Wednesday afternoon, I came home to a wonderful sight: a slender,
foot-long cardboard rectangle sitting in front of my door, addressed
from Diamond Multimedia. I walked to my friend’s room and smiled.
“I know what this is,” I exclaimed, showing the box to him. Unimpressed
by the box and unsure of its contents, he handed me a pair of scissors.
I shortly thereafter held triumphantly the result of two weeks of
waiting, two hundred dollars, and two minutes of wrestling with an
origami-styled cardboard box, carefully designed by Chinese engineers
to be impossible to open. It was small, light, and black. My Rio had
The Diamond Rio is a portable MP3 audio device. It can play MP3s
apart from your computer system; like a Walkman for MP3s. To put music into the
Rio, you plug it into the printer port on your PC and use the
provided software to download the files into the device. File transfers are
one-way, so you can’t use it as a way to share MP3 files with your friends.
This is kind of a moot point, since the Rio comes with only 32Mb of
storage. While they claim on the box that this is sufficient to store an
hour’s worth of music, this is not true unless you want to listen to very
poor quality and/or mono music — at standard quality, the Rio provides
a scant half-hour of music. This is enough for a quick jog, but you
wouldn’t really take half a CD with you to the beach. An $100 upgrade in
the works will let you store a total of an hour’s worth of music. This
additional half-hour comes in the form of a removable flash memory card.
Theoretically, you could buy a bunch of these and put different 30-minute
mixes on them, but at $200/hour of music, I’m guessing that this would
not be viable option for most people. It’s instead assumed that the user
will always have a computer (laptop or desktop) relatively nearby to
update the music when you want to listen to something new.
Unfortunately, this obviates much of the point of having one, namely
to not have to be attached to your computer to listen to MP3 files.
The Rio’s basic interface is simple and intuitive, with a comfortably placed
thumb-wheel to allow you to control playback. There is a button to
allow you to change the equalization to levels appropriate for Jazz,
Classical, and Rock (or no equalization at all). However, there are
many aspects to the Rio which make it clear that this is a first-generation device, made by technical people for technical people. The “Menu” button on the top of the player only works when the music is stopped, is not documented in the user manual, and is unintuitive: when pressed, the screen displays an upside-down “F1 32” — when
you press the fast-forward or reverse button it cycles through a list
of equally odd and cryptic displays (“RE no” “R1 no” and “V1.2249”)
that, while understandable to an engineer, should certainly not be in
a consumer product. There’s also a little feature which lets you loop
a chunk of audio. While mildly amusing, it’s not particularly useful,
especially considering the fact that there’s a quarter-second delay
at the end of every loop. Most of the buttons are not documented.
Diamond obviously took a lot of time to make the accompanying software
very pretty. Unfortunately, this had two side-effects: the interface
is awful under 256-color mode: everything appears black and you need to
squint just to make out any of the buttons. To their credit, on a
bright monitor in 24-bit color, it’s gorgeous, but I’d rather have
a program that’s easy to use than one that’s visually stunning.
It is also likely that the time they spent on their 95/98 client
kept them from writing an NT port, which is a real pain for those
of us that prefer a half-stable operating system. Additionally, Mac
and Linux ports would be appreciated at some point in time; while we
can certainly excuse the lack of ports in a first-generation release,
it would all the same be nice if they released the specification so that
willing programmers could “roll their own” programs to interface to the
After I had setup my computer and plugged in the cable, I downloaded
a sample song from the installation CD to the Rio. I was highly
unimpressed with the resulting sound quality, and thought seriously
about returning the device. It soon became clear that it was
merely the cheap headphones provided with the Rio, and not some
problem intrinsic to the Rio itself. My advice to you? Throw out the packaged headphones. Get a pair of real headphones ($25+) and your ears will thank you. On my friend’s pair of $100 DJ headphones, the sound was much more pleasant.
All in all, the Rio is an excellent piece of engineering; they have
shown that a large computer peripheral manufacturer can produce a portable MP3
player. This is clearly bleeding edge technology, however, and the
Rio is not yet suitable for widescale consumer deployment. It is
instead geared towards that breed of hacker who wants to listen
to music away from the computer but
is willing to return to their computer every thirty minutes to “refuel.”
Unless you need this right away, I’d wait for a second generation of
portable MP3 playback devices, like
Saehan Information Systems’ upcoming MP-Man with a 2.5Gb laptop hard
drive inside, for which, unfortunately,
no release date or price has yet been set.