Digital music is the toy of the moment, and while the ubiquitous iPod dominates the market, there are alternatives out there. Digit rounded up some of Apple’s competitors.

The iPod has now established itself as a cultural icon. It’s won more awards than Blur, sociologists write papers about it, and consumers can’t stop raving about it. But there are other digital music players available, and manufacturers other than Apple are hoping to get in on the digital music scene. We checked out a few products that should keep the iPod on its toes.

Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra
£297 plus VAT
Eric Dahl

Creative Labs‘ 60GB Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra is the flagship model in the company's line of hard-drive-based MP3 players. It may look a bit like an old-school Sony Walkman, but at a cost of just under $7 per gigabyte, it's one of the best values among portable MP3 players. A 20GB iPod goes for a similar price but offers one-third the storage.

The Zen Xtra's best asset is a powerful interface for building playlists on the device. As you browse through the Xtra's music library, you can add any artist, album, individual track, or playlist to a queue called Selected Music. Once you've added tunes to Selected Music, you can scroll to any track in that list and play it, move it around, or remove it from the queue. Selected Music recognizes albums, artists, and playlists. Albums, for example, show up in the list as albums, not just a list of tracks. That way, if you've added 15 albums to Selected Music, you can collapse the list to show just the album titles (thereby saving scrolling time) or expand it so you can find specific tracks easily.

The Zen sounds great as well – once you ditch the chintzy earbud headphones included with the package. Creative's EAX audio processing lets you apply a number of effects to your music, including custom and preset equalizer settings.

Creative has made a couple of changes to the side-mounted controls found on the original Nomad Zen. A helpful back button was added, but the original scroll wheel has been replaced with a jog dial that's a lot harder to use. Pushing the jog dial in to select something is particularly unreliable, to the point where you almost always need to consult the Xtra's bright, seven-line LCD display to figure out what you're doing.

Though the included carrying case leaves the side-mounted controls accessible, it covers the LCD display. That would be fine if the jog dial control were easier to use. To see what you're doing as you scroll through tracks on a playlist, you have to flip the case open as if you were flashing an FBI badge. A clear, plastic window on the case would have made all the difference.

If you don't mind its above-average size, the Zen Xtra offers an outstanding playlist interface and almost three times the capacity of other MP3 players in the same price range.

Rio Karma
£238 plus VAT
By Tom Mainelli

While most vendors rush to cram more stuff into their hard-drive-based MP3 players--from FM receivers and transmitters to voice recorders and miscellaneous digital inputs-- Rio Audio Inc. takes a different tack with its Karma. The device comes with a handsome cradle that lets you skip the chore of constantly reconnecting the USB 2.0 and AC adapter cables to the player. The cradle's ethernet port allows you to add the device to a network, assign it an IP address, and move its files to and from your LAN. The cradle also has dual RCA ports so you can connect it directly to your component-style stereo system.

The Karma certainly won't beat Apple Computer Inc.'s Ipod in any beauty contests, but the somewhat squat-looking device fits well in your hand, and its manageable dimensions and weight (3 inches high by 2.7 inches wide by 1.1 inches deep and 5.5 ounces) make it relatively easy to pocket. An intuitive scroll wheel, Riostick mini-joystick , and menu key on the right side make accessing the unit's contents easy, even when you're on the move (and southpaws can flip the screen orientation).

Our biggest criticism of the unit's exterior involves the plastic faceplate's tendency to scratch. After a few days of light use, we had marked up the unit noticeably--a situation not helped by Rio's decision to forgo a case in favor of a silly cloth pouch that resembles a sock with a drawstring.

Transferring files to the Karma requires one of two programs: the bundled Rio Music Manager 2 or Real Network's free downloadable RealPlayer. We used Music Manager and found the process of moving nearly 18GB of MP3s onto the Karma relatively painless and speedy. The software can also rip and encode CDs into all of the Karma's supported codecs, including Windows Media, Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC), and the geek-savvy Ogg Vorbis (MP3 encoding requires a free download from the Rio Web site that should be available by the time you read this). The software bundle also includes Rio Taxi, which lets you transfer data files to and from the player.

