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In-Depth Review

Rio’s Cool Cali

After reading all the reviews and stories about Apple's family of music players, you'd think the iPod was the only player worth having. Such thoughts could not be further from the truth. There are a plethora of great music players out there, and anyone looking for something of quality that does not hail from 1 Infinite Loop would do well to look at offerings from Rio. In particular, the 256MB Rio Cali.

What makes the Cali worth a look? Where do we start?

The Physical

The Cali is small and light-weight, yet feels solid in your hands. It sports a very readable backlit LCD display, and controls that are very intuitive. The unit is sheathed in hard plastic with black rubberized areas along one side and around the screen. It accepts one AAA battery, which can power the Cali for up to 18 hours of continuous play. The Cali is also expandable; accepting the Secure Digital (SD) or a MultiMedia Card (MMC) in all available memory denominations.

The Cali comes with a CD for Mac and Windows users, and Windows users make out like bandits with the Cali. They get several applications to help them get music from the Internet and load it up on the Cali. The software also allows Windows users to make and load playlists, a feature unavailable to Mac users.


256MB Rio Cali

Rio geared the Cali for the sports enthusiast, so new owners will find a handy Velcro and elastic armband, and plastic case with a belt clip, and ear-hugging earphones included in the package. We were not excited about the earphones, however, which clip over your ears in order to keep the ear buds secure; we found them bothersome to put on and to keep adjusted. This may not prove to be a problem for you, however.

The Cali also comes pre-loaded with music. Many of the cuts are from new artists, music you won't likely find anywhere else.

Mac user will be happy to find that iTunes will readily recognize the Cali, and allows you to move and manage your music, except those purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store, to the Cali via a USB cable, which is also included in the package.

Downloading songs is not an ordeal with the Cali either; just plug in the Cali, wait for the device to appear in iTunes, then drag over the music you want as if the Cali were a playlist. iTunes treats the Cali's internal memory as area separate from the MMC or SD card you may have installed. This would have been good news if the Cali allowed you to treat the memory card as a separate playlist, but alas, it does not. All of your loaded songs, regardless of where they reside, appear in one long list. Still, the memory cards offers you a convenient way to change the songs you play, which is handy for trips.

The Controls

Along the curvy top of the Cali you'll find the power and button-lock switches. You'll also find an extra large volume control, the size of which we really appreciated, and you will too when you take the Cali out for a jog. The oversized control is easy to find without visually looking for it, so it's easy to adjust the volume without slowing down or stopping your exercise routine entirely.

There is a nearly invisible button above the LCD screen to call up the menu, but one of the first things you'll notice on the front of the Cali is a little red button on the upper right corner; it's a joystick of sorts reminiscent of the mouse button found in the middle of the keyboards on many IBM laptops; we'll call it a thumb-stick. With this red button you have pretty much complete control over the Cali's menus. We found the Cali's thumb-stick, um, a joy to use.

The LCD screen is easy to read in most lighting situations; the backlight comes on when you use any of the controls, and turns off on it own after 5 seconds if you don't touch the volume or thumb-stick.

The Jammin'

The menu offers you four option: Play Music, Tuner, Stopwatch and settings.

You listen to the music you've loaded by using the 'Play Music' menu option. You can choose to play all of the loaded music or selected tracks; you can only search through your music by track name. As mentioned before, Windows users have more option here as they can load playlists and sort though those.

The Cali comes with a built-in FM tuner with 8 station presets. You can set the tuner to manual mode, where you can dial in any station, or use the preset mode, where you can sample each of your preset stations.


Sports Ready

There's also a stopwatch feature, convenient for the sports minded.

The Settings menu option allows you to adjust every aspect of the Cali, from the length of time the backlight stays on to the equalizer settings. There's also a bookmark feature, which will save the current settings so that another person can use the Cali. You can then recall your settings and the Cali will be set just the way you left it. A pretty cool feature.

The Bad News

There are a few nits we have to pick about the Cali, other than the few we picked earlier: First, we didn't like where Rio engineers decided to put the memory card expansion slot. To swap memory cards you have to open the battery cover, then remove the battery to get to the slot. Extremely inconvenient, no matter how you look at it.

We also did not like how the battery cover is designed. There are two relatively long, and easily breakable pieces of plastic on the cover that help lock it in place. One of these pieces on our test unit broke after about 2 weeks of use. Luckily, the cover will stay in place with just one of those plastic tabs, and Rio includes a nice form-fitting case that has a clip so that you can attach your Cali to your belt or to the included armband. The case also helps protect the Cali from rough handling, and will help keep the battery cover on.

The Wrap up

There are many, many flash RAM based MP3 players on the market, each attempts to distinguish itself by offering what the makers believe is the right set of features that will entice you to buy. The Rio Cali's feature set falls into that mythical 'sweet spot' that, taken as a whole, makes it stand out in a very crowded field of contenders. Mac and Windows users looking for a really good flash RAM music player that offers a good set of features at a good price need look no further than Rio's Cali. Windows users will likely get more from this player, but Mac users will find a lot to like about the Cali, too.

Just The Facts

Rio Cali 256MB from Rio Audio

MSRP $179
Street Price: US$126.04 - From Amazon.

Pros:Lightweight, easy to use, recognized by iTunes, expandable memory, come with music and armband

Cons:Battery cover is flimsy, RAM expansion slot under battery, no playlists for Mac users

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