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Cheap MP3 Players Buying Guide

Our favorite cheap MP3 players, and those preferred by consumers, are small, simple, and easy to use. First on the list is the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip (starting at $39), which features lots of audio file support and clips onto your clothing.

Another top choice is the Sony W Series Walkman (starting at $50), which boasts excellent sound and an unusual headphone-only construct. Apple's iPod shuffle (starting at $45) remains popular; it's tougher and smaller than other cheap MP3 players but offers fewer features than the competition. And the Philips GoGear Vibe (starting at $49) is a good cheap MP3 player with plenty of storage and a small color screen.

We also found a couple of disappointments in the cheap MP3 player pile. The Mach Speed Eclipse 180 (starting at $16) has a confusing control scheme and a tendency to break down. The RCA M6104 (starting at $30) also lags on user-friendliness and durability.

The features stacked in cheap MP3 players vary from one model to the next. These are small devices so only some sport a screen. Those that do may display photos and perhaps even play certain video files, but the screen won't be any larger than 2 inches. Budget MP3 players typically come with 2GB or 4GB of memory, although the Philips GoGear Vibe model we like packs 8GB into its small frame. File support likewise depends on the model. A good cheap MP3 player should support MP3 and WMA files, and some also support AAC, the default audio format for iTunes. Other audio file types a player may support include Audible files, Obb Vorbis, and FLAC. MP3 players with screens usually support JPEG and BMP photo files and sometimes MP4 or AVI video formats. And finally, some cheap MP3 players also come with a built-in FM radio.

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The expert and consumer reviews we found indicate that a small device with straightforward functionality is the ideal. Surprisingly, sound quality doesn't stand out as a top priority because users understand that a cheap MP3 player just won't sound like a home stereo. Still, they expect reasonably good audio and devices with noticeably poor sound routinely draw criticism. We also noted that users had little to say about the battery life of their MP3 players unless it was consistently very limited, as is the case with the Coby MP550 player (starting at $17), another model we researched.

MP3 players outside of the Cheapism niche are more likely to boast a screen and extra features, and contain more memory -- often up to 16GB. A version of the higher-priced Sony E Series Walkman (starting at $75 for 8GB), for example, includes 16GB of storage, a 2-inch color display, a voice recorder, and file support for several types of audio, photo, and video files. But if the primary purpose of a cheap MP3 player is to keep you entertained while at the gym, at work, or during a powerwalk around town, these frills aren't of much value to you.

Devotees of Apple should keep in mind that the vast majority of cheap MP3 players are designed to be compatible with PCs, not Macs. Although using them with Macs is possible, the syncing process can be lengthy and complicated.

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