of all portable MP3
players. Though technically not the first portable MP3 player (the Elger Labs MPMan F10
preceeded it by a few months), this was the device that brought MP3 files to the attention of the music industry back in 1998, and caused a subsequent lawsuit (which was ultimately won by Diamond Multimedia
, the producer of the device). Shortly thereafter, dozens of competing products would appear on the market of varying sizes, technologies and capacities. The portable MP3 player industry has begun.
Originally released in 1998 with 32MB for $200 (PMP300), it eventually was upgraded to a 64MB version (PMP300SE) shortly before it was discontinued in 2000. It supported SmartMedia expansion to bring the device up to a total of 64MB. The device supports MP3 files with variable or straight bitrates of 32kbps to 256kpbs; no WAV, AAC, WMA, OGG or RAW formats, nor does it sport any AM/FM radio capabilities. The device is about the size of a tin of Altoids at 9x7x2cm and weighs very little (about 2.4 ounces or 70 grams). It is powered by a single AA battery which will last about 12 hours with use, or around a month sitting idle on your desk.
The screen would show volume, MP3 encoding bitrate, battery level, track, time values and state of the various controls. It did not display any ID3 tag information, as the LCD display was quite primitive. The device sports several buttons and controls; in a non-moving circular "wheel" design on the front of the device were the play controls, and on the side and top were hold and utility buttons:
Around the "wheel":
- Main "wheel"
- Play / Pause
- Fwd / Rew (holding down would skip through the song, a quick press would jump between songs)
- Stop (two presses would put the device in sleep mode)
- Volume + and - buttons (range went from 1-20)
- Random (or in the terms of iPod, "shuffle play")
- Repeat (repeat one or all songs)
- A-B (click once to mark the beginning of a section, press again to mark the end and enter infinate looping of the section. One more press will exit the infinate loop)
- Hold switch (effectively disables all other controls)
- Menu (cycles through total internal memory and SmartMedia memory, remaining memory internally and on SmartMedia and the firmware revision number)
- EQ (cycles through several preset EQ settings: Normal, Classic, Jazz and Rock)
- Intro (plays the first 5-10 seconds of every track loaded on the device)
* Considering the amount of memory installed in the device, the "intro" button was almost useless. The "menu" button was fairly useless due to the fact that you couldn't manage what was loaded on the device without the related Windows software, and that already gave you a much better idea of your memory utilization. The fact that you could find out your firmware version was interesting, but not of much use either since you couldn't upgrade the internal software anyway.
Music is loaded on to the PMP300 via a special parallel port adapter and cable that looks much like it would connect to a PCMCIA card. Speed is about 150-200kB/s. While the parallel port adapter did have a pass-through for your printer, you could not load songs onto your PMP300 while printing, or your files would become corrupted. The software that came with the Rio only worked on Windows 95 (not even Windows 98!), since it hit the parallel port directly. Eventually, a 3rd party program called Dreaming of Brazil was released for free that allowed Windows NT users the ability to use the device (which works on all NT based operating systems, like 2000 and XP).
The PMP300 was somewhat revolutionary because it was the first solid state portable music player. In other words, you could drop, shake, or otherwise rattle the thing and the music won't skip a beat (short of being damaged from dropping it). This was huge for joggers and other athletic types.
The device had a few downsides:
- It was rather cheaply built. Not so much in that it was lacking a USB port (in 1998, many people didn't have USB, but everyone had a parallel port) or that the screen was simple (it was adequate), but more the fact that it appeared to have been designed by engineers who had never really created an everyday consumer device before. Remember, Diamond Multimedia previously had only built computer components that would be installed in a PC and left alone. This was now a device that people would handle regularly. As a result, one glaring problem was that if you dropped it the right way (bottom first), the small latch that held the battery in would easily break. Luckily, a simple piece of scotch tape would fix this.
- It didn't support any format other than MP3. Granted, in 1998 there really wasn't much else out there, so this isn't too big of an issue, especially since MP3 is a very common denominator.
- It couldn't support more than 64MB of memory. Though SmartMedia cards come in sizes from 8MB all the way up to 1GB, the device simply won't recognize a card larger than 32MB.
- The storage format on the SmartMedia card was proprietary. Most other portable devices (including digital cameras and PDAs) tend to use the FAT file system as their storage format, allowing for easy access to the media files on the memory card. Unfortunately, the PMP300's proprietary format was only understood by the device itself and couldn't be shared or used for anything else without a reformat. Remember, SmartMedia was fairly new in 1998 and was not yet a standard.
- The firmware was not upgradable. If there was a bug in your firmware revision, you were stuck with it. (e.g. my device's track time ticks 4 times faster when playing 160kbps MP3 files, though the song plays fine)
- The volume doesn't get very loud. You need to use very low power headphones.
In its last days, the device was available with rebates for about $50 new. While they may not be worth much in the future other than for their place in history, today they still make a decent solid state player. However, as parallel ports disappear from modern PCs, it will become harder to use these groundbreaking devices.