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MP3 Market Adds Brands, Players

New York — The portable MP3 market heads into the fourth quarter with more brands and more products that combine music playback with such unrelated functions as video time-shifting and business-grade voice recording features.

One new player is PC maker Alienware, which puts its first MP3 player on its Web site in October in 512MB and 1GB versions. One new implementation will be evident in the launch of Olympus-brand full-function voice recorders that also play compressed music. Consumers will also find a greater selection of Archos-brand MP3 portables that also double as DVRs.

Underscoring the growing cross-promotion between download services and hardware players, Archos launched a promotion bundling two free video downloads from Cinema Now and 100 free song downloads from eMusic, which specializes in unprotected MP3 from independent artists and labels. The company hasn’t announced an expiration date for the promotion.

Here’s what’s coming:

Alienware: The high-performance PC maker will offer its first MP3 portables in early November through its Web site and through retail distribution. The CE-IV (Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind) model will come in two versions, one with 512MB of built-in memory, and the other with 1GB, at $129 and $179, respectively. Each uses a single AAA battery.

Both will feature memory-card slots and SRS’ WOW technology, which restores horizontal and vertical spatial information lost during the recording and playback process. They play MP3 and protected WMA files and are compatible with subscription-based download services.

Also in October, Alienware will launch a $99 docking station with built-in speakers and amplifier for its players. Sometime later, the company plans a HDD portable.

Archos: Underscoring the convergence of digital technologies in portable devices, Archos is expanding its selection of DVR-equipped audio/video portables to five from three and launching its first A/V portable with integrated camcorder. All store data on internal HDDs.

With this year’s lineup, camcorder capability returns to the Archos line, after a year’s absence, as either an integrated feature or add-on accessory.

In June, the company shipped two new TV-time-shifting portable media players (PMPs), or in Archos’ preferred terms, mobile DVRs. They were the 40GB and 100GB versions of the AV700, at a suggested $599 and $799, respectively. Each features Archos’ largest color LCD screen, a 7-inch 16:9 screen that is rare in the field of HDD-equipped A/V portables.

Now, the company has begun shipping 30GB and 100GB versions of the DVR-equipped AV500 at $499 and $699, respectively, with 4-inch screens. Their internal removable rechargeable batteries deliver 4.5-5 hours of video playback or 12 to 14 hours of music playback. An optional battery for the 100GB model delivers 15 hours of video playback.

The two 500 models are the first portable DVRs with add-on microphone/camcorder lens that turns the devices into VGA-resolution camcorders, said COO Laurence Smith.

The 500 and 700 series models can be programmed like a VCR to time-shift TV programming. They also record from the analog video outputs of a connected DVD player or VCR. For copyright protection, the devices incorporate a new Macrovision technology that locks the content of most prerecorded DVD-Video discs to the units’ HDD. The technology prevents copying and prevents the unit’s analog outputs from displaying the video on a connected TV screen. The company wasn’t certain whether the protection applied to prerecorded VHS movies.

Video is played back in Windows Media Video or MPEG-4 format.

All four models come with TV docking pod that incorporates analog A/V inputs and outputs and IR receivers and emitters to time shift from off-air TVs, cable boxes and satellite-TV receivers and to record DVD and VCR content. All are compatible with subscription music-download services. All four models also feature USB 2.0 host technology for direct transfers from digital cameras and digital video cameras.

The fifth mobile DVR currently in the Archos line is the Linux-based PMA400 mobile DVR and PDA, available since early this year at $799.

All five models differ from the planned Archos-made EchoStar-branded PocketDish, which allows for quick USB 2.0 digital-to-digital transfers of time-shifted content from set-top Dish DVRs, Smith explained. At 2.0 speeds, a feature film can be transferred in five to 10 minutes, he said.

New Archos A/V portables lacking DVR capability are the 40GB Gmini 500 and 20GB $399 Gmini 402 camcorder, both of which display video transferred from a PC but not recorded directly from a TV or DVD. The latter is the company’s first with built-in camcorder, whereas the Gmini 500 accepts a camcorder attachment.

The 402, due in October, incorporates VGA camcorder and 1.2-megapixel camera. A version without camera/camcorder is $299.

The 40GB Gmini 500, due in September at $349, replaces a 20GB model and adds USB 2.0 host and 4-inch display in lieu of 2-inch display. ,

Also new: a 4GB $139-suggested audio-only XS100, replacing a 3GB HDD model at the end of September. It’s available in four colors.

Olympus: Following its entry into the MP3 category earlier this year with a pair of HDD models, Olympus plans October shipments of its first three business-grade voice recorders that also play music. They’re also Olympus’ first MP3-playback devices that store files in flash memory, and like other Olympus voice recorders, they also double as mass-storage devices.

The Melville, N.Y., company’s three WS series voice recorder/music players are the 256MB W3-300M, 512MB WS-310M and the 1GB WS-320M, shipping in October at expected everyday prices of $149, $179 and $229, respectively.

These will joining two HDD-based MP3 portables, one of which features a 1.22-megapixel digital camera.

The 3.73-inch by 1.5-inch by 0.43-inch WS models play MP3 and protected WMA files. They offer SRS WOW image-enhancing technology, front speaker, and professional-grade features such as voice activation to record sound automatically when it’s picked up by the internal microphone. They also feature a slow-playback option, which allows recordings to be played 25 percent slower than real time, and fast playback, allowing 50-percent faster playback.

The voice recorder separates from the single-AAA battery compartment so it can plug directly into a USB port on most PCs. The battery delivers 15 hours of operating time.