Beyond its sound quality (rated at an impressive signal-to-noise ratio of 95 dB) the Karma's greatest strengths are its clear display and comfortable interface, which make it easy to search for music by artist, album, track, playlist, genre, or year. A feature of particular note is the Rio DJ, an immensely enjoyable tool that automatically generates playlists based on parameters you set, such as your most recently added tracks, songs you've had in heavy rotation, or even stuff you've forgotten about. Other interesting features include the ability to create and save your own custom playlists--mixing and matching your favorite tunes--away from your PC, an equalizer with numerous presets, and a programmable cross fader.

Music sounded crisp, clear, and plenty loud through the included Sennheiser MX300 earbuds, which are a small step above what vendors usually include with players. Similarly, the Karma's rechargeable battery was a notch more powerful than the norm: One charge lasted for more than 14 hours of continuous playback in our tests.

Upshot: Unique features like Rio DJ, the ethernet connector, and support for multiple codecs--plus excellent sound quality and battery life--compensate for this attractively priced unit's shortcomings (such as no FM receiver, remote, or case).

Archos Gmini 220
£238 plus VAT
By Alexandra Krasne

Archos' black, 20GB Gmini 220 does everything a typical hard-drive audio player can do and more. It's one of the few models we've seen that has a slot for Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, plus a 2.5-inch, blue-backlit, greyscale screen that lets you view JPEG images. Though the screen makes music titles easy to read, it isn't the best canvas on which to view photos, but it’s good enough for taking a quick look at what's on your flash card. It's easy to save images onto the player from a CompactFlash card, so if your digital camera supports CompactFlash media, this might be a handy way to store images.

To transfer tunes to the Gmini, simply connect the cable from the unit's USB 2.0 port to your PC, and Windows 2000 or XP will immediately recognize it as a USB mass storage device and assign it a drive letter. You can then drag-&-drop tracks to the player. In our tests, the player transferred files quickly – 92.9MB worth of tunes from the local hard drive to the player in just 10 seconds. Though you don't need software to transfer music, the player comes with MusicMatch Plus software for cataloging your music. The player's interface lets you perform such operations as creating and saving playlists, editing tracks, deleting or renaming tracks on the player, and creating folders.

One gripe we have with the Gmini is its power button. To get it to respond, we had to dig into it with a fingernail. Some of the setup options are unintuitive – for example, to get to the contrast settings, you need to drill down into the Power menu. Some of the buttons are rather small, which made simultaneously walking and adjusting the controls a bit of a challenge.

The included Sennheiser earbuds were acceptable, but left us craving the clarity of a more expensive set of headphones. The player's volume goes loud, but not stun-a-teenager loud.

Using the device's stereo analog line-in and line-out jacks, you can connect the Gmini directly to your stereo system and encode CDs from it. An optional FM remote control lets you listen to FM stereo and record FM broadcasts straight to MP3 format. The Gmini has a clear, built-in microphone for voice recording, and Archos offers an optional external microphone for better sound.

The Gmini 220 provides handy image viewing and decent sound, but it could do with better controls.

Creative Muvo2
£237 plus VAT
By Alexandra Krasne

Creative Labs’ Muvo2 is the smallest 4GB hard-drive-based player we've reviewed so far, but the iPod Mini might beat the Muvo2 for size when it’s released in April. Basing this player on a 4GB Hitachi Microdrive enabled Creative to shrink the Muvo2 to a mere 2.6-x-2.6-x-0.8 inches and 3.2 ounces.

At £327, the unit costs less than a 4GB Microdrive card does on its own. According to a few Web sites such as Gizmodo, people are reportedly buying Muvo2 devices and taking them apart to get at the Microdrive card. Note that doing so would certainly void the warranty and possibly damage the player or the card.

You can load your favourite music effortlessly. Use the bundled 3-inch-long USB cable to connect your PC to the Muvo2's USB 2.0 port, and the Muvo2 is immediately recognized as a USB mass storage device. Then drag-&-drop music and files to the player in Windows Explorer. The included cable is fine if your PC has a front-mounted USB port, but it’s a bit short otherwise.

We disliked the Muvo2's file system, or lack thereof. When you power on the player, it starts playing the last track you listened to. The only way to advance to another album or song is to hit the forward button until you find the track you want to hear. There are no folders and no file tree. That arrangement is fine for a flash-based player, but when you have 4GB of music, you're looking at a lot of browsing.

An optional FM Wired Remote is available for the player. The Muvo2 is a tiny hard-drive-based player, and it’s handy if you need a small device (or a Microdrive card). Otherwise, look elsewhere for a better interface.