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Saturday September 4, 2004 1:26 pm

Rio Carbon Review

Rio Carbon 5GB Player

Leave it up to Rio to make a product so hot that you can’t find it anywhere, except in the back closets of your local Best Buy.  There weren’t any on display, but you see, it always pays to ask.  Even the limited edition, with a run of only 500, was sold out in a matter of a couple days!  Gear Live finally has its hands on Apple iPod Mini’s direct competitor, the Rio Carbon 5 GB digital audio player.  This little number sports an extra gig of space than the Mini, offers 20 hours of life on a Lithium-Ion power supply, and is supposed to have one of the best desktop software systems available. 

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The first thing you’ll notice, like many pieces of technology these days, is the player’s size.  This thing is so small, it will actually fit in the palm of your hand, and I mean the central part of your palm, as in not resting on the fingers at all.  And it should be.  After all, Rio claims that this is the smallest 5 GB player on the market.  It feels solid and light at the same time, which was an interesting combination for me. 

The back of it is a highly polished metallic-like finish, a magnet for fingerprints.  Luckily most people won’t be looking at the back too much.  The front is a smooth gray-colored plastic.  Along the edges of the sides and the bottom there is a rubber-like grip strip.  This is supposed to present slippage I imagine.  I didn’t even notice it at first, but it should help when handling the player out in the open.


The Carbon comes with a USB 2.0 cord to handle your file transfers.  It also functions as the charger, taking power directly from your PC.  The cord also connects to a thin wall AC adapter so that you can charge when you’re away from the PC.  You simply slide the cord into the adapter and plug it into a wall.  There is also a software CD for music management, which I’ll get to in a bit, though don’t worry, you don’t need to software to transfer files into the unit. 

The player also comes with a “pleather” case for storage.  It’s quite a snug fit though, so you’re going to have a little trouble sliding it out.  To make things worse, you can’t view the screen through the case, unless you purchase an additional another type.  You can however, access the power and volume controls, along with the ports for charging and headphones.  Speaking of headphones, they look like the usual cheap plugs that everyone is including with their players, but they do a good job, actually.  They fit snug into my ear, had an appropriately long cord, and the sound was clear and loud.  I typically use a pair of in-ear tubes from Koss, that offer some increased bass response and better isolation from outside noise. 


The first thing you’ll notice about the display is its milky-creamy color when it lights up.  The text shows up nicely, even though there doesn’t seem to be that much screen-estate anyway, but it’s quite functional the way it is.  By default it’s set to dim out after 5 seconds, but you can increase this, to 10 and 30 seconds as well.  You will see that the battery icon shows a slightly lower amount of charge when the LCD is lit, but then jumps back up when the LCD is off.  You all know lights can work to drain a battery, so this shouldn’t be surprising.

When you leave the player idle for a bit, the light won’t just shut off abruptly, but fades out slowly, which is a cool touch.  This way you can see when it’s going to dim and make another input before it happens, if you need to.  The small play/pause, skip and stop icons on the pad in the front of the unit also light up when the Carbon is in use.  Finally, there’s a Rio logo on the face of the unit that lights red as well.  The light looked a tad brighter on one side of the logo than the other, but it was still another pleasant surprise.

When you’re charging the player, a large battery icon shows up on the screen, with a bar that continuously runs across it and then loops.  Nice to see it wasn’t just some text that blinks “Charging.”  When done charging from an AC source, an icon with a plug shows up on the screen, with the word “100%”


When playing songs, the unit will display the battery indicator, artist, song, playtime bar, volume level, elapsed time, track number and number of tracks, which will vary depending on the playlist you’re using.  Pressing the scroll button or the middle button on the D-pad will cycle through some additional data: format, bitrate, size, date and time, time remaining, and EQ setting.  There will be more on this later, but I liked how you could assess the menus without having to pause the song.  It’s a feature you would think is a given, but believe me I’ve seen it not there on other players.

The menu system is really intuitive.  You can scroll through the whole thing and make selections with the scroll wheel all by itself.  As options are selected they are highlighted and stick a little further to the left on the overall list.  You won’t have a problem at all getting around this thing.  It’s another reason people don’t bother reading manuals anymore.


