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Rio Fuse 128MB MP3 player

Nice face, shame about the limited drag-and-drop

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Reg Review Like Creative's MuVo NX, the Rio Fuse is one of the new generation of solid-state MP3 players that plug directly into a host computer's USB port, Flash drive style. There are good reasons for bringing the world of Flash 'keychain' drives and MP3 players together: it allows quick connections and the easy transfer of files - just drag and drop. It also provides immediate cross-platform support, since there's no need to write, port or license multiple music jukebox apps, all of which will also need device drivers.

That's the theory, at least. And while that's the approach Creative has taken, Rio owner Digital Networks has bizarrely decided the Fuse should work the way other MP3 players do. Essentially, it's selling the Fuse as a player that doesn't need any cables rather than touting its Flash drive capabilities.

Like the NX, the Fuse is cigarette-lighter size, with a full-size USB connector at one end and a volume control rocker switch at the other. Between them sit Rio's excellent 'Riostick' joystick control, a large LCD and a small button to call up the player's menu system. On top of the device is the power button, control lock switch and headphone socket. On the other side of the Fuse is the battery bay, which holds a single AAA cell.

But for the USB connector, the Fuse's body is nicely symmetrical, and pleasantly styled in a two-tone white-on-black colour scheme. There's a black plastic cap that protects the USB connector when the player isn't plugged into a PC and can be fitted over the other end so it doesn't get lost when you're transferring files over.

Internally, the Fuse provides 128MB of raw storage capacity, but over 4MB of that is taken up by formatting and system data, leaving enough space for just over two hours of 128Kbps MP3s.

Sound quality

The Fuse uses essentially the same internal workings as its stablemate, the Rio Chiba, which we reviewed last week. That's both good and bad. For starters, the sound is pretty good, and the Sennheiser MX300 earbuds Digital Networks bundles with both the Fuse and the Chiba are rather better than the more tinny jobs often bundled with less well-known brands of player. You also get 18 hours' MP3 playback time per battery, less if you play a lot of WMA files.

The downside is that the Fuse's audio is affected by the same power on/off noise that the Chiba suffers from, and the same heartbeat-like pops when the volume is turned up loud and the controls are pressed. As we noted before, none of this noise interferes with the music, but that's no excuse for not designing them out of either player, and Digital Networks needs to address this problem urgently.

The Fuse shares the Chiba's impressive, vertically stacked menu system that effectively works the way computer pull-down menus do. The joystick control allows you to access the menu options and operate the player one-handed. The Fuse's screen is smaller than the Chiba's, providing the same player status, track playback progress bar and track timing info, but cutting the ID3 tag data displayed from three lines (song name, artist and album title) to one showing just the track name and artist.

The Fuse has no radio, but does provide an equaliser with five pre-sets and a simple bass and treble booster/reducer. Each of these settings is made by moving a slider on the screen from -14dB to +14dB. Pressing down on the joystick applies the settings; hitting the menu button cancels what you've done.

The joystick also controls playback: nudge it up for play/pause, down for stop. Push right or left to skip tracks - keep the stick pressed and you fast-forward/rewind (albeit silently). Skipping through tracks is fast and feels much more responsive than performing the same action with the jog-dials used by the MuVo NX and other players.

In addition to the earbuds, Digital Networks also provides a battery and a pair of software CDs, one containing iTunes for Mac users, the other with its own Windows jukebox program. We're not so bothered that the Fuse doesn't ship with a belt clip - it fits nicely enough in any pocket - but the lack of a USB extension cable was a disappointing omission. Yes, Digital Networks is selling the player as a cable-free device, but if, like us, you're a notebook user and you have other USB peripherals connected, you may the player is too fat to be plugged in directly.

More irritating is the fact you can't actually use the Fuse as a Flash drive. Digital Networks promises drag and drop track loading with Windows XP, and presumably you can copy over other files this way too. But on other versions of the Microsoft OS, and Mac OS X, you can only add tracks through Rio Manager or iTunes. It also effectively rules out Linux users as Fuse customers.

One of the reasons we like the MuVo NX is the freedom it allows us to quickly copy over a bunch of tracks without having to fire up a jukebox application first. It's a shame that the Fuse - in every other respect, an ideal Flash drive-MP3 player hybrid - doesn't work this way on all platforms too.

Verdict

Despite these annoyances, the Fuse was a joy to use. Its superb control system made applying new system settings easy and quick, and track navigation no less rapid and responsive. The display is a good size, giving you more information than the MuVo NX provides and without forcing you to squint. Thanks to the big volume control, its simple to adjust the playback level when you're out and about without taking the Fuse out of your pocket, unlike the Chiba.

Only the unforgivable but thankfully unobtrusive noises stop us rating the Fuse more highly - that and the lack of cross-platform drag-and-drop file transfer. We'd like to see a higher capacity version, particularly since the player doesn't have a memory card slot for more. It's not the cheapest 128MB MP3 player around, but it is one of the better looking around - it's more 'street' than the MuVo and less expensive too. ®

Digital Networks Rio Fuse
Rating 75%
Pros — Superb joystick control system
— Good price
— Stylish looks
Cons — Background noise at high volumes
— No USB extension cable
— Drag and drop file transfer only with Windows XP
Price $130
More info The Rio Fuse web site

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