The original Rio Carbon has received generous praise since its launch in August 2004. Despite having a design flaw where the use of many third-party headphones created annoying static (this has since been fixed), the Carbon appeals to those who want a stylish, compact and easy-to-use WMA-compatible player with excellent battery life.
Rio has expanded its Carbon offerings with a 5GB Pearl version, which is a pearly-white clone of the original, priced at around £130. Although it's missing some features found in other players in its class, such as an FM tuner, the Rio Carbon Pearl is one of the best choices if you want a high-capacity player in a small package that is compatible with Windows Media and services that use secure WMAs, such as Napster or MSN Music.
Thanks in part to the iPod Mini's frenzied popularity in early 2004, Digital Networks pulled the plug on its planned 4GB model, the Nitrus. In retrospect, that was a good move, because the juiced-up Rio Carbon is a far better product.
The silver Carbon was the first player on the market to utilise Seagate's 5GB mini hard drive; the white Pearl offers the same capacity. The stylish body measures 64 by 84 by 15mm, weighs 91g, and is similar in shape to the 1.5GB Rio Nitrus. Its smooth, rounded edges and gradually tapering thickness feel at home in the hand, and the player slips invisibly into almost any pocket.
The bottom half of the device has a black, rubberised edge that serves as a shock protector as well as a functional grip, but the rest of the unit is encased in bright and plastic-coated metal that is durable and looks great. The first run of silver Carbons had a design flaw wherein any pair of headphones with a metallic ring around the base of its plug caused a short circuit, resulting in annoying static. Rio has since corrected the problem in newer Carbon models.
Instead of the red, arthritis-causing joystick found on the Nitrus, the Carbon's navigation and playback controller is a four-way pad with a raised Select button in the middle. In addition to this vast improvement, the Carbon features cool, red backlighting behind the buttons and the logo. On the upper-right corner, you'll find an improved selectable jog wheel that controls volume and acts as a secondary menu navigation control. Directly below the wheel is the Menu button. Meanwhile, the Carbon's topside features a headphone jack, a USB port and the power button. Note the absence of a hold switch -- the function is inconveniently buried in the menu.
The final two key characteristics are the 32mm (1.25-inch) backlit display and an integrated microphone designed for recording voice memos. Despite its diminutive size, the sharp, monochrome LCD shows lots of relevant info in a sensible manner. The Carbon's overall design deserves praise for its simplicity, its small size and its recognisable improvements over its Nitrus-based design origins.
In addition to the earbuds, the player ships with a 'premium' carrying case, a power adaptor that connects to the Carbon via an included USB cable, a software disc and a quick-start guide.