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Rio Nitrus MP3 Player Review

Review By: Andrew B. Davidson - andrewdavidson/at\andrewdavidson/dom\com
Copyright © 2004 Andrew B. Davidson. All Rights Reserved.
Review Written: January 2004
Review Updated: May 2004
This article is now quite old, but I hope you still find it useful in case you are considering purchasing a used Nitrus.
Size comparison of Rio PMP-300, Rio Nitrus, and Sharpie pen.
by Andrew Davidson
I've been a happy user of the Rio PMP-300's for years, and I needed a new high-capacity player after my Rio Volt's stopped working.
I got a Rio Nitrus from in 2003 for $209, with $50 rebate. I received the rebate check after a few months. They also advertised a $20 rebate, but I didn't read the fine print: even though both rebates were advertised simultaneously by buy.com, both rebates state that only original UPC bar codes will be accepted. I decided to just do the larger rebate.
I was tempted to get the Rio Nitrus because my Rio Volts had stopped working and I needed a high-capacity MP3 device for a week-long trip. In the past I used Rio Volts for bringing my MP3 collection with me on trips, and my Rio PMP-300 for walking around the house and going to the grocery store.
The installation was not without problems. At first it would not recognize the player. I tried again on a different computer. Obviously not everyone is going to have this option.
The Rio Nitrus is very small. I owned a PMP-300 previously and this unit is smaller, lighter, and sleeker. But, the buttons are almost too small to be usable. The volume control buttons are very small and stiff compared to the PMP-300. They are approximately 1/8th (or less) the size of the PMP-300 buttons. I hope a firmware upgrade will allow volume to be controlled by the rotary dial, the obvious choice for volume.
Other reviews on the web have complained about the player being not loud enough. It is definitely calibrated to a different way than the Rio PMP-300. Out of a 1-20 volume on the PMP-300, I listened at level 2-4 generally. On the Nitrus, I listen at 17 or so out of 30. I think it is perhaps not as loud as the Rio PMP-300, but I have yet to test this extensively, as it is very much loud enough for me.
I have my MP3's organized on my HD in separate folders, and I have a bunch of playlists as well, some spanning folders, but some just simple playlists for all the files in a folder. I was expecting to simply drag all these folders and playlists to the Nitrus and have everything still work and be easily accessible. The Nitrus was not like this, not by a long shot. First of all, you must use the included software to transfer files to the Nitrus. OK, not such a huge problem, I was used to it with the PMP-300. But, the Nitrus doesn't remember any of your folder hierarchy when transferring files. You must rely entirely on your MP3's tag information. This is the critical, major flaw that would prevent me from ever recommending the Nitrus. The flaw is shared by the PMP-300, but with the PMP-300's much smaller memory, the song organization is nowhere near as critical. The Rio Volts, thankfully, lacked the flaw by the simple fact that they used the folder organization already present on MP3 CDs.
Loading on the Nitrus is slow under USB 1.1. However, the unit has enough capacity so that I don't load new songs very often. Loading tracks is much faster than the PMP-300.
Would I recommend the Nitrus? No. For me, its main advantage is that it hits the perfect size/capacity/price points. Too many features are annoying for me to recommend this device, however. Some features are simply unbelievable (e.g. no folder organization, no ability to start playing from the middle of a playlist). But despite its flaws, it is serving its purpose for me and is currently my main MP3 playback device. In my dreams, they would upgrade the firmware to fix the lack of folder organization.

