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.
The Rio Carbon Pearl plays MP3s and WMA (including DRM-protected WMAs), as well as Audible files for virtual bookworms. Unlike the larger and more complicated Rio Karma, it does not support OGG or FLAC. Complete with a mic-level meter, the Carbon is also a handy voice recorder that captures audio as WAV files through its decent microphone. It's also an ideal way to store and carry essential data files.
The Carbon's strength is its simplicity -- it's a player for those who just want to listen to music. Part of this strength is derived from the clean, mature onscreen interface. The main menu includes: Play Music, Bookmarks, Settings, Voice Recorder, Recordings and Stopwatch. Diving into menu folders is an in-and-out affair, but the interface transitions are quick and tidy. Selecting the Play Music category takes you to a wealth of options, including Play All, Album, Artist, Genre, Track, Year, New Music, Playlist, Spoken Word and Recordings.
Menu highlights include a five-band custom equaliser, simple voice recording and a nifty bookmarking feature that not only takes you instantly back to the same place in a song, but also remembers the player's settings. In fact, you can easily bookmark songs by pressing and holding the Select button and choosing one of nine bookmark spaces.
There's lots of motion onscreen, with scrolling song info, a track-position bar and time elapsed. It's very tranquil, especially with the soothing backlighting turned on, then slowly fading to off. There's also a View mode that displays bit rate, codec, copyright protection and size, as well as the always handy date and time. The Carbon even has a customisable Lock setting, meaning you can program some functions -- such as volume -- to work even when the software hold function is on.
Software and drivers aren't an issue. Rio supplies its own much-improved Rio Music Manager, but the Carbon is also compatible with Windows Media Player 10.0 and Apple iTunes, although the latter requires a plug-in. And it works with any of the music services that rely on WMA, such as Napster or MSN Music. The Carbon takes advantage of the latest technology to deliver a better user experience. It can autosync with Windows Media Player 10.0 and Rio Music Manager, a useful feature if you have more than 5GB of music. It will eventually support Microsoft's new digital rights management protocol (often referred to as Janus) that lets you transfer and play subscription-based music in addition to purchased tracks. This last feature didn't make it into the box; instead, it will be available as a free flash upgrade, although we've been waiting for months.
The Rio Carbon isn't perfect, however -- it's missing several features found on larger players. There's no FM tuner, no line-in recording and no hardware hold button. The interface has a few quirks too. Most notably, there's no way to create a playlist while on the go, an especially important feature on high-capacity players such as the Carbon. During testing, we also found that if you use the jog wheel when selecting menu options, you'll get kicked out of the menu and back into Player mode -- a minor annoyance when you're surfing the menus.
One of the Rio Carbon Pearl's strongest selling points is its battery life. In our tests, it lasted slightly more than 20 hours, an excellent performance. The Carbon Pearl's lithium-ion battery is charged via USB.
Sound quality also rates very highly, with punchy, hiss-free sound. The Carbon could be louder, as we were only able to crank it up using the custom equaliser. While the included earbuds are termed 'high quality', the Carbon deserves to be listened to on bigger headphones. Transfer time over USB 2.0 was a solid 3.2MB per second.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
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(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Nick Hide