January 8, 2002

Review: Using the RioVolt SP250 CD-MP3 player with Linux

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

Last July, I reviewed the original RioVolt MP3 CD player, and found it to be fairly good for playing MP3s on CD, and excellent for Linux compatibility. Nearly six months later, I've got my hands on the new RioVolt SP250 MP3/CD player, and find myself impressed again with its performance.
riovolt_sp250.jpegThe unit
On the surface, the SP250 (Web site) resembles the other RioVolt models, one notable exception: the exterior is black rather than silver, which I like better, but this is just personal preference because scratches and scuff marks do not show up as easily on the black surface, and I tend to be somewhat rough on CD players.

With a couple exceptions, the changes from the older RioVolt (now marketed as the RioVolt SP100) are minor -- it still plays the same files, can still have its firmware upgraded, and can read the same discs, and where there are technical differences, they are subtle problems I observed with the original version of the Rio. I am happy to report them fixed in the latest model.

Before I go into the small changes that make this a much better player than the previous models, I should cover the biggest difference -- the inclusion of an FM tuner. When you have 10 to 20 hours of audio per disc, I don't know why you would need an FM tuner, but it is an interesting addition. I didn't buy the new unit for the FM tuner, but it functions well, allowing you to have preset stations as well as scan the stations. Reception is fine; I never had a problem with stations that I found, although radio seems antiquated in the face of several discs full of MP3s.

The remote control has been redone, much to my delight. It fits in my hand much better and is much easier to operate than the round remote that came with the SP100. The RioVolt SP250 also comes with the ability to recharge batteries while plugged into the included AC adapter, a welcome improvement from the SP100. It ships with a pair of rechargable AA batteries, which for me lasted about 11 hours, instead of the advertised 15-hour battery life. That's the same sort of battery behavior I found with the SP100. Also, the skip protection buffer has been increased from two minutes to eight, a significant increase, which I will cover in more detail later.

In the box
As for accessories, there are again some small, yet significant, differences between the SP100 and the SP250. First, the leather case that comes with the SP250 uses a "clip" rather than a belt loop, allowing you to use the clip on clothes that do not include any sort of belt, especially useful for any sort of athletic activity. Also, the case allows better access to the buttons than the one included with the SP100, which is more of a pouch than a case. The new case stores the player rather than protecting it while allowing access, and as an added bonus it has a strap so you can wear it around your neck, useful for jogging or activities where the clip may not be an option.

Unlike the SP100, the included headphones now come in two styles -- earbud types that go into your ear, and perhaps the most uncomfortable pair of wrap-around headphones I have ever used. My suggestion: If you don't like the earbuds, invest in some decent headphones for the unit, because the wrap-around set included belongs in a museum of medieval torture devices more than a CD player box.

As mentioned above, also included are the pair of rechargeable AA batteries and the AC adapter, as well as software for Mac and Windows, which I would assume has something to do with ripping and/or burning CDs, I wouldn't know. The manual included is somewhat of a joke, one of the discs has a PDF manual that is slightly better, but for the most part, the player is very intuitive, so the documentation problem wasn't much of an issue.

Playback and skip protection
Playback quality is the same as on the SP100. The main, and perhaps best, difference in playback is that SonicBlue decided to forego the stupid dancing man that occupied a third of the LCD on the SP100 and instead uses the screen much more efficiently. Rather than the dancing man, the track/time, and the track name on the SP100, you get the track number, time, play mode (random, repeat, etc.), hold icon, battery level, folder/artist name, track name, file type (MP3, WMA or CD audio at this point), the sampling and bit rates, as well as a level meter for the left and right channels. This is a huge improvement over the SP100. This is what the first Rio display should have been.

As for skip protection, the SP250 claims to have eight minutes of skip protection when using MP3 CDs, but this is only partially accurate. the skip protection on a Rio with an MP3 CD loaded buffers eight minutes worth of music (eight minutes is probably eight minutes of 128kbps music, your mileage may vary), and then the CD stops spinning. Once it gets close to the end of the buffer, the CD spins back up, eight minutes more is read, and the CD spins back down. This method works great in most situations, except anywhere there is continuous rapid jolting of the player, in which case you may need to pause what you are doing for a few seconds to let the buffer catch up.

Linux compatibility
As with the SP100, you couldn't ask for a more Linux-compatible MP3 player. Simply burn a standard CD full of MP3s and folders, and you are done. No operating system or driver incompatibilities to worry about. It's simple, and the media is cheap. Firmware upgrading is just as compatible, only requiring that you burn a file to a CD-RW (or CD-R if you feel like wasting one on a use-once one-megabyte file) and insert it into the player.

Conclusion
At first, the SP250 seems a tough call over the SP100 or the SP90, but in the end I am glad I have the SP250 instead of a lower model. The display is clearly superior, and far more useful. The little things, like the case and rechargeable batteries, add to the attraction of the SP250. If you are going to purchase an MP3-CD player, then make the better investment and get the SP250. The price of the SP250 is roughly $150 on Pricewatch and MySimon.

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