With its charcoal-gray body and chromelike metal accents, the Forge is quite a spiffy-looking sports companion. But Rio doesn't completely forgo the rubberized look, keeping the rugged, grippable material around the edges of the player. At 2.5 by 2.3 by 0.7 inches, the Forge is just a hair smaller than the Cali, but it weighs the same (2.2 ounces with battery) and features a similar right-hand-centric control layout. But rather than a joystick, the Forge utilizes a four-way directional pad (which is accented by cool red backlighting when in use) and center Select key. The Menu button, also backlit, graces the upper-right corner as well. The power button, Hold switch, and volume rocker, all located along the top edge of the player, are actually easier to access with your left hand, so we found that two-handed navigation works best. Center stage is our favorite design asthetic: an easy-to-read, 1-inch screen with a bright, white backlight that gradually fades out when not in use.
Inside the battery compartment, which feels much more secure than that of the Cali, you'll find a memory expansion slot that takes SD/MMC cards with up to 1GB of memory. Ports for the USB cable and the headphones are on the bottom of the Forge and present our only design complaints: The headphone plug can interfere with a comfortable grip, and the USB port is covered with a detached and therefore easy-to-lose plastic piece.
In addition to the player, Rio includes a surprisingly comfortable and secure set of behind-the-ear 'buds, an armband, a standard USB cable, and a CD containing both the user manual and Rio's Music Manager software. Music Manager is a user-friendly music-management app that lets you transfer tunes to the Forge, scan your computer for music files, and create playlists. If you're not feeling up to that last task, you can let the software's Rio DJ do it for you; just set the parameters, and the DJ does the legwork, then lets you save the mix as a playlist. Don't want any more software cluttering your hard drive? The Forge complies. To transfer files, you can also use the Windows Explorer drag-and-drop method or Windows Media Player (WMP). You can even set up an automatic syncing relationship with the player if you have WMP 10.0. Rio plans to offer a free firmware upgrade later this year that makes the Forge Janus-compliant, so it will support subscription content from music services such as Napster.
In addition to being an MP3 and WMA player (and yes, you can play protected WMAs from online music stores as well as Audible content), the Forge Sport is a stopwatch with an integrated lap timer and an FM tuner and recorder. In radio mode, you can set as many as eight presets.
The Forge is easy to use right out of the box, thanks to its straightforward user interface. The Menu button takes you into a list of main options, from which you can easily navigate through the player's many features. Playback options are plentiful; you can play all or sort by one of the nine other fields: Album, Artist, Genre, Track, Year, New Music, Playlist, Spoken Word, and FM Recordings. Unfortunately, you can't create playlists on the fly. The Settings sub-menu isn't lacking much either. Among other things, you can choose how you want the Hold switch applied (to all the controls or to just certain ones) and select from seven different equalizer settings: Custom, EQ Off, Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, and Trance. You can also bookmark up to nine tracks.
The Rio Forge Sport served up mixed performance. Digital audio sounded rich and full with no noticeable background hiss, and volume was sufficiently loud. Unfortunately, the FM radio didn't fare so well; in fact, reception bordered on horrible. Static was inevitable when listening indoors, and only one or two San Francisco Bay Area stations came through clearly outside--if you don't move. CNET Labs' tests also yielded mixed results. Battery life, coming in at a whopping 19.7 hours, was excellent for a single AAA battery, but transfer time was unusually slow for a USB 2.0 device. We clocked an average time of just 0.97MB per second.
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.