Hot Portable Media Players to Look Out For

Demand for stand-alone portable media players (PMPs) continues--even as the line between mobile phone and music player becomes more and more blurred. And the latest PMPs are packed with features and capabilities that go beyond Apple's core series of iPods.

For the last few years, it seemed as if every manufacturer was trying to emulate the Apple iPod, from product design to the iTunes Store model. This tactic failed, however, to capture audiences; the iPod remained the top-selling MP3 player by a long shot.

But now it seems that manufacturers have at last realized that they need to bring something different to the market. HD video support, OLED displays, Wi-Fi, and third-party software integration are just a few of the trends consumers will be treated to in the next crop of digital audio players. Let's take a look at the news, rumors, and leaked specs surrounding the next generation of digital audio players.

Apple's iPod
Snap Photos With Your...iPod?

Remember the first-generation iPod Classic? Since the debut of Apple's first 5GB hard-drive player in 2001, "iPod" has been synonymous with "MP3 player." From the ubiquitous white earbuds to the iTunes Store to the iPod Touch, Apple has influenced the digital audio player market more than any other company.

So how will Apple keep the iPod fresh and exciting? Well, how about a camera? The blogosphere has been buzzing about the possibility of a 3-megapixel camera (like the iPhone 3GS's) with video recording capabilities for the sixth-gen iPod Touch and iPod Nanos. The addition of a camera with video recording and editing and YouTube connectivity will be a huge threat to pocket camcorders such as Pure Digital's Flip UltraHD and the Creative Vado HD.

Other new features (all speculation for now) may include the addition of a digital compass and a voice recorder (also seen on the iPhone 3GS). Watch for a new iPod line in the fall.

Microsoft Zune Goes High-Def
Zune HD (Source: WMPoweruser)

The world got its first glimpse of the Zune HD in May 2009 at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital conference. The Zune has often been ragged on in the past for trying too hard to emulate the iPod and for copying Apple's iTunes Store model with Microsoft's Zune Marketplace. But the Zune HD has some features that the iPod Touch doesn't and also brings some much-needed changes to the Zune line's hardware, software, and Marketplace. The Zune HD boasts a 3.3-inch OLED touch display, high-definition video output, HD radio, a finger-friendly browser, Wi-Fi, and an on-screen keyboard.

While these specs are certainly impressive, they might not be enough to put the Zune HD ahead of the iPod Touch. The real edge Zune will have will be the revamped Marketplace: Microsoft revealed plans to bolster the Marketplace's video collection (both TV and move downloads) as well as to house video downloads currently available to the Xbox console. Microsoft hasn't disclosed any details on pricing, capacity, or available colors; however, the company expects to launch the Zune HD in fall.

Sony X-Series Walkman
Sony X-Series Walkman
The Sony Walkman Keeps Getting Better

At the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, Sony showed off its newest, most exciting Walkman to date: The X-Series. Equipped with a 3-inch OLED touch display, integrated noise cancellation, and Wi-Fi, the X-Series leaves a positive impression. It has a slim and pocketable design, excellent sound quality, and gorgeous video playback, as well. The only drawback to the X-Series is its price: You'll pay a cool $300 for a 16GB model, and $400 for a 32GB model. While these prices are on a par with the iPod Touch 16GB and 32GB models, I would have liked to see Sony price these more aggressively. I think Sony's X-Series would sell more if it were priced $50 less than the iPod models.

If you're looking for something a little more affordable, Sony will have some less expensive players for sale later this year. The Walkman E440 series was announced in Europe this July with availability in the United States and Asia to follow. This slim player has a 2.0-inch LCD display (not touch), supports a wide range of audio and video files, has an FM tuner and recorder, and will be available in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB capacities. While price hasn't been officially announced in the U.S., it is obvious that they will cost less than the X-Series model due to fewer features and a smaller LCD (non-OLED) display.

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