1. For many potential buyers of portable digital-music players, the question is simple: iPod or not. Apple is the popular leader in design, ease of use, and so on. iPods play MP3 files (as do all other players), but its own format is AAC, and copyright-protected iMusic downloads play only on iPods and HP iPods. Most other players play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, which are becoming popular choices for virtually all download services except iMusic. But no one player supports all three formats—MP3, WMA, and AAC.
2. Students (also journalists, doctors, and businesspeople) should look for a hard-disk portable player that also records audio. Get one that records in MP3 format, not WAV, or you'll use up the disk very quickly. A hard-disk player also can provide transportation and/or temporary backup for data files.
3. With portable-music-player prices so low (and going lower), you may want to think about buying two: a simple, inexpensive Flash-based player that you can load with a couple of hours' worth of music in just a few moments via a USB connection, and a hard-disk-based player with gigabytes of memory, for longer trips.
4. If you use Windows Media Player, WMP10 is a big step up—especially in its ability to sync with 70-plus+ music players without the need to install software drivers.
5. Headphone quality varies greatly, and the best music player sounds terrible if the headphones it came with are inferior. If yours aren't making the grade—or if they get stuck in a revolving door at Macy's—we'd strongly recommend upgrading to a high-end set of phones.
6. When buying a PC speaker system, don't choose by wattage alone: Amplifier power is only one of many factors that determine a system's ability to shake the floor. It's common for systems with smaller amplifiers to play louder and have more bass than higher-powered units.
7. If your PC's sound card offers multi-channel analog line-out jacks (and most do), don't spend extra money on a speaker system with digital inputs and a Dolby Digital decoder. You can connect multi-channel speakers directly to your computer's analog audio outputs with virtually no difference in sound quality.
8. Most people should consider buying 4-, 5.1-, 6.1-, or 7.1-channel speakers only for multi-channel source material, such as game soundtracks and DVDs. If you primarily listen to stereo CDs and MP3s, a two-channel system will sound almost as good and will cost a heck of a lot less.
9. Size isn't everything, but it's not nothing either. Many of the best-sounding PC speakers are actually repurposed bookshelf models that consume an inordinate amount of space on your desk. If you're unwilling to settle for a small-footprint desktop model that may not sound quite as good, consider a bookshelf-sized offering that can be wall-mounted.
10. A convenient way add to your digital music collection is to purchase from a download service; iTunes, MusicMatch, Napster, Real Store, and MSN are the big players, offering much of the same music. One important way in which they differ, though, is in music formats: Make sure that the service you buy from provides music in a format that your portable player supports.