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Feature Article
Rio 600 & 800 - Upgradeable Devices With No (Worthwhile) Upgrades

April 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

I was planning to put a couple of paragraphs in Scott's Column this month on SonicBlue's Rio line of digital audio players (MP3 Players). Put a strange thing happened as I wrote those paragraphs during the month of March. I had about 3 or 4 new releases to talk about. But as I checked back to the Rio site I would find something new almost once or twice a week. By the end of March (when this article was written) Rio had introduced at least 10 items of note. However, none of the announced products were the 340 MB backpack I was promised by SonicBlue's pre-sales department would be available for Christmas.

The Past

A quick recap is in order. I spent months trying to decide which MP3 player I wanted to get. This drove my wife nuts as she wanted to get me a MP3 player for Christmas and I couldn't seem to make up my mind. I really wanted the Creative Jukebox, but ultimately decided that it was too bulky and too fragile to survive being strapped to my waist while doing construction work on my house. Also, the Creative Jukebox was too expensive. My wife really had a hard time letting be spend more than about $300 for an MP3 player... a price point I was also very comfortable with myself.

That left me to decide between getting a MP3 player with 64 MB of memory that would ultimately top out at 96 - 128 MB with expensive flash memory upgrades, or get the Rio 600 which had only 32 MB of memory but was upgradeable to 372 MB of memory with a soon to be released 340 MB backpack.

I was a little worried that Rio's backpacks were a proprietary format. After reading that Rio's company, SonicBlue, had made a deal to work with DataPlay to use their new 500 MB optical discs I put my mind at easy. I figured I could get a DataPlay backpack or the IBM Microdrive backpack... which ever came out first. DataPlay discs, in case you don't know, are small optical discs about the size of a quarter. They hold up to 500 MB of data in a write once operation similar to a CD-R. DataPlay won the best of show honor at Comdex 2000.

I even contacted SonicBlue before Christmas and was assured that the 64 MB & 340 MB backpacks would be available by Christmas. Armed with all this information on Rio's 600 I told my wife I wanted it for Christmas. I was willing to put up with the low memory for a while. I even converted a fair portion of my MP3 files to 48 kbps WMA files to get 90 minutes out of the Rio's base 32 MB while I waited.

The Present

SonicBlue released the Rio 800 with 64 MB of memory the day after Christmas ( according to the Best Buy flyer we received with the paper on Christmas day). I checked the Rio Home web site a couple of times a month. That is how I found out the 64 MB backpack would finally be coming out. But it was pretty expensive. More than other flash memory for other players. (In fact, it is still 50% more than the 64 MB MMC memory sold on the same web page of SonicBlue's site.)

In March I decided to start writing down the items that had been released or changed. The first week of March I had three items, two of which I just mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the release of a special Rio 800 Extreme with 384 MB of memory. Actually, it was the Rio 800 Extreme that prompted me to start keeping track of SonicBlue's releases.

Below are all the releases I am aware of, and concerned about, as of this writing (3/29/01) that have happened since I received my Rio 600 on Christmas. I am not exactly sure of the order, so don't hold me to the fire. However, the items listed after the Rio Volt are very close to the order they were released since that's the way I recorded them.

