The Rio Sport is aimed squarely at those of you with gym memberships. To the uninitiated it looks almost exactly like a stopwatch -- its circular face and rubber grips are borrowed from the lowly timekeeping device.
Unlike hard-disk based players, the Rio uses flash memory to store digital music -- there are no moving parts. In theory this means you're less likely to damage the player if you drop or thump it during a work out. In practise, you'd have to subject most hard-drive players to a really extreme jolt before they skipped or scratched. The difference between the two types of player is actually more to do with size and battery life -- flash based players are typically much smaller and play for longer before a recharge.
The £80 Rio Forge Sport stores around 120 MP3 songs in WMA or MP3 formats. Although the Rio is compatible with many online stores, like most non-Apple players it won't work with iTunes. The Rio also won't play any lossless audio formats.
Finished in a bumper-car blue, the Rio begs to be thrashed about. By way of protection there's plenty of rubber on those parts of the case likely to hit the ground first. There's something vaguely nautical about the chassis design -- the screen is set in a chrome port-hole and the Rio looks temptingly waterproof. Don't be fooled though, it won't be able to handle submersion.
The Rio's screen is protected by a very strong plastic fisheye that resisted our best efforts to flex it. Along the top edge of the player there's volume, power and hold controls -- the volume control is a simple rocker mechanism and the hold control is a slider. On the front of the Rio there's a small joypad for navigating on-screen menus. This is fairly easy to use, but there's a lot of buttons and controls scattered about the Rio -- not ideal for a sports player. It takes the Rio five mechanical buttons to achieve what the iPod does with two.
At roughly the same size as three stacked digestive biscuits, the Rio is small, but not small by the standards of flash-based MP3 players. It’s a podgy, bulbous little fellow -- perhaps you’re supposed to look at it and think: I better go running so I don’t end up like that fat little MP3 player of mine. Most of the space is taken up by the Rio's battery -- it takes one regular AAA. The headphones bundled with the Rio are like the ones you get to watch an in-flight movie. They're comfortable, but no work of art.
Overall, the Rio has a very solid feel -- we thrashed it about on a mountain bike and there's not a mark on it. Our only significant complaint is the utterly pointless cover on the USB port, which we lost within three seconds of opening the box.
The Rio plays MP3s and protected WMA files which you can organise by artist or genre. Tracks are navigated and selected using the small joypad in the Rio's top right-hand corner. Left-handers will find that their thumb obscures much of the screen during single-handed navigation, which could become irritating quite quickly.
We found the Rio could store around 120 average-length MP3s -- exactly what we expected from a 512MB player. The player's LCD is clear, but it's prone to reflections, which makes navigating tracks difficult in bright sunlight. Since you're supposed to be doing some kind of physical activity when using the Rio Sport, you probably won't spend much time looking at the screen anyway.
There's an attractive blue backlight on the Rio's LCD which tastefully matched the colour of our review model. The play controls on the Rio's touchpad illuminate in a sinister red -- making the dial look almost exactly like the eye of a Terminator. This helps enormously when you're looking through tracks in a dark environment -- even if it is reminiscent of Hollywood's most evil killing machine.