The declining cost of memory is driving down prices and raising the capacity of Internet audio portables that use flash memory and hard drives to store music files.
The newest high-capacity flash-memory portables include the following:
A SONICblue model with 192MB internal storage at a suggested $249.
Thomson's first 128MB flash-memory portable, due in July at a suggested retail of $129. A second 128MB model is due in September, also at a suggested $129.
Samsung's third-generation 128MB flash-memory portable, this one at a suggested $179 to complement a $249 model that began shipping earlier this year.
And startup Bantam Interactive's first 256MB model, due in October at a suggested $299 through the St. Louis company's Web site.
In hard-disc-drive (HDD) music portables, Thomson expanded its planned selection to two models at a suggested $299 (20GB) and $249 (10GB), having previously announced plans at CES for only a single $299 10GB model. And Toshiba shipped its first hard-drive portable in July with removable 5GB Type II PC Card and suggested $499 retail.
Because the latest flash-memory portables will store more music at less cost, Samsung marketing director Claude Frank said he expects many current owners of lower-capacity models to upgrade. Nonetheless, he said he forecasts stable or slight growth in that segment in 2002. The flash-memory portable business posted "fairly consistent numbers in the past couple of years," he said. Despite slow growth, Samsung increased its sales and moved up to second in retail-level market share in the first half from last year's fourth or fifth, Frank said.
HDD music portable sales will also grow this year, he said, but still-high prices will limit the market's size.
Here's what the companies unveiled:
Bantam Interactive: The St. Louis startup began offering the 128MB BA 350 last September at a suggested $199 through its Web site. Features include MP3/WMA playback and codec upgradability. Only 3x2x0.66-inches, the BA350 includes built-in Lithium-Ion battery delivering more than 12 hours of use.
In October, the company will offer through its Web site the credit-card-size 256MB BA800 at a suggested $299. Like the 350, it plays MP3 and WMA, is codec-upgradable, and features MMC slot for additional memory, but it adds a 1.8-inch color screen to display JPEGs stored in memory. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries deliver more than 20 hours of use.
Samsung: The new Zippo-lighter-size 128MB YP30SH, shipping since May at a $179 suggested retail, can be worn on your arm, or around the neck as a pendant. It decodes WMA, MP3 and AAC, includes voice recorder, and lacks memory-expansion slot.
It will complement the larger $249-suggested 128MB YP-700H, which began shipping March with Smart Media expansion slot, FM tuner, voice recorder, and proprietary technology that doubles the compression of the supported codecs without a loss in fidelity, the company said.
SONICblue: The Santa Clara, Calif., company began offering the PC- and Mac-compatible Rio 900 through its Web site at a suggested $249 and plans retail distribution shortly. It features 192MB of memory, a rechargeable battery that delivers up to 10 hours of listening time, and support for MP3, WMA and Audible formats. It is also codec-upgradable. The price includes such accessories as car-cassette adapter and AC adapter.
Optional snap-on memory packs expand storage by 32MB, 64MB or 128MB.
Thomson: The company's first two 128MB flash-memory portables are the $129-suggested RCA Lyra RD1080 and RD1070, available respectively in July and September at Circuit City.
The 2-ounce 1080, previously called the Lyra III, is Thomson's first mp3PRO-ready flash-memory portable. It features FM tuner, MP3 and WMA playback, PC and Mac compatibility, and upgradability to play mp3PRO files when the decoder is available in the fourth quarter as an on-line download. An mp3PRO encoder/decoder is already available as part of MusicMatch's music-management program for PCs.
The second model, the RD 1070, plays only MP3 files, lacks FM tuner and isn't upgradable to mp3PRO.
Both accept add-on memory.
In hard drive players, Thomson plans August shipments of its 20GB Lyra Jukebox RD2820 to Circuit City and Sears at a suggested $299. It weighs 11 ounces files. The 10GB version, the Lyra Jukebox RD2800, has been available since June through the Wiz and www.rca.com . Both can be upgraded to play mp3PRO files, and their rechargeable battery delivers 12 hours of use. Other features include 8-line LCD screen, 8MB antishock memory buffer, and compatibility with PCs and Macs.
The 20GB Jukebox is far less expensive than Apple's 20GB iPod, which currently retails at $499.
In other launches, Thomson showed its first two headphone CD players that play MP3- and WMA-encoded CDs and a new MP3 CD boombox. One headphone portable is the $99-suggested RCD128, available at Best Buy with four-line display.
The second MP3/WMA headphone CD, the RP2450, will be available at a suggested $79 in August at Wal-Mart and Best Buy. It features two-line display and a smaller antishock memory buffer.
Toshiba: The company's first hard disc music player, the Mobilphile MEG50AS, was due to ship in July. It features 5GB removable hard drive in Type II PC Card format and plays MP3, WMA and WAV digital music files. Its Lithium Ion rechargeable battery provides up to 18 hours of use. It is Linux OS compatible and connects to Windows-based PCs via 480Mbps USB 2.0 interface.