The new multimedia players that can play back music, photos and even video are pretty terrific, but most often I just want to listen to...

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The new multimedia players that can play back music, photos and even video are pretty terrific, but most often I just want to listen to music. So portable music players — especially the little ones — have a secure place in my pocket, and maybe yours, too.

My favorite has been the Apple iPod mini, but now there are other little hard-drive players I’ve heard are worthy competitors, in particular, the Creative Zen Micro and the Rio Carbon.

Naturally, I have to try them.

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When the Zen Micro arrives, I open the box and pull out a bright, lime-green player that’s a little smaller than the iPod mini and fits perfectly in my hand. My preteen sees it, too, her eyes glowing as she reaches for it, exclaiming, “That’s so cool!”

Indeed, the Creative Zen Micro is the first portable music player I’ve seen that offers a viable alternative to the iPod’s classy style.

Both players are priced at around $250, yet there are differences.

For example, the Zen Micro has 5 gigabytes of storage, compared with the iPod mini’s 4 GB. With 5 GB onboard, the Micro reportedly can hold 2,500 songs stored in Windows Media Audio format at 64 kilobits per second. However, saving music at 128 to 196 Kbps provides better-quality sound, and the player still can hold more songs than are in my entire digital music library.

Their batteries are also different. Creative has listened to customer complaints about rechargeable batteries that run down too fast, and it built this player with a swap-out rechargeable, so the user can switch it with a spare and never run out of music. A battery costs $40, compared with more than $100 to replace the iPod’s built-in, nonswap battery.

The Zen Micro comes in 10 colors, has a vertical scroll pad, voice recorder and an FM tuner with recorder. Windows PC users can sync their Microsoft Outlook calendar, contact list and To Do list to the Zen Micro.

Help from Web site

Three hours later, when the battery’s fully charged, I install Creative’s organizing software, import music to it from my PC, and then transfer that music to the player. When the songs are on the Micro, I try to play them, but the message “playback error” pops up on the screen for every song. I delete the songs and try another method of transferring them, but the same error message reappears.

The user manual is very brief and not very helpful (like most user guides for players that I’ve seen). I go to Creative’s Web site (www.creative.com), and under support for the Zen Micro discover I can download a firmware update that will install Windows Plays for Sure. This will enable me to auto-sync all my songs and playlists from Windows Media Player 10 to the Zen.

I download the firmware with Plays for Sure, transfer my music using auto-sync, and everything works fine. (Plays for Sure is installed on all new Zen Micros now, so there’s no need to download it.) The Zen’s sound quality is excellent, the screen text is clear, and the player controls work well.

The iPod mini, by comparison, easily auto-syncs with iTunes, has a slightly larger display screen with crisp text, and its player controls also work well.

Trying out the Rio

Another mini hard-drive player that’s worth a close look is the Rio Carbon. This sleek little silver-and-black player is about the same size as the Zen Micro. I wouldn’t say the Carbon is cool looking; instead, I’d call it quietly sophisticated.

The Carbon costs $250, has 5 GB of storage, offers voice recording, and works with both PCs and Macs. There is a Macintosh downloadable plug-in that reportedly enables the Carbon to work with Apple iTunes software.

This player has a rechargeable battery with up to 20 hours of continuous play between charges, or a few hours less for normal use of an hour or so a day.

I’m happy to discover the Carbon already supports Plays for Sure. So, instead of installing Rio’s proprietary software, I open Windows Media Player 10 on my PC, connect the Carbon, and a screen message asks if I want to auto-sync the songs and playlists from Windows Media to the player. I answer yes.

A few minutes later, all my music is on the Carbon and it’s set to go.

The sound quality is excellent; the controls are convenient and easy to use. Rather than a scrolling wheel (iPod) or touch pad (Zen Micro), there’s a little dial on top that clicks as it adjusts volume or moves between menu choices.

Basic player operations (play, pause, etc.) are controlled by a four-directional clicker on the front.

In sum, all three mini music players are very capable — Mac owners can pick the iPod mini or the Rio Carbon, and Windows PC owners can’t go wrong with any of them.

Because they’re nearly equivalents in quality, I recently showed the trio to several people and asked them to hold the players in their hands and then choose a favorite by its look and feel.

Their choices were pretty evenly divided, which means you, too, will have to hold them and pick for yourself.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted