Play a Card

Everyone knows there's a fine line between brave and foolhardy; the trick is to know when you've crossed it.

Sometimes the distinction is obvious. Skiing your first double-diamond slope after a winter of lessons? Brave. Dropping into a Class V rapid when you've never kayaked before? Foolhardy.

How about launching a new hard music format in an era when digital downloads are fast becoming the norm? Before I encountered SanDisk's new slotMusic format, I'd have thought that move foolhardy. Outside the handful of big-name artists you'll find at Wal-Mart or Target, retail outlets for music have practically vanished. And to people of college age or younger, the idea of buying music on a hard format is as foreign as the idea of getting up to change the channel on the TV.

But when you consider SanDisk's strategy, slotMusic starts to make sense. The format uses microSD flash memory cards - a product SanDisk sells by the zillions. So with slotMusic, SanDisk can sell you not only the music and the player as Apple does, but also the microSD cards. Take that, Steve Jobs!

That's all great for SanDisk, but what's in it for you? A lot, actually.

UPSIDES, DOWNSIDES

First off, slotMusic delivers music in higher fidelity than most download services. SanDisk has set the minimum data rate for the MP3 files on the card at 256 kbps, and typically the data rate is 320 kbps. Compare this with 160 kbps for the MP3 files available through Apple's iTunes, or the 256 kbps maximum data rate of the MP3s on Amazon.com. (Download services such as Music Giants and HDtracks do offer music at CD quality or better, though.)

Second, the files are free of digital rights management - something that's not true of the files available through most download services. You can copy slotMusic files from device to device at will. In fact, each slotMusic title comes with a tiny microSD-to-USB adapter that makes it easy to transfer the MP3 files to your computer.

Third, the record company can put extras, such as video clips, still images, extended liner notes, etc. on the microSD card.

Fourth, you're getting a memory card in the deal. You can add more music (typically slotMusic cards are only half full), or - if you decide you don't like the music you bought - erase the card entirely and reuse it. Try that with a CD.

Fifth, you can play slotMusic on most of the millions of cell phones that accept microSD cards.

Sixth, you're buying hard media, so you don't have to worry that you'll lose all your files if your computer's hard drive crashes.

Seventh - and this is the one SanDisk pushes hardest - no computer's necessary to enjoy slotMusic. All you need is one of SanDisk's $19.99 slotMusic players. Shove the card in the player and it just plays.

Of course, slotMusic has its downsides, too.

Each title costs $14.99, compared with $9.99 to download an entire album through iTunes. And you can't buy single songs, just full albums.

Plus, at press time, only 38 titles were available. You've got to give SanDisk credit for getting EMI, Sony/BMG, Universal, and Warner Music on board, but they're going to need 100 times as many titles before they have a real format on their hands. SanDisk won't provide specific information about future releases, but claims it will have many more offerings available by holiday season, and that some slotMusic releases will be "day and date" with the CD releases.

And finally, when you carry the slotMusic player with you, you also have to carry around a bunch of slotMusic cards. An MP3 player with onboard storage holds hundreds or thousands of songs, no cards required.

So there are plenty of compelling reasons to buy slotMusic - and some compelling reasons not to. Only a hands-on trial could get me off the fence.

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