Diamond Rio PMP300
COMPANY: Diamond

PRICE: $199.95    WARRANTY: 1 Year

Portable digital audio player with 32MB RAM internal, SmartMedia expansion slot, powered by one AA battery (included)
Rio Manager, MusicMatch JukeBox "demo"

by Ronald Mendoza
Published: December 24, 1998

Diamond Rio PMP300 Okay, the Diamond Rio PMP300 doesn't really have anything to do with gaming, but it is a cool peripheral for the hot mp3 technology that everyone loves. If you aren't familiar with MPEG Layer 3 audio (mp3 for short), it is basically a high-compression technique which can provide CD quality sound in one tenth the storage space it would normally require. The Diamond Rio (not to be confused with the country group is a portable mp3 player that allows you to download the tunes from your computer to listen to anywhere you choose. I've had my Rio for almost three weeks now, and what follows are my impressions and findings.

As you can see by the picture, the Rio itself is a compact piece of equipment. Measuring only 3.5 inches x 2.5 inches, and 0.625 inches thick, it truly will fit anywhere you can hide it. Also included in the box is a single AA battery, earphones, the pass-through parallel port interface and cable, plus two CD-ROMs containing the software and sample mp3 music. The pass-through piece plugs into the parallel port on your PC, and any other parallel devices (such as a printer) plug into it. A cable connects this piece to the Rio via a plug, similar to those used by PC (PCMCIA) cards. (I have seen far too many of these connectors damaged from "normal" use, but hopefully this won't be the case here.)

Rio Manager is the software utility used to manage the Rio. It has a fancy stereo-look, not unlike some of the skins you would find for the popular Winamp software player. The primary purpose of the Rio Manager is to manage the contents any memory on the Rio. With the Rio connected to the parallel port piece, the Rio Manager can automatically turn it on to manage the memory.

The Rio has 32 MB of memory on-board, which is referred to as the Internal Memory by the Rio Manager. An installed SmartMedia expansion card is then referred to as External Memory. This distinction is important, because the two pools of memory are not directly linked together. In other words, if you have 3 MB of Internal memory free and 16 MB of External memory free, you can't fit something bigger than 3 MB without putting it into the External memory. Yet, any music in the Internal memory is played first before the External memory.

Downloading music to memory is very straightforward. Simply choose which bank (internal or external) of memory to load into then open any music files. The files are sent quickly enough; 5 MB transfers in about 20 seconds, for a little more than 200 KB/sec. While you can view the contents of the memory with the Rio Manager, you can only add, rearrange and delete music; you cannot upload them back to the computer from the Rio.

Disconnect the Rio from your computer, plug in the included earphones (or your own set, if you prefer) and you're set for music-on-the-go. Controls are available for volume (in discrete steps from 0 to 20), next track, previous track, play/pause, and stop. A random button puts it in shuffle mode, playing the tracks in random order. A repeat button does just that; plays a single track over and over. An A--B button allows a section of music to be repeated over and over. The LCD display has track information, as well as a battery meter and the encode rate of the currently played track. An EQ button toggles between four preset equalization settings (Rock, Normal, Classic, and Jazz) which is also shown on the LCD display. Finally, an Intro button plays the first few seconds from each track in memory.

While mp3 music can contain artist and title information, the Rio does not show any of this on the display, referring to the tracks simply as 01, 02, etc. The filenames are still preserved however for viewing via the Rio Manager.

The Rio is capable of playing mp3 and mp2 music encoded at various rates. While most mp3 music is encoded at 128 kbps, lower encode rates allow you to fit more music in memory. At 128 kbps, mp3 music typically takes up 1 MB/min. By using a lower rate such as 96 kbps, 25% more memory is available. On small earphones such as those included with the Rio, you won't necessarily notice the difference in sound quality from using a lower rate. However, it can be a bit tedious to convert existing mp3 music down to the lower rate.

How it measures up

Performance: 4.5 stars
The Rio PMP300 "puts internet music in the palm of your hand." Well, that is literally what it does. In an extremely compact unit you have a skip-free (because it is not mechanical) collection of music you can take with you. The unit has enough power to crank the volume up over your surroundings, while still managing 8-12 hours of battery life. Unlike some reports I have seen, my unit has a snug fitting battery cover that has yet to pop open accidentally.

Features: 4 stars
All the expected features are present to skip tracks, pause, shuffle and repeat. Four preset equalization settings help with the sound quality, depending on the type of music. The expansion slot uses standard SmartMedia cards, to supplement the 32 MB of on-board memory.

Drivers: 4 stars
The Rio Manager installs without any fuss and the dynamic driver for the Rio seems well behaved. I have experienced no compatibility problems since loading it on my system. The software itself is easy to use.

Documentation: 4 stars
The User's Guide introduces mp3 and the Rio, as well as covers installation and troubleshooting. The unit itself is pretty intuitive if you're familiar with any kind of portable electronics.

Bundle: 4 stars
In addition to the Rio Manager utility, a special version of MusicMatch Jukebox is included. While it refers to itself as a demo, it has more features than the demo you can download. If you don't have any mp3 tools, MusicMatch Jukebox provides you with everything you need. In addition, a collection of mp3 music is also provided.

Value: 2.5 stars
At just under $200 US, you get the Rio with its on-board 32 MB of memory. If you choose to stick with the standard 128 kbps encoding rate for music, that buys you about 30 minutes of music tops. This is pretty expensive, but you have to take into consideration the ability to download music into the unit digitally, as well as the fact that it will never skip. Still, there is quite a premium to pay for this hot toy. Diamond does offer a 16 MB SmartMedia card for just under $50 US, and because SmartMedia cards are standard, prices will probably go down in the future.

Overall: 3.5 stars
The Diamond Rio PMP300 is one of those cutting-edge products with a premium price tag. If you're looking for a way to take skip-free music on the most vigorous of activities (whether skiing, jogging, snowboarding, or climbing telephone poles), this is probably one of the best. While it is possible to squeeze the most out of the memory by using lower encoding rates (and thus slightly lower quality), I've found that it is simply more convenient to transfer the mp3 files as is to the unit and be happy with the play time; it may not be the best cross-country flight companion. Still, it delivers on its promise; sometimes big things DO come in small packages!

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