Recent collaborations by electronics giant Philips and sportswear giant Nike have resulted in a line of fitness-friendly MP3 players -- no surprise there. But the companies' latest effort, the MP3Run, stands out from the pack because the experience of using it is much like that of running on a treadmill -- except you're outside. While you're running, you can press a button to temporarily silence the music while a synthesized female voice tells you how far you've run and at what pace. Needless to say, that's a pretty nifty feature if you're a serious or casual runner who wants to gauge your performance.
Though cosmetically very similar to other sweat-resistant models in the Philips-Nike line, what makes the 71 gram MP3Run different is that it comes with a separate Bluetooth module that attaches to the top of your shoe. Despite some early speculation, the Bluetooth element doesn't interface with wireless headphones. Rather, it's there to wirelessly transmit to the player how far and fast you've run. When you're through with your run, you connect the player to your PC to upload your time and distance to the Training section of Nike's running site, where a detailed training log, complete with graphs of your runs, allows you to track your progress.
We were a little skeptical about Philips and Nike's claims that the wireless speed-and-distance sensor acted as a highly accurate pedometer no matter what the terrain or the variations in your stride, but after a week with the player, we can say that the sensor came very close to the true distances we ran. It does a good job out of the box, and with a little calibration (which you can set automatically or manually), it does even better.
Setup was relatively hassle-free. The Windows-only player comes with both Philips Media Manager for transferring music and customized playlists onto the device and Musicmatch Jukebox for managing your music and ripping CDs to MP3 or WMA files. If you have existing MP3s, you simply point the Philips Media Manager to a designated folder on your hard drive, and your music is automatically loaded into the program. The MP3Run supports playback of MP3 and WMA files, though not protected WMA files from download services such as Napster. The firmware is upgradable, however, so additional file formats will most likely be supported in the future.
If there's a downside to the player, it's that it doesn't play quite loud enough. Sound quality was generally good through the included earbud-style "sport" headphones, which fit securely and comfortably thanks to the ear-wrap-armature design. But in noisier environments, we definitely had an urge to crank up the volume -- and couldn't. Compared to the volume of the Rio Cali we usually run with, the MP3Run's just wasn't up to par.
Another small annoyance worth mentioning is that when the Bluetooth module is in use, the sound hiccups from time to time. We're not sure why this was, but every once in a while, the player would briefly go silent, then continue playing.
Even with these deficiencies, the MP3Run's pluses outweigh its minuses. Rounding out the feature set are an FM radio with 10 presets and a built-in strobe light. The player ships with a rechargeable but not removable lithium-ion battery and a charger, as well as an armband. The player's battery life is rated at up to 12 hours, though we came in at a bit less than 11. The wireless speed-and-distance sensor (that is, the Bluetooth module), which houses a separate AAA battery, has enough juice for up to 40 hours of runs.
To sum up, the MP3Run, like most first-of-their kind products, isn't perfect. Aside from the volume issue, the player is currently designed for only a single user to track his or her times in Nike's training log. It would be nice if multiple users could share the device, especially since it's rather pricey. Serious runners we talked to also would like to see a future MP3Run with a built-in heart-rate monitor.
That said, we really liked knowing at any given moment exactly how far we'd run and at what pace. If you're goal oriented, the MP3Run will definitely give you that little push you need to improve your performance. It may even encourage you to run more. That alone makes it worth recommending to anyone who can afford it.
Edited by: Jasmine France
Additional Editing by: Chris Stevens