Before You Buy a Portable Media Player

young woman with an iphone
Getty Images

Portable media players are, by definition, MP3 players which do much more than just play your favorite digital audio files. These specialized devices also let you watch your favorite television or movie programming in a portable format as well as letting you view lots and lots of your favorite digital photos. There are a lot of portable media players on the market today, so it is important to consider the most important features when making your selection. To get you thinking about these critical functions, take a read of the list which follows below.


The size of a portable media player is important in two areas: screen size and body size. Screen size you need to consider, especially with digital video, because the smaller the screen, the harder it is to make out all of the video details. Larger screens typically add more cost though. As for body size, you probably want to aim for thinner and lighter, so as to keep the device more truly portable. Screen size will generally dictate body size, though some players add extra to the real estate around the screen.

Control Functions

Controls typically involve buttons, touchscreens or both. A typical button configuration on a portable media player will let you handle most basic commands, such as file navigation, volume, power and fast forward or rewind. A touchscreen, when available, might also let you handle the basics plus letting you delve in a variety more advanced functions. An ideal player combines buttons and touchscreen design, though these will also cost typically more then button only players.

Battery Life

Battery life you know to be a big deal because, the longer that is, the more you can enjoy your digital audio or video. A typical battery for a portable media player will have two different battery timing ratings: one for audio and one for video. Audio playback on a rechargeable battery will almost always be longer than that of video playback, owing a lot to the fact the screen needs to be on constantly when watching a movie. You want at least five hours of video playback so you can enjoy a couple of movies on a long flight.


The interface, usually displayed on the player's screen, is what lets you visually determine which functions you wish to use. An ideal user interface is one which lets you quickly and easily find the feature you are looking for, be it for watching a video or browsing your digital photos. A good interface should almost be self-explanatory, having only a slight learning curve and being intelligently designed to let you make the most of your player with the least amount of work.

Digital Media Storage

Most portable media players these days let you store digital media files on a choice of hard drives, flash memory or removable flash memory cards. Hard drives, on the one hand, will usually hold more than the other two, but are subject to more failure because of internal parts being bumped if you are in an active environment. Flash memory, with non-moving parts, works around this issue but also doesn't offer as much storage. Flash memory cards, the cheapest of the lot, allow for taking your media with you from device to device but can be easily lost.

Digital Media Playback

What kind of digital media do you want to take with you? Your favorite MP3s? Those most recent episodes of Lost? How about photos from your last vacation? A good portable media player will offer support for the most basic of digital media file formats, including MP3/WMA (audio), AVI/WMV (video) and JPEG (digital photos). An ideal portable media player will also offer support for more advanced media file formats for those who want to get better enjoyment from the advanced features these formats offer.