  • SonicBlue Released the Rio 800 (the day after Christmas according to the Best Buy flyer we received with the paper on Christmas day). This pissed my wife off because she would have gotten me the Rio 800 had it been available before Christmas. Price: $279. I did see a couple of these on the shelf at Best Buy while on Christmas vacation.
  • Released the 64 MB backpack for the Rio 600/800. Price: $169. This would bring my memory up to 96 MB. With my current use of 48 kbps WMA files I could get up to about 4.5 hours of music. I almost considered this. Then I remembered the poor quality of my 48 kbps files and dismissed this upgrade. I would only get about 1.5 hours of music in 128 kbps MP3s with the 96 MBs. I might consider using 96 kbps WMA files, but that would only provide a little more than 2 hours. Not worth the money, time & effort.
  • Released the Rio Digital Audio Receiver. Price: $349.95. This device connects to your computer through your phone lines and plays your MP3 files through your stereo. It comes with the necessary PCI card so your computer can connect to a phone jack. However, it does not use an Ethernet network, so if you have wired your house it will be useless. Also, you need to have a phone jack close to your stereo, which could be a limitation in many homes. Dell makes a similar device that can use an Ethernet Network and only costs $249.
  • Released the Rio 800 Extreme with 384 MB of memory. This certainly has the amount of memory I would like. It is setup as having 256 MB of memory in the base unit, and another 128 MB in the backpack. I assume this product was in response to Creative's limited edition Nomad II MG with 256 MB. Creative priced theirs at $799. SonicBlue priced the Rio 800 Extreme at $599. That's 200 bucks cheaper than the Nomad with 128 MB more memory. Sounds like a bargain. Not!
  • Lowered the price of the 64 MB backpack for the Rio 600/800. Price: $149.
  • Released the Rio Volt. This is a CD/MP3 player. It plays CDs as well as CD-Rs and CD-RWs with MP3 or WMA files on them. Price: $169.95.
  • Release a Rio 600 with the 32 MB backpack. Price: $229.90.
  • Lowered price of Rio 600. Price: $149.
  • Released Rio Car. This is a car stereo "component" that uses a 12 GB hard drive (larger drives will be available later). I say component because the Rio Car does not come with a tuner. An FM tuner module is planned for later. So it will still require you to have a stereo if you don't want to listen to just your MP3 files. Price: $1,199. Ouch!
  • Released a 128 MB version of the Rio 800. Price: $299.95. This is obviously in response to Intel's audio device with 128 MB at a coincidental $299. Notice that this is only $20 more than the 64 MB version when it was introduced.
  • Lowered the price of the 64 MB version of the Rio 800. Price: $249.95.
  • Released a true 64 MB version of the Rio 600. Price $219.95. This is $10 cheaper than the Rio 600 that came with the 32 MB backpack (listed above) to get to 64 MB. With this model it has 64 MB of memory built in. It also comes with a silver faceplate instead of the original purple-ish blue.

The Future

Since the Rio Extreme makes use of a 128 MB backpack I would think they may come out with one. Considering the price of the 32 & 64 MB backpacks I would expect a 128 MB version to sell for close to $300 at first. Ouch! Especially since you can now get a Rio 800 with 128 MB for $300. This lowers the value of my player to $0.00. (Let's see... buy 128 MB for $300, or buy a player with 128 MB for $300... uh uh... that's a hard one, NOT!)

I am still holding out for the 340 MB backpack. It is supposed to use IBM's Microdrive. The page on Rio's site describing the new Rio 600 with 64 MB mentions that the 340 MB backpack with be available in Fall 2001. That is not even close to the date I was told personally by the pre-sales support people. I was told it would be out for Christmas... 2000. I need that upgrade for when I work on my land. Since I won't have the memory I expected in time for my working on my house (we should be starting in April) I am actually thinking about selling my Rio 600 and going to a company that is loyal to its customers. I think they should have worked on the promised upgrades before cranking out new product after new product.

If the price of the 340 MB backpack is over $250 (a price that you can already get an IBM Microdrive for in CompactFlash Type II format) it would be an absolute insult. I wonder if they are even planning a backpack based on the DataPlay discs. These will cost a lot less than flash memory, and people would buy them in droves. DataPlay still shows a Rio 600 pictured on their web site with a DataPlay backpack, and now it says it is for the Rio 600 & 800. Unfortunately, DataPlay doesn't have any other information, and Rio doesn't mention DataPlay at all on their own site. The last information I received about DataPlay was that their discs would be available in time for Christmas 2001. Too late for my needs.

Conclusion

I am losing confidence in SonicBlue and it ability to provide the propriety memory it promised. They continue to release new versions of their players with different memory configurations. Do they expect me to buy another device to get the memory I was promised. That being the case I could have gotten a Creative Nomad or Compaq iPaq player with 64 MB of memory and held out for a player that uses the DataPlay discs.

I regret getting the Rio. I should have waited. Does anyone want to buy a Rio 600? How does $100 sound? I will throw in two NiMH rechargeable AA batteries.

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