Sizing Up PMPs in a Smartphone World

Plus: Best Buys in Portable Speakers & Docking Stations

All Internet-connected personal media players now have Bluetooth technology for transmitting audio, but PMPs aren’t evolving as fast as smartphones and tablet computers are. Meanwhile, wireless speakers have become versatile by adding Bluetooth and USB ports and morphing into battery-powered, dockless portable speakers.

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Masterfile/Raoul Minsart

Smartphones can do everything that a personal media player (PMP) can do, and, of course, they allow you to make a phone call. So why would anyone buy a PMP in 2013?

Well, when you’re at the gym or working out, you might not want to risk dropping your pricey smartphone while you move around. Maybe you want a PMP to handle your media consumption or for your kids to borrow. Perhaps you don’t want to ante up for a monthly cellular contract just to listen to music or watch videos.

Those scenarios are where the PMP’s value will continue for the foreseeable future, says Ben Arnold of The NPD Group, which is a market-research company. “There are definitely occasions where those devices make sense,” Arnold says.

However, outside of Apple and Samsung, PMP manufacturers haven’t added many features to PMPs during the past 2 years. In fact, we’ve seen three major manufacturers—Haier, Microsoft and Pioneer—exit the PMP market. That’s because companies are focusing their innovations on smartphones and tablet computers, which have a much larger screen (and price) that has better resolution and space for graphics than PMPs have.

Even Samsung tells us that it has no updates planned for its Galaxy Player PMP. The company says it’s concentrating on its smartphones and tablets.

SLOW PROGRESS. In terms of features, little has changed among PMPs during the past 2 years. Apple’s fifth-generation iPod Touch ($299) now has the same resolution as the iPhone 5 has—1136 x 640 pixels—which is the sharpest screen resolution of any PMP screen that we’ve seen. However, most PMP screens still have 800 x 480 resolution or less.

Two years ago, we expected that gaming—and 3-D displays in particular—would become a big component of PMPs to make them more distinct, but that hasn’t happened, and it now seems that it never will. Instead, manufacturers are putting their new gaming processors into tablets.

The iPod Touch and the Galaxy Player are the first and only PMPs to include an automatic-focus lens and a flash for their camera. Also, a flash drive now is almost universal among PMPs, regardless of whether it’s connected or nonconnected. (A connected PMP allows you to use email, surf the Internet, and stream audio and video.) The only remaining hard-drive PMP is Apple’s 160GB iPod Classic ($249). The iPod Classic also is an anomaly in terms of storage capacity. No other PMP has more than 64GB of storage capacity.

LISTEN UP. Perhaps the biggest development in PMPs is that all connected PMPs, and even one nonconnected PMP (Apple’s iPod Nano), now have Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology, which was introduced in 2012. Bluetooth 4.0 has a stronger signal and uses significantly less battery power than do previous Bluetooth versions. We also found that a Bluetooth 4.0 PMP is easier to sync with wireless speakers, because it now requires fewer steps than older Bluetooth versions required, and the installation process is more intuitive than ever before.

Two years ago, we were excited about Apple’s then-new proprietary AirPlay technology—Bluetooth’s rival—for sending audio to wireless speakers from a PMP, a smartphone or a tablet. (The iPod Touch, which also has Bluetooth 4.0, is the only PMP that has AirPlay.) Unlike Bluetooth 4.0, which uses a proprietary radio frequency and has a 30-foot range, AirPlay uses Wi-Fi to send audio to speakers. Consequently, it increases the range in which you can send your music. For example, your PMP can be downstairs in your living room, and you can play songs on speakers that are upstairs in your bedroom if they’re more than 30 feet away from your PMP.

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