It's Your Music

You can choose how to use your purchased music

The continuing controversy over music-sharing services such as Napster has taught us that people feel strongly about being able to access the music they want. We could debate the legality of Napster until the end of time. But if you just want to listen to music you've bought, you may do so — legally — in a variety of ways. And the PC, of course, makes this very easy. In fact, digital music is driving the current revolution in digital media.

Before you can partake in the digital music world, you need to get the music from your CD collection onto your PC's hard drive or a multimedia set-top box, such as those offered by Hewlett-Packard (HP) and other companies. This process-called "ripping" music-compresses audio CD music into individual (one per song) MP3 or Windows Media Audio — WMA — files, and places them on the hard drive. Good CD rippers-such as Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), RealNetworks' RealJukebox, or, on the Macintosh, Apple Computer's iTune — will write metadata information about each track into the files. Such information includes track, title, artist, album, genre, year, and more. This metadata lets software and hardware devices organize your music in a variety of ways — so you can easily find all your music by a certain artist or group, for example.

Taking it on the Road: Portable Audio

For the ultimate in portability, you can also copy music to a portable audio device such as SONICblue's Rio, Creative Technology's NOMAD II, or Sony's MS Walkman. These portable devices work with both Windows Media and MP3 format audio, and many of them connect to both PCs and Macs. Portable audio devices store songs internally, and some offer expanded storage through CompactFlash (CF), SmartMedia, Memory Stick, and Secure Digital (SD — also known as MultiMediaCard, or MMC) cards. These cards are available in several capacities, and prices can vary considerably. But if you're looking for a Walkman-style device with no moving parts and digital sound, one of these devices should fit the bill. You should expect to pay between $150 and $250.

CD audio offers another option. Portable CD players are currently the hottest product in this segment, and price wars are driving prices down. With applications such as Windows Media Player (WMP), RealJukebox, and iTunes you can easily create "mix" audio CDs — using cheap CD-R media — that reflect your musical tastes. You can find audio CD players for under $100. And a variety of manufacturers are beginning to offer newer models that let you play MP3 data CDs, which contain 10 times the music per disc. Although compressed MP3 files aren't as technically perfect as the originals, few people would notice the difference.

A more expensive, but increasingly common, portable device is the portable jukebox, which incorporates a hard disk into a handheld device. These devices, such as Creative's NOMAD Jukebox, offer 6GB to 20GB hard disks and USB connectivity for fast transfers from the PC. They can also perform double duty as external drives for backup. But portable jukeboxes are expensive — often in the $250 to $300 range — and they offer horrible battery life. Unless you have a desire to carry your entire music collection with you, a more economical solution might be appropriate.

Tuning Out the Morning Commute

For you auto commuters, standard audio CDs for the car-based CD changer can keep things fresh for hours at a time. But newer, in-dash units from several manufacturers make it possible for you to play MP3 data CDs in the family minivan. If this isn't an option — say, because your car is stuck in the Jurassic Era with a cassette player — you might consider a portable audio device and a cassette adapter so that you can play the digital tunes through the car stereo. The sound won't be as good, but it's better than nothing.

Distributing Music Throughout Your House

Some of the most exciting implementations of digital audio are available for use in your home. Dell Computer, Gateway, SONICblue Rio, and others offer a new class of device called the Digital Audio Receiver (DAR), which connects to your PC through a network or phone line, and gives you access to your music collection anywhere in your house. DARs retail between $200 and $300.

You can also use set-top devices, such as the HP Digital Entertainment Center, which offer hard disks, CD-RW, network and modem connections, and TV output. These devices let you rip CDs directly to the device's hard disk, bypassing the need to store music on a PC. Using your TV as the output device, you can listen to Internet radio stations, connect to portable devices, and create custom playlists.

How you use your music is your choice, not the recording industry's choice. The good news is that you can find plenty of ways to get the most from your personal audio collection legally. And you can always find portable devices, in a variety of price ranges, to take your music with you when you leave your PC behind.

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