Still spinning vinyl at home and popping in cassette tapes in your car?
It might be time to make the move to MP3s and other digital music formats.
It is not as scary as it might seem. MP3 players are powerful and easy to use.
And, you don't have to commit a felony to download music onto your computer or MP3 device. You can start out by converting your existing CD collection to MP3, Windows Media or other digital files. And if you're feeling bold, buying music online is a snap. Online services are plentiful and intuitive. If you have shopped on the Web, you are well equipped to buy digital music.
While the colors, shapes and sizes of MP3 players can be confusing, choosing the right device is not difficult, said Todd Siresi, a computer peripherals expert with Best Buy.
The two main categories are flash players and hard-drive players.
"Capacity, that's the biggest difference between hard drive and flash players," Siresi said.
Flash players have between 64 megabytes and 256 megabytes of memory. That means about 30 to 120 songs. Hard-drive players range from 1.5 gigabytes to 40 gigabytes, or about 750 songs to 10,000 songs.
"Because of the hard drive, those players are larger and bulkier, typically the size of a PDA [personal digital assistant]," Siresi said.
"Flash players are much lighter and have a lot of variation in their form factor," he said. "They're more nimble because you only have a little flash chip in there instead of a hard drive."
Flash players' size and weight make them ideal to use for working out. No moving parts means no skipping.
"Hard-drive players are getting very good, but they still have a capacity to skip," Siresi said.
Price is another factor to consider. Flash players start at about $100 and top out at about $200. iRiver, for example, has a 128-MB player for about $140. It is about 3 inches long, weighs 1.8 ounces, can hold about 60 songs and has an FM tuner.
On the other hand, Samsung's Napster 20-GB player costs about $300. It holds about 5,000 songs, weighs 6 ounces and has an FM tuner. The final thing to consider when choosing a player is how you are going to load it with music.
"The services do have a pretty integral role in the purchase decision," Siresi said.
The Samsung Napster player works seamlessly - not surprisingly - with the new, fee-based Napster service.
While free file-sharing software and Web sites are still prevalent, fee-based services like Napster are gaining in popularity. In general, you can make any player work with any service, but co-branded devices are the easiest way to go.
"When you buy a portable CD player you can start enjoying your music in a couple of minutes," Siresi said. "When you buy an MP3 and want to download, the reality is some services work better with certain devices."
Apple's iPod and its companion service iTunes are one of the best examples of that. The iPod has a docking station that connects the device to a computer. When a song is purchased on iTunes, it's automatically loaded onto the iPod. The player and service will work with a Windows-based PC, and of course with a Mac.
MusicNow is another popular service that works well with most other non-iPod MP3 players. MusicNow's software is integrated with the latest version of Windows Media Player, so the interface should be familiar to most computer users.
Just launch MusicNow and search by artist, song or album. It automatically walks you through purchasing, downloading and saving songs. Once the music is on your computer hard drive, synching it with an MP3 is done nearly automatically in most cases.
Like most services, MusicNow charges 99 cents for a song. More than 400,000 songs are available, from classic 1970s hits to the latest boy-band fare.
With an average song taking up 2 megabytes of space, any modern computer can hold thousands of songs. So if you choose a small flash MP3 player, store downloaded music on your hard drive and swap songs on and off your players. If you choose a big hard-drive player, you can probably store most of your music right on it, with the songs backed up on your computer hard drive.
If you're still not sure which service or player you want, most stores will help. Best Buy, for example, prequalifies MP3 players to work with certain music services, said Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas.
"So when you buy a player off the shelf, and sign up for a service, you know the two will talk to each other," Lucas said. "You know the two will work hand in hand."
Using your CDs
And if you're still not ready to download music, any MP3 program can easily be used to play your existing CD collection.
The first step is to load a music CD into a computer CD-ROM drive. To copy the music to the hard drive, use a program that is likely loaded onto your computer such as Windows Media Player or RealPlayer.
In most cases the song track name and length will automatically be listed. In RealPlayer, click the Save Tracks button to save the tracks. For ease of use, just accept all the default setting and save the songs. Or, change the settings if desired.
The first change that can be made is choosing the file format. Make sure the format matches one supported by your MP3 device. MP3 and Windows Media Audio files are among the most widely accepted, Siresi said.
The other setting that can be adjusted is the song's compression. It is similar to changing the size of a digital picture. The more a song is compressed, the more you can fit on an MP3 player. But, increasing the compression affects the sound quality. Try recording the same track at different compression levels and listen to it on the device. Pick the level that works for you with storage and sound. For example, a little degradation in sound quality might be OK if it's undetectable in a noisy gym.
Once the songs are saved to your computer, connect the MP3 player and transfer them over.
"We find most people buying players are getting their music both ways: from CDs and from services," said Siresi. "Taking your collection to the digital world really isn't difficult. Road warrior, commuters, gym-goers, they all love them."