Software Deficiencies

The software that comes with the Nitrus has many flaws. Transferring music and playlists to the Nitrus is very non-intuitive. In my opinion, the Nitrus should just show up as a drive with files and folder structure. Playlists that appear inside this structure would be recognized by the player. However, with the Nitrus software, this is not the case. Dragging an M3U playlist file from my HD to the Nitrus software window results in an error message "Unable to transfer. Unsupported file format".
Apparently the way to transfer a playlist to the Nitrus is to copy your MP3 and M3U files into the directory that the Nitrus is scanning, then tell the Nitrus to rescan that directory, then go to the Playlists tab of your music directory (NOT the Playlists tab of the Nitrus itself), right click the playlist and choose "Rio Nitrus" from the "Send To" submenu. Of course, this only transfers the MP3 files in the playlist, not the playlist itself. I haven't figured out how to transfer the playlist itself, so you have to recreate a new playlist on the Nitrus. Go to the Nitrus playlist tab (NOT the Playlist tab of your scanned directory) and then choose "Create Playlist" from the Playlist menu. (If you choose "Create Playlist" from the Playlist menu when you are on your scanned directory Playlist tab, you will create a playlist on your HD instead of on the Nitrus). Then, navigate to the songs via the Nitrus Album tab and add them to the Playlist you just created by choosing Add To Playlist. I hope your files are ID3-tagged with the track number otherwise you are totally f-ed and will have to add each song to the playlist manually, in order, instead of being able to shift-click to select them all to add in one operation.
Does that sound insanely complicated to you? That's because it is. Why the above is considered easier or better than just dragging the M3U to the window is beyond comprehension.

Cons

  • Biggest Con: Non-replaceable rechargeable battery, just like the ones that caused the recent iPod controversy. Who knows if Rio will ever offer to replace the batteries. The manual simply says that the batteries are not replaceable. This is terrible, it basically means that the device will have to be replaced after a year or two. I would prefer that my electronics keep working for longer than that.
  • Doesn't show up as a drive in Windows that you can drag files to. This is just plain moronic.
  • The software is way too complicated, trying to organize your MP3s by the ID3 artist, title, year, genre, etc. The software should be for moving files to the unit, and deleting files off the unit, and that's it. I don't need a whole music management system. I just want to use the folder structure that I've already set up for organization. I have separate albums in separate folders, but incredibly, folder structure is not saved when moving files to the unit. Not all my MP3's have ID3s and sometimes the ID3 info is inaccurate or incomplete. I would never ever trust the software that comes with any MP3 player to be able to rip CDs or make MP3s worth a damn. Yeah right, your POS software is going to work better than Exact Audio Copy and LAME. Not bloody likely.
  • Long gaps between tracks (>1 second). Mix CDs become very annoying to listen to as the continuous mix rhythm is broken every time the track changes. The Rio Volt did a pretty good job with this, it was still noticable. It is possible to completely and totally eliminate this gap, as plugins for WinAmp have proven. Perhaps a firmware upgrade could fix this someday.
  • Device is very small. The screen has adequate resolution, but it is tiny. The scrolling text is sometimes unreadable. Luckily, I rarely need to read the screen. The volume buttons are too small. The menu button is too small.
  • The "Rio Stick" is a stupid, stupid concept, and totally inappropriate for a device such as this. Why would anyone would think this is a better UI than separate buttons for play/stop/next/prev? It exists purely for "wow"/b.s. marketing factor, it offers no extra functionality, and in fact is harder to use than buttons. Holding a stick to the side for 30+ seconds to FF is more difficult than holding down a button. The rubber the stick is made of is slippery, and the stick is very small. The wheel is a great UI, but they totally blew it by not using it for the obvious interface functions it would be perfect for (i.e. volume control and FF/Rew). In future generations, they should stick with the wheel and replace the stick.
  • Doesn't automatically start playing when you power up the unit. You must wait for the unit to boot and then manually press "Play". I'd rather just press power and stick the thing in my pocket. However, boot time is only about 10 seconds so this is not a major pain, but it's something that I hope will be updated with a firmware upgrade.
  • Lots of headaches and trial-and-error just to get the thing working on my computers. Had to try the software from the CD, the updated version from the web, various computers, etc. Finally got it to work, and now I am very wary about installing any software upgrades, as they may simply cause the device to stop working completely.
  • Clear plastic LCD faceplate is easily scratched (e.g. if you put it in a pocket with your keys). Mine got a few minor scratches within days, so now I am more careful.
  • Some functions are not accessible without using the screen, making it harder to use the device while driving. For example, to change shuffle modes, you must navigate through the menu system.
  • No easy way to just play every track on the unit straight through in alphabetical order. There are many bugs where it plays songs in their 8.3 filename order (i.e. essentially randomly) instead of in alphabetical order.
  • Very difficult to play a playlist starting in the middle of the playlist. To do this, you must hit Next repeatedly. For example, lets say you have a playlist with 100 tracks on it, and you want to play that playlist, but start at track 50 (as it very often the case with audio books). The only way to do that is to play the playlist and hit Next 50 times. If you use the menu "Play Track" to select a track to play, it will stop playing at the end of that track. How this limitation got through testing is beyond all comprehension.
  • Changing to any other equalizer setting destroys your custom EQ settings. This means you will have to re-setup your custom EQ settings over and over again if you need to go back and forth between two (e.g. one setting for audio books, one for music).
  • Incredibly pointless and ridiculous "Stopwatch" function. As if anyone would actually use this device as a stopwatch! Rio, please use your developer's valuable time adding features that people could actually use (like being able to play a playlist starting at a specific track).
  • Can't create or modify playlists on the device (must use the software on your computer).

