There are two types of MP3 player – hard disk, which are larger and store more music, and solid state, which are often incredibly small and light.
The best are ultra-portable, yet have tons of storage so you can carry a good portion of your music collection with you. There are MP3 players that play music only or play both music and video. Some even access radio, play games, download apps and surf the web.
Apple’s iPod range is one of the best known, but iPods aren’t the cheapest or the only type worth considering. There are plenty of MP3 players available from brands such as Archos, Creative, Philips, Samsung, Sony and SanDisk. These are usually cheaper than iPods with comparable capacity, and often have features that iPods lack, such as an FM radio.
As a rule of thumb, 1MB of storage can hold around one minute of music. Therefore a 1GB MP3 player can hold roughly 1,000 minutes of music, which works out at around the same as 15 CDs. Before you buy, think about what you’ll need it for.
What type of MP3 player should I buy?
Ultra-portable – A small, lightweight and cheap MP3 player is perfect for the gym or when you’re out jogging. Typically this will be a flash memory player, as hard-drive models don’t cope as well with being bounced around, and can suffer from music skipping.
Large memory – If you’ve a huge music collection that you need full access to while on the go, choose an MP3 player with plenty of storage. Traditionally, this would mean looking for a hard-drive-based player, but some flash memory MP3 players can also provide a decent amount of storage.
All-rounder – If you’re looking for an all-rounder for the daily commute, aim for a player that has a minimum storage capacity of 16GB - enough for 7,000 songs - and is very light to carry around. You also want it to be really easy to use - to be able to control the file playback easily and navigate the menu structure without it being too confusing.
Multi-media player – If you want to view photos, surf the internet, play games or watch movies and TV shows, look for a MP3 player with a large, high-resolution screen and plenty of storage capacity.
Apple iPod range
A quick look at Apple’s iPod range reveals why they’re so popular – there is a wide selection of iPods on offer to suit different needs, and you can pick up a basic player from £40 upwards.
And that's not the only reason for their huge appeal. They are easy to use and offer excellent sound, an enormous range of iPod accessories are available and Apple’s iTunes Store has the largest selection of legal digital content on the web.
iPod Shuffle (fifth generation 2GB, £40) – the smallest and simplest model, the iPod Shuffle is perfect if you want basic music playback and don’t need a screen.
iPod Nano (seventh generation, 16GB, £129) – choose the Nano for a colourful medium-capacity MP3 player.
iPod Classic (sixth generation, 160GB, £199) – offers the largest memory of the range.
iPod Touch (fourth generation, 16GB, £169 / 32GB, £199) – with a colour screen, lots of features including games, and a battery life of up to 40 hours of music playback, it’s a popular choice.
iPod Touch (fifth generation, 16GB, £199 / 32GB, £249 / 64GB, £329) – thinner, lighter and more powerful than the fourth generation, this iPod Touch has a four-inch Retina display and packs the most features of the iPod range. The 16GB version doesn’t have the 5MP iSight camera found on the 32GB and 64GB models, but almost all other features are the same.
What makes a good MP3 player?
Great sound quality – Although a smartphone can do double duty as an MP3 player, a dedicated MP3 player offers far better sound quality and more storage. That said, the headphones that come with your MP3 player are likely to be of poor quality. Adding a decent pair will make a real difference.
Long-lasting battery – Battery life varies widely between MP3 players. Some can play nearly 65 hours of music on a single charge, while others run out after just five hours. The worst offenders are hard-drive-based players, especially those that play video. Flash-memory MP3 players, however, are relatively energy efficient, as they have no moving parts. Which? tests MP3 player battery life so you’re not caught out by your battery running low when you least expect it.
Size and capacity – MP3 players are portable. Some are so tiny and lightweight you can clip them to your belt. Others are slim enough to slip easily into a pocket. Hard-drive MP3 players are larger and heavier than flash memory MP3 players and can store more music. They can hold up to 320GB - around 80,000 songs. However, cheaper flash-memory MP3 players have storage up to a respectable 64GB (about 8,000 songs).
Easy to use – One of the most important factors is how easy an MP3 player is to use and what controls it offers. If you want to see what’s playing and be able to move through your music collection to select a song, you’ll need a player with a screen and a good interface. Other MP3 players, such as the iPod Shuffle, have few physical controls and no screen.
Video – Most MP3 players can play video, but small screens make viewing a chore. Opt for an MP3 player with a larger screen, and check the viewing angle. Consider how easy it is to navigate and add new videos, and note the video formats the player supports. Video files take up more space than audio, so look for a large capacity player.
Additional features – Other useful additions to look for include a FM radio, voice recorder, alarm clock and calendar, along with the ability to store and view photos and video.