In use the Karma is pretty simple and intuitive – ok the controls aren’t as slick as the scroll wheel on the iPod, but the you do have a choice of either joystick or jog dial control. Like most high capacity MP3 players, the music is sorted in many ways including Album, Artist, Track and Genre. Interestingly, the Karma will also sort all your music into years, so if you fancy a bit of an 80s session, you can easily select tracks only from that era. Of course you can create your own playlists, either via the Rio Music Manager software or on the Karma itself.
Sound quality was excellent from MP3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis file formats. Of course the quality of the sound from any digital audio player is dependant on the quality of the files you’re playing back. I was pleased to see support for Ogg Vorbis, since this is becoming a more popular file format, and does generally sound better than both MP3 and WMA. Unfortunately I had to judge the sound quality through Sony and Philips headphones, since I wasn’t sent the Karma headphones with the review sample. However, you are supposed to get a set of Sennheiser ear buds, which should sound pretty good. There’s a five-band graphic equaliser so you can tailor the sound of the music to your own tastes. If you don’t want to mess about with the graphic equaliser you can just adjust the bass and treble, or even select one of the many preset equaliser settings.
There’s not much in the way of extras, but you do get a stopwatch application and the Rio Taxi utility that lets you use the Karma as a removable hard disk. There’s a setting to switch the Karma to left handed operation – this flips the display upside down although I’m not sure how this makes things easier for a left handed user. To test this I gave the Karma to my Product New Editor, Benny, who is left handed and he was just as confused as I was by this feature. Having the display upside down also makes controlling the Karma when it’s in the cradle a bit of an adventure.
With a 20GB capacity there’s a decent amount of room in the Rio Karma for all of your music. Rio states that you can fit 10,000 songs on the Karma using WMA and 5,000 using MP3 – the latter is the same quote that Apple gives for its 20GB iPod. The Lithium-Ion battery will give you 15 hours of play time, which is almost twice that of the iPod. Of course the recently released 4th generation iPod has a quoted battery life of 12 hours, but I’ll have to wait for a review sample before I can confirm that. Now, you may not think that long battery life is that important if you charge your player every night, but if you’re on a long haul flight to the Far East, the eight hours that the iPod gives you just isn’t enough. I used the Karma for a while in a number of environments. Even in the most hostile environment – sticking the Karma in my pocket and running – it performed flawlessly without pausing or skipping once.
When I connected the Rio Karma up the first time it checked for firmware updates and automatically downloaded the latest version. Using the Rio Music Manager software is pretty simple and it will automatically import all of the music that you have knocking around on your hard disk. Creating playlists is pretty easy although moving tracks around in playlists could be a little more intuitive. Unfortunately you can’t drag and drop tracks within a playlist, and if you try this it will simply create a copy of the file at the end of the playlist. Then if you remove the copied file at the end of the playlist, it will remove the original track as well. It’s somewhat annoying at first, but once you get used to it it’s not too much of a problem.
So, the Rio Karma is a well built 20GB hard disk based digital audio player with some impressive and unique features, but how much does it cost? Surprisingly, the Karma is a bit of a bargain, with www.advancedmp3players.co.uk selling it for only £239 including VAT. With a price like that the Karma is an attractive proposition for anyone looking for a pocket size music library that doesn’t have a piece of fruit embossed on it.
The Rio Karma is a very strong alternative to the iPod. If you’re not obsessed with the undoubtedly stunning styling of the iPod, you’ll find that the Karma has some great features that make it an overall better product.