Pros

  • Great price/capacity/size ratio. I was used to the PMP-300, and this device is smaller, lighter, and has 20 times the capacity.
  • Short boot time (10 seconds).
  • Good button placement (but buttons are too small).
  • Plays MPEG2 and MPEG2.5 just fine (i.e. low bitrate MP3's typically used for audio books).
  • FF/Rew is fast enough and increases in speed as you go through the file. Can FF through a 1.5 hour file in about 30 seconds or so.
  • Can insert and remove the A/C power plug without affecting playback. This is unlike the Rio Volts that would turn off if you inserted or removed the A/C plug.
  • A/C hold different size than the headphone plug hole. This is unlike the Rio Volt which had three identical holes, all next to one another (Headphones, Line Out, and A/C Power) With the Rio Volt, I would occasionally find that I had plugged the A/C adapter into the "Line Out" hole! The Nitrus doesn't have this problem at all, thankfully.
  • While connected to the A/C adapter, auto-shutoff is disabled.
  • Backlight is bright enough to read easily.

Related Links


Rio Nitrus Firmware Ideas I'd Like To See

These are not features that are available on the Rio Nitrus, but I hope they are added someday to the firmware.
When playing, when you press the wheel, it should start to cycle through several modes. Moving the wheel while a specific mode is selected should engage that mode.
The modes would have a display on screen so you know what mode you are in. When you start moving the wheel, the display shows the effect of the wheel movement (e.g. by volume indicator growing)
The modes would be:
Volume <-> Choose File <-> Scan FF/Rew <-> Select Track Position <-> Exit
Volume = Move wheel to increase decrease volume. Press wheel again to exit this mode.
Choose File = Move wheel to scroll up and down through list of files in the currently selected file group/playlist. Click wheel or press stick to start playback at the selected file. Click menu button to cancel. This will allow you to navigate through the current playlist.
Scan = Move wheel to fast foward/rewind current track. Ideally there would be an audio cue as this is happening.
Select Track Position = Move wheel to move the current play position from 0..100% of the length of the track. This would allow you to get to a specific spot very quickly. It should work regardless of the length of the track (i.e. longer tracks will have more seconds per pixel of movement). Ideally there would be an audio cue as this is happening.
Exit = This returns to normal playback.
Ideally, you would be able to choose/reorder the modes in the preferences. E.g. if you never want to use the wheel for volume, you can disable that from the cycle.
Perhaps there could be other advanced modes that could be included in the cycle too. For example, pitch control and tempo control are two obvious choices that would be very useful for karaoke and audio book applications. Imagine using the wheel to increase the tempo and listen to those lectures faster.

Rio Nitrus Options I'd Like to Have

Configure play display. Specify what should appear on the main display. I would rather see all info.
Progress Bar
Name
Artist
Album
Genre
Year
# out of #
Time of Day
Date
Time Elapsed
Time Remain
Bitrate
File Size
File Type
+ configure volume buttons.
+ configure stick. I'd like to disable next/prev/play/pause/stop on the stick and use it only for ff/rew.