You may have heard that this is a no frills player, with not much going for it besides the storage capacity and battery life.  As if those weren’t reasons enough to own this.  Let’s discuss what you do get in terms of features.

Here’s a run-down from the official web-site:

5GB* of memory stores up to 80 hours of MP3 or 160 hours of WMA Music*

Plays MP3, WMA, and Audible audio formats

Built-in mic for voice record

Easily drag & drop data and music files onto your player

Rechargeable battery offers up to 20 hours of battery life on a single charge

USB 2.0 for faster downloads

Charge from USB or the included power adapter

Windows & Mac compatible

Includes Rio Music Manager, the most intuitive way to create & manage your digital music library

* At 128kbps MP3, 64kbps WMA.

Pretty basic, but very functional and solid.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t use my mp3 players for managing my workday, or storing my phone numbers.  That’s what my Palm is for.  Still, you also get a stopwatch here.  You don’t get line-in recording, nor do you get a tuner.  But if you’re looking at size, functionality, battery-life, and storage space, you will still have quite an excellent package.


The best way to create the right properties for your songs (genre, artist, album, etc) is through the included Rio Music Manager software.  This way you really open up the possibilities for music playback. 

For example, you can have the player go through songs only by a given artist, or only a given album, or only a genre of music.  It’s up to you what’s played.  These criteria will create a “playlist” from which the Carbon will choose.  I appreciate this feature because I’ve seen smaller capacity players that don’t include this - they have just a series of songs and you have to either play your entire collection as a playlist, or choose each song you want to hear in particular.  By the way, you can do this here as well. 

The scroll wheel on the upper right of the unit functions as a scroll-control when a song list or menu options are displayed on the screen.  Even during mid-song, you can access the menus to change your playlist, which is great.  That way you can have a continuous beat coming at you, as you decide what move to make next.

You can have songs shuffle within a category.  Normally they would play alphabetically.  You still advance deom snog to song in a given sequence, though it’s shuffled. In other words it won’t jump around randomly when advance to the track.  This way you can go back to the song you just heard as well..

You also have the option to play songs that have just been recently uploaded to your Carbon, from the last day to the previous month, to help keep your music-play fresh.  You can also play playlists, if you like a certain sequence of songs that don’t match in terms of a particular genre, album, or artist. 

Another feature is the EQ.  There are five presets, but you can also make a custom EQ depending on how you like your frequencies played.  Within custom, you can change five sliders to your liking.  When you save your settings in this option, and other settings like it, you need to press the middle button on the D-pad, and a big “checkmark” will scroll up on the screen to let you know it’s been changed.  Hitting another button will cause a big “X” to show, indicating that there was no change, except for you possibly changing your mind of course. 


The Rio Manager software allows you to browse and manage the mp3’s you have on both the player and on your PC. You can change the attributes to the songs, like the genre, which I had to do very often, since I’ve never bothered before and I wanted the player to sort things in a particular way.  I was able to use the software without even reading a manual, a testament to how user-friendly it is. 

It can sort by all the parameters of a song, including name, artist, album, genre, year, size, and the date it was loaded to you PC.  This last category came in quite handy, since I would rip songs onto the PC, and would always be interested in the ones I just completed, so that I can then select them to transfer to the Carbon.  The software also has a built in search feature, so you can locate that old David Bowie track you misplaced, without having to go out to Windows File Search.  I only wish that I was able to click on multiple songs and set their genre in one shot,instead of going though them individually.  I had some pretty long sessions with this, but it pays off in the form of nice organization on your player.


As I mentioned, you have a scroll wheel on the upper-right corner of the unit, which is also depressible to make selections.  There’s another button beside the wheel, on the right side of the unit.  By hitting that first, you can open up the menu, then use the scroll wheel to navigate.  In this fashion, I was able to play any variety of songs I needed.  You do have the option of using the D-Pad to move around the menu navigation, but this felt so much more quicker, especially when you have long lists of menu items.  You can just scroll with a much faster speed.

You will end up using the D-Pad primarily for pausing and advancing tracks.  It has a very healthy click when it’s depressed, offering a nice bit of resistance.  You can also lock the unit by pressing the middle button on the D-pad while holding down the menu button on the right side of the unit.  The D-pad icons light up nicely in the dark, but it’s more of an aesthetic since you can find your way around without them so easily. 

