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Flash Memory Adds Sizzle To MP3 Market

MP3 player suppliers here at International CES will expand their selections of flash-memory music players, scale back their selection of music-focused HDD models, and launch more music-focused models with photo and video playback.

Philips and RCA are among the companies expanding their selection of video-playing MP3 players, and Coby will show its first. For its part, Audiovox will show its first MP3/satellite radio headphone portable, and SanDisk will show its first portable medial player (PMP), which stores content on embedded and removable flash memory.

Here’s what dealers will find:

Audiovox: The $249-suggested X2G100B MP3 headphone stereo with live-XM reception stores MP3 and protected WMA files as well as time-shifted XM content that can be sorted by title, artist, genre and music channel. It stores up to 50 hours of XM music in embedded memory when no MP3/WMA files are stored. An optional car docking kit and home docking kit are each available at a suggested $49.

Coby: The company is expanding its MP3 player selection to more than 30 models, which now come with touch-sensitive controls. Some add video codec playback (in the MPEG-4 format and its and XviD variation) for the first time. The lineup also includes the company’s first PMPs with memory-expansion slots and the company’s first flash-memory MP3 players that record music directly from CD players and other non-PC sources, although in WAV format rather than MP3 format to maintain price points.

The company will continue to offer flash-memory models with capacities as low as 128MB because MP3 player appeal has expanded to “general-market consumers,” a spokesman said.

The company’s latest PMPs are the 20GB PMP4320 and the 30GB PMP4330 models, which were expected to be available just before the show at price points topping out at about $300 for the 30GB model. Each features a 4.3-inch screen, ability to record video directly from a TV set or other video source with analog outputs, and the company’s first with removable memory card slots, which are in the SD/MMC format. Other features include A/V outputs, integrated speakers, USB 2.0, FM radio, microphone and the ability to store and play video, music, photos and text. Video playback codecs are the MPEG family, AVI, ASF, XviD and unprotected WMV. Audio codecs are MP3, unprotected WMA and WAV.

Another new PMP, the PMP3521, features 3.5-inch TFT LCD, 20GB, CF Card slot, integrated speaker, A/V output in HD resolution with optional component cable, FM tuner and recording, line-in MP3 encoding direct from a CD player, and playback of the following audio formats: MP3, WMA, and OGG. Video can be stored in the MPEG family of codecs, XviD, AVI, MJPG, and VOB (DVD). It will sell for about $269 in early January.

Pricing and availability were not announced at press time.

New flash-memory video-playing MP3 players are the MP-C7055, 7085 and 7095 players with capacities of 512MB, 1GB and 2GB, respectively. Each offers touchpad interface, 1.66-inch LCD full-color screen, USB 2.0, digital voice recorder and FM radio/recorder.

Other portable MP3 players include USB-stick players, rubberized sports MP3 players and “pendant” players.

Two new music players with 1-inch micro HDDs are the 4GB MPC945 and 8GB MPC983. The step-up 983 adds an MP3 encoder and FM radio/recorder. The units are designed to retail for anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent less than 4GB and 8GB flash-memory models, the company said.

Crayola: A Crayola-branded MP3 player, marketed by Digital Products International (DPI), is the 512MB MP3/WMA player with SD card slot at $39.99.

GPX: In MP3 players, the DPI-owned brand is unveiling the MW33X7 and MW38X7 with MP3/WMA playback and WMA DRM 10. They’re available in 512MB, 1GB or 2GB versions. The 33X7 adds SD-MMC expansion slot. Additional details were unavailable.

Philips: Seven new music-focused MP3 players include the company’s first three to play back video. They complement a Philips PMP shipped in December based on Microsoft’s Portable Media Center (PMC) platform.

The three video-playing MP3 players, each available in 2GB and 4GB versions, play WMV files, but only one — a model with 2.2-inch color widescreen — plays protected WMV content, making it potentially compatible with select authorized-download services. This model features QVGA display and 30 fps playback. The battery supports up to four hours of video playback time.

The other two video/MP3 players feature 1.8-inch screen play up to two hours of video playback time on their batteries. Both feature QCIF screens. One supports 15 fps, the other 30 fps.

No model records directly from a TV or set-top box.

The four music-only MP3 players due in the second quarter are each available in 1GB and 2GB versions and plug directly into a USB port. Their battery life has been improved by 15 percent to 20 percent over their predecessors to offer 10 hours of music playback time. One features FM tuner. All feature rechargeable batteries, except for the opening price model that uses a triple-A battery.

Pricing wasn’t available before the show.

The PMC-platform PMP, a 30GB model shipping since November at an everyday $349, features QVGA display and 30 fps frame rate. It plays protected WMV files and is compatible with Amazon authorized movie downloads and Vongo’s pay-per-view and subscription-download services, the company said. It also plays the Superman movie downloaded from Wal-Mart’s site.

RCA: The brand is expanding its selection of video-playing MP3 players and launching its first player with wireless headsets.

The company is launching four new flash-memory models, most available in multiple capacities and some with memory-card expansion slots. They’re in the Gem series.

The model with wireless earphones is the music-only splash-proof 1GB Jet Stream, due in the second quarter at a suggested $149 for active users. It uses a wireless technology that is not Bluetooth. Features include silicon earphones, stopwatch, 1.5-inch color OLED display, FM tuner/recording and rechargeable battery lasting up to 15 hours. Playback codecs are MP3 and protected WMA.

The music-only splash-proof Jet is available in 1GB, 2GB and 4GB versions at suggested retails of $69, $89 and $129, respectively, with the same features as the JetStream but with wired silicon earphones. They ship in the second quarter.

The Pearl and Opal are the only two that rip music directly from a CD source and encode to MP3.

The Opal features audio and video playback, photo viewing, and 1.5-inch color OLED display in 1GB, 2GB and 4GB versions at suggested retails of $59, $79 and $119, respectively. They ship in the second quarter with 15-hour rechargeable battery and silicon earphones. They play MP3 and protected WMA music files, play MPEG video, and display photos in the JPEG, BMP, TIFF, GIF and PNG formats.

The music-only Pearl is available in 1GB and 2GB versions with MicroSD card slot for memory expansion. The suggested retails are $49 and $69, respectively, and ship in the second quarter. They operate on one AAA battery delivering 15 hours of playback time. A digital voice recorder is included.

SanDisk: The company’s first portable media player (PMP), the Sansa View, will feature 8GB embedded memory, an SD card slot, a 4-inch widescreen LCD, compatibility with multiple authorized sources of protected video downloads and ability to play protected Disney movies sold on SD cards called Max Clips.

SanDisk promises it to be the thinnest PMP and one of the most affordably priced.

SanDisk has offered MP3 players with screens up to 1.8 inches to view videos, but the new model features SanDisk’s largest screen to date. It plays most video formats natively without transcoding software, including protected WMV, MPEG-1, -2 and -4 and DiVX. It features an A/V output to stereos and TVs and is bundled with preloaded video.

Current sources of protected WMV downloads include Amazon and Guba. Wal-Mart’s first authorized movie download, “Superman Returns,” is also playable on devices that play protected WMV files.