Portable media players review and compare

We test the latest MP3, MP4 and video players to tell you the best buys.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
  • Updated:12 Nov 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Portable-media-players

Test results of 13 portable media players, priced from $129 to $679

CHOICE tested 13 new players, and three Next G phones (see the Next G test), all capable of playing both music and video. Of the media players featured in this test there is only one hard drive player, the Cowon – the others are all flash memory devices and come in a variety of capacities.

See our latest report on portable media players here.

Please note: this information was current as of November 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


In testing the video capabilities of the media players, we’ve had to change our method a little. We’ve added a video assessment and ease of use component for encoding some in-house video.

Our in-house video uses a common format that all the media players had to convert using either their own supplied software, or in the case of the Apple models a third-party piece of software. We have scored both sound and video equally in importance due to the growing popularity of media players.

Our experts testers assessed the players on the following:

  • How easy they were to use.
  • Which of the players had the best sound quality.
  • Which of the players had the best video quality.
  • How long their battery life lasted.

Where is the new Apple iPod Nano?

The Apple iPod nano was released too late to be included. We’ll publish full test results as soon as they are available.

Media players tested 

  • Apple iPod Touch
  • Cowon iAudio A3
  • Creative Zen X-Fi (8GB)
  • Creative Zen X-Fi (16GB)
  • Creative Zen
  • Lenoxx MP37100
  • # Philips SA5245BT
  • Samsung YP-S3A
  • SanDisk Sansa Fuze
  • SanDisk Sansa View
  • Sony NWZA728B
  • # Sony NWZA729B
  • Sony NWZA826KB

Next G phones tested

  • Apple iPhone
  • HTC Touch Diamond
  • Nokia N95
 
 

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What to buy

Brand / Model Price
Media players with flash drive
Sony NWZA728B $199
Sony NWZA826KB $229
# Sony NWZA729B $279
SanDisk Sansa Fuze $129
Apple iPod Touch (32GB) $549
Creative Zen X-Fi (16GB) $330
Creative Zen X-Fi (8GB) $250
Media players with hard disk
Cowon iAudio A3 $679
Next G phone
Apple iPhone (16GB) Telco

Results tables

  Performance
Brand/model (in rank order) Overall score (%) Ease of use score (%) Sound score (%) Video score (%) Battery score (%) Average measured battery life (hrs:min) to nearest 15min Claimed maximum video playing time (hrs) Price ($)
Media players
Sony NWZA728B
www.sony.com.au
84 76 82 90 97 31:45 10 199
Sony NWZA826KB
www.sony.com.au
84 76 80 90 99 35:15 10 229
Sony NWZA729B #
www.sony.com.au
83 76 81 90 92 27:30 10 279
Sandisk Sansa Fuze
www.sandisk.com/sansa
79 79 82 65 88 23:45 5 129
Apple iPod Touch
www.apple.com/au/ipodtouch
78 64 82 90 90 25:30 5 549
Creative Zen X-Fi
au.creative.com
77 71 84 90 69 12:00 5 330
Creative Zen X-Fi
au.creative.com
77 71 84 90 69 12:00 5 250
Creative Zen
au.creative.com
76 75 73 90 67 11:00 5 180
Sandisk Sansa View
www.sandisk.com/sansa
74 75 76 55 88 24:30 (1) 7 199
Philips SA5245BT #
www.philips.com.au
72 80 75 50 76 15:15 6 180
Samsung YP-S3A
www.samsung.com.au
71 64 72 80 74 14:00 4 149
Cowon iAudio A3
www.cowonglobal.com
69 65 66 90 61 8:45 7 679
Lenoxx MP37100
www.lenoxx.com.au
53 58 48 40 62 9:15 ns 150
Next G phones
Apple iPhone
www.apple.com/au/iphone
75 64 84 90 74 14:15 7 Telco
HTC Touch Diamond
www.htc.com/au
60 68 59 45 61 9:00 ns 999
Nokia N95
www.nokia.com.au
62 73 62 50 54 7:00 3 1059
 


