First came the portable music player. Later, Sony's Walkman hit the U.S., changing the way we listen to music. Then came the cellphone. Is it good to combine them?

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First came the portable music player, and it was good. In 1980, Sony’s Walkman hit the U.S., changing the way we listen to music.

Then came the cellphone, and it was also good. In 1983, the first commercial cellphone service in the country was offered by Ameritech in Chicago, changing the way we communicate.

But is it good to combine the two?

In the name of convergence — the effort to combine as many functions as possible into a single handheld gadget — some cellphones that already do e-mail, take pictures and play video clips now sport music players. Palm put one in its Treo 650 that came out in 2004, and Sony Ericsson put an official Walkman phone on the market this year.

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Most notably, Motorola this month debuted its Rokr E1 phone designed to play music downloaded from Apple Computer’s hugely popular iTunes organizer. The phone, which is being sold through Cingular Wireless, stores up to 100 songs.

Although it’s clearly a good idea to limit the number of devices we carry, convergence often has downsides. Phones loaded up with features get bigger, and the individual components lose much of their ease of use.

Sometimes it works out well — for many people, an onboard digital camera has become a practically essential part of a mobile phone. But can music players and cellphones play nicely together?

Comparing notes


One of the latest trends in handheld gadget convergence is to include a music player on a cellphone. The Motorola Rokr phone, which debuted this month, uses the popular iTunes program to organize and transfer music to the handset. It poses a challenge to the Palm Treo 650, a cellphone released last year.

Motorola Rokr E1

Price: $250 if purchased with cell calling plan.

Extras needed for music: None.

Pros: Music transfers seamlessly with iTunes computer software; the onboard interface is easy to use; music pauses when call is made or received.

Cons: Low internal storage capacity, no Internet radio or music subscription capability.

Palm Treo 650

Price: $300 if purchased with cell calling plan.

Extras needed for music: SD card, card reader, earphones, Pocket Tunes software for music subscription and Internet radio use.

Pros: Can play music subscription selections and Internet radio.

Cons: Difficult to transfer music, interface not intuitive, several additional costs and fees, numerous technical glitches.

Sources: Motorola, Palm company reports, Los Angeles Times

To test that combination, I tried out the music functions on the Treo 650 and the Rokr.

Qwerty keyboard

The Treo 650 will run you about $300 if bought with a cellphone calling plan, or $649 direct from Palm. The 650 is loaded with features, but unfortunately its MP3 music player seems to have been an afterthought. After all, this phone is best known for having a full qwerty keyboard for typing e-mails and text messages and making entries into Palm’s famed digital address book and calendar programs.

The Treo player, which is PC-compatible only, does have several interesting capabilities, including the ability to access Internet radio and selections from music-subscription services (both of which require a software upgrade). But that’s just about the last good thing I can say about how it handles music. Although the possibilities are alluring, actually using these functions can be excruciating.

Transferring tunes

To start, transferring the tunes from computer to phone involves several steps. And the music must be in the MP3 format for this purpose — the commonly used WMA or AAC formats won’t work. So you may have to convert your songs to MP3 first.

Then, to transfer them to the 650, you’ll need to buy an SD expansion card (about $25 and up) that slips into the phone and an SD card reader (about $20) for your computer if it doesn’t already have one.

When you finally complete the transfer, you’ll be stuck with an interface on the Treo — a simplified version of RealNetworks’s RealPlayer — that is far less capable than those on state-of-the-art music players. For one thing, it plays only songs ripped from your CD collection, not music purchased online.

There’s alternative software called Pocket Tunes ($34.95 from www.pocket-tunes.com) but it’s not much better. You can, however, use it to play songs purchased online — as long as they include Windows Digital Rights Management licenses, which leaves out anything bought from iTunes. You can also tune into the thousands of privately run Internet radio stations on the Shoutcast service, although you’ll need a cellphone data plan.

I ran into constant problems while using the Treo for music: frequent freezes and other technical maladies. A real shame, considering the possibilities.

Rokr’s easy to use

The Rokr — about $250 if it’s bought with cellphone calling plan — is quite a different experience. It is a gigantic leap forward in ease of use compared to the Treo and requires no extra equipment or software to buy. All you need on your computer is the iTunes software, which is free.

The Rokr comes with internal flash memory that stores about five CDs’ worth of music. Transfers from iTunes to the phone are quite simple. You simply plug the phone into your computer using the provided USB cable, and the phone shows up as an icon on the iTunes screen. You drag your selections or whole playlists of songs onto the icon, and your work is done.

Songs burned from your CDs, as well as those purchased via iTunes for 99 cents a selection, will transfer. But not music purchased via other Internet download or subscription services.

Because Rokr was designed with music in mind, managing it via the phone’s screen is a pleasure. You can’t select and view songs as intuitively as with the iPod’s famed click wheel, but after a brief learning curve, using the phone keys for this purpose becomes near second nature.

Built into the phone are a pair of stereo speakers that don’t sound bad considering the size of the phone (which is more compact than the Treo, although the Rokr does not have a keyboard). They’re adequate for when you want to listen to music without headphones and don’t mind the diminished fidelity.

One big drawback to the Rokr is capacity. We’ve become spoiled by portable music players on which we can organize whole collections of CDs. The Rokr’s roughly 400-minute limit is a pittance compared to the lowest-level iPod with a screen — a Nano model that holds 2,000 minutes.

Tiny Nano

The Nano, also introduced this month, is incredibly small, weighing just 1.5 ounces, which raises the question: Why not just buy a regular cellphone and an MP3 player?

Right now, the iPods and several other brands of music players are so small and good at what they do that it’s difficult to understand why most people would find it bothersome to carry them around as separate devices. It might be cheaper in going combo, but only a little because you can get a great, nonmusic-playing cellphone these days for $50 or less.

True convergence will occur only when the attributes of a cellphone are more integrated with a player — for example, getting Internet radio and music-subscription selections but without the current Treo hassles.

And there is another obvious convergence function that is lacking in MP3 cellphones: the ability to download songs directly over the cellphone network.

But I see a downside there — primarily for my bank account. That sort of convergence should come with a mandatory self-help program.