expansion media.||These headphones take a little getting used to, but they fasten firmly and comfortably to your ears.|
The Cali comes with an armband and a hip holster. The latter is designed for shorts and running pants; we clipped it to a belt loop to carry the player to the office.
Like the other models in its line, the Cali has a joysticklike button that governs all aspects of playback and navigation. The mechanism is fairly tactile, but in some ways, we prefer the larger navigation key on the older Rio S30S and S35S. There are only four other controls on the body. After some practice, you'll have no problem advancing tracks and adjusting the volume without looking at the player or detaching it from your waist or your arm.
The Cali is powered by a single AAA battery and adorned with a small but readable blue-backlit LCD that displays all pertinent info, including ID3 tags. The SD expansion slot is found in the battery bay (you slide out the battery to get the card in), but with 256MB of onboard memory, you won't feel obligated to add a card right out of the gate.
A brief word about the included above-average earbuds: they're the kind that wrap around your ears to make for a more secure fit, which will appeal to runners. We definitely favor them over the standard earbuds that ship with the Rio Chiba, which doesn't include the armband but otherwise offers similar features.
The Rio Cali's solid feature set should satisfy most users. The 256MB of internal memory hold four hours (a marathon's worth) of tunes, and SD or MMC media will add up to 512MB. All the basics are here: MP3 and WMA playback, shuffle and repeat modes, autoresume, six equalization presets, and control over bass and treble. You also get an FM tuner, a stopwatch, and a time/date display that updates automatically when you sync with your PC or Mac. Only a voice recorder and a built-in rechargeable battery are missing.
The Cali comes with the same intuitive Windows software that ships with most of the models in Rio's autumn lineup. Loading songs and playlists, which the player accepts via a standard USB cable, was a pleasure. The Rio Taxi application lets you use the Cali as a data drive. And a Windows Media Player 9.0 plug-in enables integration with Microsoft's ubiquitous music program, as well as drag-and-drop file transfer on Windows PCs.
The Cali is also compatible with the Macintosh version of Apple iTunes, so even Apple users can consider supplementing their trusty iPods with this jogging-friendly Rio. However, files purchased from the iTunes Music Store will not play on this or any other Rio model.
The Rio Cali performed as well as its competitors. It played loudly enough to largely drown out the noise of the New York City subway (16.9mW per channel at 16 ohms)--an impressive feat. As you'd expect from a flash-based MP3 player, this model didn't skip once during the three times we jogged with it. The sound was surprisingly decent through the included earbuds and even better through our Sennheiser test headphones.
Because of the Cali's ample capacity, we were able to load the player with an hour of songs ripped at high bit rates. The higher the bit rate, the less compressed and larger the file. The result is slightly better sound quality.
Rio preinstalled several sample songs on the Cali, so you can start listening the moment you pop in the battery. After granting the included tunes a quick audition, we reformatted the memory and loaded our own high-octane playlist.
Battery life was quite good. Rio says you can get up to 18 hours. That's a slight exaggeration, but we did come close, draining the cell after 16 hours of continuous play with the backlight off.