  Features Specifications
Brand/model (in rank order) Playback whilst recharging (USB) Mac-compatible * FM radio Supplied software used Dimensions (mm HxWxD) Weight (g) Capacity (GB) Screen size (mm, W x H) Screen resolution (pixels, W x H) Battery Minimum system requirements
Media Players
Sony NWZA728B
www.sony.com.au
Media Manager for Walkman 1.1 93x51x10 72 8 36x49 240x320 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2
Sony NWZA826KB
www.sony.com.au
Media Manager for Walkman 1.1 93x51x10 73 4 36x49 240x320 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2
Sony NWZA729B #
www.sony.com.au
Media Manager for Walkman 1.1 93x51x10 72 16 36x49 240x320 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2
Sandisk Sansa Fuze
www.sandisk.com/sansa
Sansa Media Converter (via download) 79x49x10 71 4 38x30 220x176 ns Windows XP SP2
Apple iPod Touch
www.apple.com/au/ipodtouch
iTunes 7.7.1.11 (via download) 110x62x8 129 32 51x76 320x480 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2 or Mac OS X v10.4.10
Creative Zen X-Fi
au.creative.com
Creative Centrale 1.00.01 55x83x13 79 16 51x38 320x240 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2
Creative Zen X-Fi
au.creative.com
Creative Centrale 1.00.01 55x83x13 77 8 51x38 320x240 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2
Creative Zen
au.creative.com
Creative Zen Media Explorer 5.70.15 55x83x12 79 8 51x38 320x240 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2
Sandisk Sansa View
www.sandisk.com/sansa
Sansa Media Converter (via download) 119x50x12 93 8 37x54 240x320 ns Windows XP SP2
Philips SA5245BT #
www.philips.com.au
Windows Media player, Arcsoft Media Converter 2.5 58x107x10 107 4 57x44 320x240 1 Li-ion polymer Windows XP SP2
Samsung YP-S3A
www.samsung.com.au
Samsung Media Studio 5 6.0.1.0/5.2.1.4 95x44x10 68 4 28x35 176x220 1 Li-ion polymer Windows ME 128
Cowon iAudio A3
www.cowonglobal.com
• (2) JetAudio 7.0.4.3030 Basic VX, Cowon Media Center 79x134x25 296 80 86x51 800x480 1 Li-ion polymer Windows ME 128 MB RAM
Lenoxx MP37100
www.lenoxx.com.au
AVI Converter 2.0, 2.4 and 3.0 94x56x14 90 4 34x57 ns ns Windows 98
Next G phones
Apple iPhone
www.apple.com/au/iphone
iTunes 7.7.1.11 (via download) 115x63x12 148 16 50x75 320x480 1 Li-ion Windows XP SP2 or Mac OS X v10.4.10
HTC Touch Diamond
www.htc.com/au
Active Sync 102x51x12 123 4 42x55 480x640 1 Li-ion or Li-ion polymer Windows XP
Nokia N95
www.nokia.com.au
Nseries PC Suite 99x53x22 145 8 53x41 320x240 1 Li-ion Windows 2000
 

Table notes

ns - Not stated.
# Discontinued, but may still be available in some shops.
* Functionality may be reduced compared to use with a Windows PC.
(1) We had variable results with this player.
(2) Data transfer only.
Price Recommended retail, as of November 2008.

Scores The overall score is made up of

  • Ease of use (40%)
  • Sound quality (20%)
  • Video quality (20%)
  • Battery life (20%)

Battery life scores are calculated so that a player that averages 36 hours or more gets 100% and one that lasts six hours gets 50%. The battery score is based on at least two tests.

Playback while recharging means that it’s possible to listen to your music while the player is connected to your PC and recharging.

Mac-compatible Other than the Apple iPod and iPhone, some players functionality may be reduced compared with use on a PC.

Capacity is in gigabytes — 2GB can store around 500 songs of average length.

Software supplied Apple iPods use iTunes, which can be downloaded for free from the Apple website. Other players without specific software can also use iTunes or Windows Media Player.

How we tested

The CHOICE testers checked how easy the players are to set up, play music and video on and rip and transfer music and video files with the software provided or, if none was supplied, using Windows Media Player (or iTunes for the music test with Apple products). They also evaluated how easy each player was to handle, carry around or wear.
They listened to each player with the earbuds provided and measured frequency response signal to noise ratio, total harmonic distortion and channel separation.
They watched the video and assessed it for colour, clarity and accuracy of rendition. We have listed the claimed video life only this time, but we plan to test video life in our next test.
To check how long the batteries on each model would last playing music without recharging or replacing the battery, our testers played the same tracks on each model at the same volume on repeat-play mode until they switched off. For the Next G phones, we tested with and without flight mode activated, but only found a 5% difference in the results and so have listed the results without flight mode activated.

Product profiles - what to buy  

Media players with flash drive

Sony NWZA728B

Price: $199
Capacity: 8GB

Good points:

  • Very good sound quality.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Excellent battery life.
  • Earbuds fit into ear canal.
  • Easily fits in pocket.

Bad points:

  • Had to pay to upgrade Sony software.