The player fits nicely in your hand, especially since it has these rubberized grips along the side and bottom.  Southpaws may feel disappointed that the scroll wheel is on the right, since they won’t be able to use their thumbs.  I’d imagine they could use their index finger when holding the unit in their left hand.


Did you know that Bill Clinton uses hearing aids?  Well, so do I.  So take what I say about volume with a grain of salt.  I’m not deaf or anything, but if you talk low enough I might not clearly make out a couple words.  That said, I found that I had to use the player at medium volume in order to feel comfortable.  Your mileage may vary, because I would think that maybe I’m missing a lot at the one-quarter mark that you would be fine with. 

You certainly won’t need to play this thing at max though.  Hovering around 3-quarters is probably as high as I would have it most of the time.  Music was very clear.  I didn’t find any hissing, or distortion, with the included headphones.  However, there’ve been reports that the player will produce static sounds using a headset cord with a metal rim at its connector.  Indeed, I did encounter this problem on a cord that met that description.  It happens when you jiggle the cord, and not when it’s stationary. 

Rio appears to be working on a solution according to its website, but for now you can try using an adapter or extension if you insist on using your pair of phones and it falls in that category.  I found that most headphones actually have a rubber rim, so this wasn’t a problem with my personal phones, nor the phones that the player comes with.  Outside of this issue, and some people do take it seriously, you will find that because the player has a lot of storage, you will hear songs you’ve never heard on phones before, and they really do sound rich and beautiful.  Just check your headphone cord type before you purchase, and have another one handy if it has a metal rim.


I have a pretty new PC, an AMD Athlon XP 3000+, with 512 RAM.  With this, I was able to transfer a 4 meg mp3 file to the Carbon in less than 2 seconds, which was a pleasant eye-opener to me.  This thing really makes quick work of transferring new music over.  That said, if you’re going to transfer an entire CD album, you’ll need to make time for the ripping and then transferring.  On average, album rips and transfers took about 5 minutes using the Rio Music Manager.  Not bad at all.


Like most players, you’re able to record more than music to the device.  To test this capability, I like to transfer a large “Matrix Reloaded” trailer to units I review.  I transferred a 60-Meg QuickTime movie trailer to the unit in 15 seconds.  USB 2.0 is a real sweet thing, especially when coupled to some substantial storage.  I played the film back directly from the player and it ran without a hitch, even when jumping from spot to spot on the file.  Nice job all around.

Whenever you use USB-based devices, it is imperitave that you safely disable the device through the “Remove Hardware” icon on your system bar.  I made the mistake of thinking that I could unplug and re-plug the drive at will without paying any mind, and the result was that the Carbon crashed.  Fortunately, the manual on the included CD described how to do a reset of the player in this event.  You can use the needle-hole at the top of the unit next to the headphone jack to accomplish this.  Since practicing proper USB removals, I didn’t have nay more problems in this respect.  Thank God.


Let me say this one thing, this player is going to be great for most people, but not everyone.  If you want to store hundreds of full CD’s on this thing you’re going to be disappointed.  By my estimates, you could store about 75 or 80 15-song albums on this thing.  Still, that is a lot of storage for something so portable.  With this thing you’ll never have to worry about running out of space if you use it for those key songs in your albums that you really like.  Again, this actually has one gig more than the iPod Mini for the same price, and in a smaller form factor, so you really can’t beat the value. 


Rio Carbon Review ScoreThis is a solid number from Rio that they can be proud of.  Both the desktop software and the Carbon menu systems are so intuitive that you won’t bother reading the manual.  You get rich, clear and long lasting sound, in such a small package it’s really a marvel of technology.  For those of you with a decent (but not enormous, as in, hundreds of CD’s) collection of songs this player is a great little product.  Heck, even the headphones are decent.  The Rio does lose a point because of that niggling static issue on other types of cords, though.  Either way, at a price point that is the same as the iPod mini, and yet with almost double the amount of battery life (20 Hours!), plus an additional gig of storage, you have an all around excellent package, and a wonderful investment to keep you entertained on those long commutes.  The AC adapter charges the unit at an even faster rate than the USB connection, and the playback options are plenty.  Highly recommended.

Product Information:

Company: Rio Audio

Price: $249

Availability: Now

- Hector Martinez

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