Evolution of the MP3 Player
Though it seems as if the iPod has been around forever, the device is actually only eight years old as of last week. Portable digital music players in general aren't much older, as the first clunky, hard-to-use, and expensive ones showed up in 1998. It's easy to forget that, prior to today's video-enabled iPod Nano and sleek Zune HD, state-of-the-art MP3 players were bulky and pricey devices with short battery lives, frustrating copy-protection schemes, and bad user interfaces.
In this slideshow we'll look back at some of the landmark devices and features in the evolution of the portable MP3 player, over the past decade.
Let There Be Portable Digital Sound
The rise of the MP3 format in the late 1990s meant that music fans could collect and enjoy hundreds of digital tracks. But those tracks were chained to PCs. The next logical step was to free MP3s by putting them on some type of Sony Walkman-like device so that we could play them back wherever and whenever we wanted.
In 1998 Elger Labs introduced the $250 MPMAN F10, a boxy and bulky MP3 player with only 32MB of memory. Other players such as the Diamond Rio PMP300, also with 32MB of storage, hit the market soon afterward.
The success of the PMP300 made the MP3 format even more popular, and drew the attention of the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA sued Diamond subsidiary RioPort because it feared--correctly--that music piracy would run rampant as people ripped CDs and turned audio tracks into digital files. It lost that lawsuit. A few months later, in 1999, Napster launched, and the RIAA had a new set of problems on its hands.
Expensive, Bulky, and Limited in Storage
Limited storage was the biggest problem with early MP3 players, which all had 32MB or 64MB of space--hardly enough to store even a full regular-length audio CD. In 2000 flash memory cost a hefty $3 to $4 per MB (or about $3500 per gigabyte).
The Remote Solutions Personal Jukebox broke the storage barrier in 1999, introducing a player with 4.8GB of storage. It got around the high cost of flash by using a laptop hard drive instead. Relative to today's storage prices, however, even disk-based memory was expensive in those days: The Personal Jukebox was large, heavy, and priced at a steep $799.
The $2000 MP3 Player
In 2000, you still wouldn't get much value per gigabyte: A hard-drive-based Creative Nomad Jukebox would set you back $500 for 6GB of storage space. On top of that, players like the Nomad Jukebox were still too big to carry around--and smaller players, such as the i2Go EGo, which cost $2000 configured with a 2GB Microdrive, were too expensive.
Flash-based MP3 players still weren't making the cut, either, with 64MB capacity as standard.
In the same year, Sony introduced its MC-P10, which sold for $300--but that device would play only audio files encoded in Sony's own ATRAC audio format.
The Missing Link: Part Zip Disk, Part MP3 Player
While some manufacturers tried using existing flash and hard-drive technologies in their MP3 players, in 2000 Iomega took a gamble, betting that the next big hit would use another storage option. The HipZip had 40MB of memory and sold for $299. It used magnetic disk storage (the same type of technology that Iomega used in its Zip disks), with each disk selling for $10.
Apple Introduces the iPod
Portable MP3 players became even more portable in 2001, when Intel launched the first "roomy" 128MB player, the Pocket Concert, for $300. Intel's player was an initial success because of the low price and higher storage capacity, but the company killed off the Pocket Concert when it shuttered its home-electronics division later that year.
Also in 2001, audio-player underdog Apple introduced the first iPod, which had a 1.8-inch Toshiba 5GB hard drive and a large black-and-white display. Sold for $400, the first iPod came paired with iTunes software and was compatible only with Macs.
Video and Images First Appear on MP3 Players
In 2002, MP3 players started taking two different approaches to storage, size, and features. On the large-player side, Archos sold the $400, hard-drive-based Jukebox Multimedia player--the first device to display both images and video--in 10GB and 20GB capacities.
Creative, in contrast, elected to make a smaller player, the first MuVo. The MuVo line, which came in 64MB and 128MB flash capacities, was very successful. MuVo players had an impressive 12 hours of playback time on a single AAA battery.
Funky Form Factors
By 2003, manufacturers were still experimenting with MP3 player designs. The Rio Karma had a 20GB drive and was adored by audiophiles for its gapless audio playback.
Sony's NW-MS70D was one of the smallest players at the time, and it came with 256MB of memory plus 128MB via memory card. It could last over 40 hours on one charge, too. It was priced at $300, the same as a 15GB iPod that year. But unlike the disk-based iPod, the NW-MS70D--with its long battery life and its audio-skip-proof flash drive--was perfect for going for a jog.
