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December 21, 1998

Tiny Rio offers a look at the miniature future of computing devices

The explosion of music available on the Internet in the form of digitized MP3 files has been the subject of my past two columns. This week, I evaluate the Rio -- the tiny new device that makes it easy to play music anywhere -- as a super-small computer accessory.

The first thing you might notice when you play back songs on a Rio is the device's total lack of Windows. Diamond Multimedia Systems, in San Jose, Calif., the maker of Rio, has wisely avoided trying to make the Rio's little one-line screen look like Windows CE or any graphical metaphor. This makes for simple user operation, consisting primarily of Play, Fast Forward, Rewind, Random Play, Volume Up/Volume Down, etc.

Bill Gates need not fear, however. The Rio is useless without a Windows-based computer. You need a PC to download MP3 music files from the Internet or digitize songs from your personal CD collection using the bundled MusicMatch Jukebox trial software. The resulting MP3 files get into the Rio via an adapter that plugs in to a parallel port. (A pass-through allows a printer to continue to use the port.)

The Rio device's greatest strength is its true portability. It's so much smaller than a portable CD player that there's almost no comparison. The Rio is a little shorter than an audio cassette and barely any thicker.

The unit's greatest limitation is its storage capacity. In its standard configuration, with a list price of $200, the device holds 32MB of flash memory. This represents what Diamond officials say is "up to 60 minutes of continuous digital quality playback" with MP3 files compressed at CD quality. For me, this translates into holding only six or seven songs off Pearl Jam's new Live on Two Legs CD.

Pioneers who decide to be the first in their office with a Rio device should get the optional 32MB flash memory upgrade for a $100 list price, which doubles the storage capacity.

But let's imagine for a moment the Rio's potential as a data storage device. Its benefits in IT are unlimited if we use our imagination.

Even in its standard configuration, the Rio is capable of storing as much as 8 hours of voice-quality audio. This means the device could be used to play back, say, National Public Radio's (NPR's) "Morning Edition." Perhaps your PC could record the program while you sleep and download it to a Rio. You could then listen to NPR at any convenient time.

And there's no requirement that music be digitized at full CD quality. If you don't mind AM-style audio, you can use Jukebox to compress 2 or 3 hours of music into Rio's standard 60-minute capacity.

The Rio retail package includes a pair of tiny headphones, one AA battery (for a claimed 12 hours of operation), a CD-ROM with 170 MP3 tracks from, and a serial number for $5 worth of downloadable songs from (a site that may actually be running by the time you read this).

I have many quibbles with the 1.0 release of Rio (which is technically referred to as the PMP 300). There's no DC power input, so you run down the single battery while you're merely transferring songs from your PC to the Rio. You can't boost bass or treble. You hear no sound during fast forward or rewind, so cuing up a particular spot is a hit-or-miss affair.

But the Rio is worth a look because it represents the ultra-miniature future that all of our computing devices will soon have. For more information, go to

Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 98 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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