Gadget Rewind 2004: Rio Carbon

Before the Rio Carbon arrived to take on Apple's iPod juggernaut in 2004, there was Diamond Multimedia's first stab at the digital music market: the Rio PMP300, a portable music player released in 1998. Since it was one of the first portable MP3 players ever to be sold, Diamond ended up embroiled in a fight for the future of the format. The PMP300's ability to play digital music files downloaded from a computer led to a groundbreaking legal battle with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA challenged the company in court, claiming that its use of digital music files was copyright infringement, but Diamond won out and cleared the way for a new wave of portable music players (PMPs) to hit the market.

In the years that followed, Diamond Multimedia released over a dozen portable players. But it was 2004's sleek Rio Carbon that caught consumers' attention, a device praised by many reviewers for its superior audio quality. The timing of its commercial release also positioned it as a head-to-head competitor to Apple's iPod mini. The Carbon offered a 5GB hard drive where the iPod mini only had 4GB, and its chrome, pebble-like body matched Apple's tiny player for size -- even weighing slightly less. The Carbon was remarkably smudge-resistant and its 20-hour battery life trounced the iPod mini's meager 8-hour span. It even featured USB charging, which was far more convenient than Apple's reliance on proprietary cables. It was this attention to detail that made the Rio Carbon such an attractive alternative for consumers and earned it many lifelong fans.

It wasn't just the hardware that drew customers to the Rio Carbon; it had some compelling software chops as well. The Carbon stood out from the PMP pack by offering users the ability to bookmark audio and record digital voice memos. It was also compatible with Windows Media DRM 10.0, a digital rights-management solution that allowed users to store and play songs from subscription services like Napster to Go and Rhapsody to Go. The Carbon also offered users an open ecosystem, giving them the freedom to sync and manage files from Windows Media Player 10, iTunes, MSN Music and several others.

Although the Rio Carbon was a solid effort from a small, enthusiastic company in the PMP space, it ultimately failed to stave off the inevitable market crush from Apple's iPod. And by 2005, just one year past the Carbon's introduction, the brand shuttered. Even Microsoft, a company with the vast resources to take on Apple, struggled to succeed with its now scrapped Zune digital audio player. In the end, Apple's iPod surfaced as the undisputed king of the portable music player hill, a title it's now ceded to the multitasking machines our smartphones have become today.

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