Copyright Protection Hits a Sour Note With Consumers
The iPod got its big break in 2003 when Apple paired it with the new iTunes Music Store. That same year, however, Apple introduced its digital rights management protection to the songs, which created major hassles for consumers.
Meanwhile, the iPod hardware progressed to its third generation in 2003, sporting relocated buttons (above the click wheel), 40GB storage capacity ($499), USB transfer, and a battery life of 8 hours.
Color Screens Go Mainstream
In 2004 color screens became a common sight on MP3 players such as the $500 Creative Zen Media Center, which ran on Windows Mobile and had up to 40GB of storage and a 3.8-inch screen.
Other MP3 players capable of playing video files were smaller. Among them was the iRiver H300 series, which also tuned in to FM radio; the H300 came in 20GB and 40GB versions, starting at $250.
The first iPod with a color screen premiered that year, as well, offering capacities up to 60GB for $349. The iTunes Music Store expanded internationally at the same time.
Some Screens Vanish
Though hard-drive-based players boasted color screens and higher capacities, flash-based players like the iPod Shuffle were small and cheap ($149 for 1GB, $99 for 512MB), and had no display.
Also in 2005, Dell brought out the $99 DJ Ditty, a basic player with 512MB of memory, an FM radio, and a tiny display. Due to low sales, Dell discontinued the player in 2006.
All-You-Can-Eat Music Pricing Arrives
Microsoft introduced in 2006 the first-generation Zune, which provided 30GB of storage, FM radio, and a 3-inch color LCD for $200. The main selling point of the Zune was supposed to be the Zune Store, which offered an all-you-can-eat music-download service for a $15-per-month subscription fee.
Reformed services such as Napster also started offering subscription music services to both Apple and Zune players, but to this day such services have never really gotten off the ground.
The first batch of touchscreen-based music players appeared on the market in 2007. Priced at just over $400, the first-generation iPod Touch had 16GB of storage and a 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen.
Samsung introduced the YP-P2 touchscreen MP3 player, which also had 16GB of storage and made extended use of Bluetooth connectivity; the latter feature allowed users to make and receive calls when they paired the YP-P2 with a Bluetooth-enabled phone.
The Smaller Zune Tries to Compete With the iPod Nano
Small and light MP3 players were still selling like hotcakes in 2007, but by this time they had color screens. The third-generation iPod Nano could play music, show videos, and display pictures, and it came in 4GB and 8GB versions, starting around $250.
Around the same time, to compete with the Nano, Microsoft updated its Zune line to include smaller, flash-drive models called 4 and 8. The Zune 4 and 8 both had a new touchpad-like input device and could share pictures and songs. Microsoft dropped digital rights management from the Zune Store that year, as well.
In 2008 traditionally designed MP3 players with large displays and easy-to-use navigation buttons dominated sales. Players such as the Sansa Fuze, with an integrated flash drive (2GB, 4GB, or 8GB) and a microSD expansion slot, starting at $75, were typical. Sony's E-Series Walkman players followed that trend, sporting roomy screens for viewing videos or displaying images and carrying prices from $73 (4GB) to $120 (8GB).
Top of the Heap: iPod Touch and Zune HD
Today's MP3 players are all about a convergence of features, including Wi-Fi, built-in Web browsers, video playback, radio tuners, applications (Apple's App Store works with the iPod Touch), and the ability to play stored content on external devices such as a stereo or an HDTV. Several iPod models have S-Video support for connecting to TVs.
The Zune HD, introduced this September, competes squarely with the Apple iPod Touch, offering a great touchscreen OLED display, storage capacities up to 32GB, Wi-Fi, and an HD radio tuner, all for $219.
Microsoft's Zune HD and Apple's iPod Touch are both a far cry from the bulky and expensive MP3 players of yesteryear. Digital audio players have come a long way. But who knows if this approach--cramming 101 functions into our MP3 players--will last? If it does continue, maybe in another 11 years we'll be able to use our fiftieth-generation iPods to view a 3D holographic video of Mick Jagger running around the room singing "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
Today's Best Tech Deals
Picked by PCWorld's Editors
$10 eBay coupon for invited users
Save $50 on your order of $600 with Overstock promo code
JCPenney coupon: Up to 80% off everything
Sam's Club Coupon
30% off Grad experience packages
Get free shipping on all orders at iRobot
Dyson promo code
Dyson Owner Rewards - 20% off your purchase