Sony NWZA826KB

Price: $229
Capacity: 4GB

Good points:

  • Very good sound quality.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Longest battery life in this test.
  • Earbuds fit into ear canal.
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Bluetooth support (headphones included).

Bad points:

  • Only OK sound quality when using the Bluetooth headset.
  • Had to pay to upgrade Sony software.

# Sony NWZA729B

Price: $279
Capacity: 16GB

Good points:

  • Very good sound quality.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Excellent battery life.
  • Earbuds fit into ear canal.
  • Easily fits in pocket.

Bad points:

  • Had to pay to upgrade Sony software.

SanDisk Sansa Fuze

Price: $129
Capacity: 4GB

Good points:

  • Very good sound quality.
  • Compact unit.
  • Least expensive on test.
  • Very good battery life.
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Can expand memory.

Bad points:

  • Small screen for video.
  • Necessary video conversion software must be downloaded.

Apple iPod Touch

Price: $549
Capacity: 32GB

Good points:

  • Very good sound quality.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Large screen size.
  • Excellent battery life.
  • Second highest storage capacity.
  • Wi-Fi support (802.11 b/g).

Bad points:

  • Inferior transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Relatively expensive.
  • Comparatively large unit.
  • Had to download 3rd party video conversion tool.

Creative Zen X-Fi

Price: $330
Capacity: 16GB

Good points:

  • Rated equal first in sound quality.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Easy transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Earbuds fit into ear canal.
  • Comparatively small unit.
  • Wi-Fi support (802.11 b/g).
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Can expand memory.

Bad points:

  • Supplied software would not rip properly without upgrade.

Creative Zen X-Fi

Price: $250
Capacity: 8GB

Good points:

  • Rated equal first in sound quality.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Easy transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Earbuds fit into ear canal.
  • Comparatively small unit.
  • Relatively inexpensive.
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Can expand memory.

Bad points:

  • Supplied software would not rip properly without upgrade.

Media players with hard disk

Cowon iAudio A3

Price: $679
Capacity: 80GB

Good points:

  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Large screen size.
  • Largest storage capacity.

Bad points:

  • Comparatively expensive.
  • Comparatively large and heavy unit.

Next G phones

Apple iPhone

Price: $Telco dependent
Capacity: 16GB

Good points:

  • Rated equal first in the listening test.
  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Large screen size.
  • Next G mobile phone with digital camera.
  • Wi-Fi support (802.11 b/g).
  • Bluetooth support.

Bad points:

  • Inferior transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Comparatively large unit.
  • Had to download 3rd party video conversion tool.

Product profiles - the rest

Creative Zen

Price: $180
Capacity: 8 GB

Good points

  • Excellent video playback quality.
  • Easy transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Comparatively small unit.
  • Comparatively inexpensive.
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Can expand memory.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

SanDisk Sansa View

Price: $199
Capacity: 8GB

Good points

  • Easily fits in pocket.
    Can expand memory.

Bad points

  • Had to download SanDisk video conversion software.

# Philips SA5245BT

Price: $180
Capacity: 4GB

Good points

  • Easy transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Highest ease of use.
  • Earbuds fit into ear canal.
  • Comparatively inexpensive.
  • Bluetooth support.

Bad points

  • Only scored 50% on video playback.
  • Small screen for video.

Samsung YP-S3A

Price: $149
Capacity: 4GB

Good points

  • Compact unit.
  • Cheapest unit in test.
  • Easily fits in pocket.

Bad points

  • Small screen for video.
  • Inferior transfer of mpeg-2 video.

Lenoxx MP37100

Price: $150
Capacity: 4GB

Good points

  • Comparatively inexpensive.
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Comparatively small unit.
  • Can expand memory.

Bad points

  • Lowest rated player in the listening test.
  • Poor video playback quality.
  • Inferior transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Lowest score in ease of use.

Next G Profiles

Nokia N95

Price: $1059
Capacity: 8GB

Good points

  • Next G mobile phone with digital camera.
  • Wi-Fi support (802.11 b/g).
  • Bluetooth support.
  • Can expand memory.

Bad points

  • Only OK sound quality.
  • Inferior transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Comparatively expensive, but has both camera and phone.
  • A little bulky in the pocket.
  • Only 54% for battery score.
  • Only 50% for video playback quality.

HTC Touch Diamond

Price: $999
Capacity: 4GB

Good points

  • Next G mobile phone with digital camera.
  • Easily fits in pocket.
  • Wi-Fi support (802.11 b/g).
  • Bluetooth support.

