Let's cut right to the chase: You can get your entire CD collection, at least your favorite few hundred discs, into portable MP3 players the size of a pack of gum, for twenty dollars and up. For a few more bucks, you can make a movie and call your friends, too.
God bless America, for (in this case) rebuilding the Japanese economy after World War II and helping the other Asian "tigers" as well. These nations take U.S. design and technology and work wonders with the "ergonomics," the look and feel and playability of a consumer product. They deliver various MP3 music players that connect to computers via USB (and a few via Firewire); use both built-in and removable flash memory, or have the new generation of 1- and 1.8-inch hard disc drives; some models even have FM radios and voice recording capabilities. The number of product choices is truly astronomical.
These flash memory types of MP3 players are generally less expensive than their hard drive-based counterparts. Among name brands, you would find the Apple iPod units in both categories now. Although there really is no "low end" for Apple, the Shuffle line with its built-in 1-2GB of flash memory is the price leader among the company's iPod products. These days, most of the Apple product line (Nano, Touch, etc.) is using flash memory, except for the iPod Classic.
In 1GB of memory, you could store roughly 1000 minutes of music. The compressed MP3 audio file is 1MB per minute, as opposed to 10MB for 16-bit, 44.1Khz CD-Audio.) Of course, Internet searches will turn up literally thousands of flash memory MP3 players, many starting under $20.
Then there are the many players that use small hard drives, and play more than MP3 music, at least at the top of the product ranges. The top hard-drive-based players all have 80-160GB capacities, with larger drives always on the horizon. They play videos, store and display photographs, sync with your contact lists and manage your calendar. Oh, and they're MP3 music players, too.
The future of the genre
One of the handy fringe benefits of some of these units is the ability to use them as "mobile hard drives" and store data files on them for transport. The majority of products that attach via USB and have hard drives installed can be used in this manner. Because of the lower amount of available memory, most flash-based players do not include this capability, although there is no technical reason that it could not be done.
In addition to being used as portable data drives, many of these entertainment devices will start adding over-the-air HDTV reception in the near future. As prices decrease for the components used in these devices, more of them will incorporate additional features. There are devices coming to the market in the near future that will have MP3 and video playback, FM radio, still and video cameras, and built-in game play. In fact, the Apple iPhone has most of these features right now, and is fast becoming indistinguishable from the iPod Touch, except for the phone capabilities. It is likely that the next generation of phones will merge with entertainment gadgets, providing a true "all-in-one" consumer device for both work and play.