Bad points

  • Only OK sound quality.
  • Poor video playback quality.
  • Inferior transfer of mpeg-2 video.
  • Comparatively expensive, but has both camera and phone.

#Discontinued but may still be available in some stores

Rechargeable battery

All the media players have a built-in rechargeable (Li-ion or Li-polymer) battery pack that you can recharge from your computer’s USB port or from an AC adaptor. Batteries generally charge faster from an AC adaptor than from a USB port. The Results table lists which players can still be used while they’re recharging.

Fast forward

You may want to fast forward or rewind through some of your media files, especially videos. All the media players on test have this ability.

Larger screens

These are useful if you’ve got lots of music files to organise, or want to store and view photos and video. If you want to use them to watch movies or display your photos then the largest models are likely to be more useful.

Storage capacity

Video files tend to take up more space than music files, so look for more capacity if you plan on storing a lot of video files on your portable media player.

  • 4GB is not enough for one DVD
  • 8GB is enough for at least one DVD
  • 16GB is enough for multiple DVDs

File types supported

If you want to use your player for things other than listening to music, check whether it supports the relevant file types. The most common file format for photos is JPG; for video, it’s MP4 and of course they will all play an MP3 music file.

Brand/model Audio Image Video
Media Players
Sony NWZA728B
AAC-LC, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
MP4
Sony NWZA826KB
AAC-LC, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
MP4
Sony NWZA729B
AAC-LC, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
MP4
Sandisk Sansa Fuze
AAC, Audible, MP3, WAV, WMA, OGG
JPG
AVI, MP4
Apple iTouch
AAC, Protected AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, Audible, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AIFF
BMP, GIF, JPEG, PSD, PNG and TIFF
M4V, MP4, MOV
Creative Zen X-Fi
AAC (.m4a), Audible 4, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
MPEG4-SP, MJPEG, WMV9, DivX 4/5 and XviD
Creative Zen X-Fi
AAC (.m4a), Audible 4, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
MPEG4-SP, MJPEG, WMV9, DivX 4/5 and XviD
Creative Zen
AAC (.m4a), Audible 4, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
MPEG4-SP, MJPEG, WMV9, DivX 4/5 and XviD
Sandisk Sansa View
AAC, Audible, MP3, WAV, WMA
JPG
ASF, AVI, MP4, WMV
Samsung YP-S3A
MP3, WMA
JPG
SVI
Philips SA5245BT
AAC, MP3, WMA
BMP, GIF, JPG
MPEG4-SP, WMV9
Cowon iAudio A3
MP3/2/1, WMA, ASF, FLAC, OGG, M4A, MKA, TTA, APE,
BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG, RAW, TIF
AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, MPG/MPEG, VOB, DAT, MTV
Lenoxx MP37100
MP3, WMA
BMP, JPG
AVI
Next G phones
Apple iPhone
AAC, Protected AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, Audible, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AIFF
GIF, JPEG, TIFF
M4V, MP4, MOV
HTC Touch Diamond
AAC, AMR, EVRC, MIDI, MPEG4 audio, MP3, QCELP, WAV, WMA
BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG
ASF, AVI, MP4, WMV, 3gp, 3g2
Nokia N95
AAC, MP3, WMA
JPG
MP4, RealMedia, 3gp
 
We used either iTunes or Windows Media Player (WMP) if there was no software supplied. iTunes is free to download, but is quite large at around 64MB for Windows XP, so there will be a cost if you’re on a limited internet plan. WMP is installed with Windows operating systems, but the latest update is 25MB, so it’s not so small either.

Both are easy to use for simple tasks like ripping CDs, transferring to a player and organising music on your computer, but also contain some digital rights management functions which may restrict their usefulness.

Most of the audio software supplied with the players is also reasonably easy to use, but the Lenoxx software was difficult to install and instructions were difficult to follow.

The Creative Zen X-FI software had to be replaced with a 20MB downloaded version as the supplied version didn’t work properly.

To get the video onto the players, we had to convert our in-house video with the supplied software. A majority of the players’ video software ranged from poor to OK in ease of use. Only the Creative, Philips and SanDisk players had video software that was relatively easy to use.

The Apple players and the Nokia phone were the only ones we had to download a third party tool to convert the in-house video, the Apple players due to the way its software deals with the format we chose and the Nokia because the instructions were difficult to understand. To convert the video for the Sony players, we had to upgrade a Sony software tool at a cost of $US12.95.

We would like to see the ease of use of video software improve in alignment with the audio software. Ideally, simply dragging and dropping a video file, regardless of the format, into an intuitively named directory and having the player auto-convert the video would be easiest for a consumer.