PC Magazine’s audio analyst Mike Kobrin sounds off for us on personal-media technology company PortalPlayer’s attempt to bring WiFi to digital audio players. Read on:By now, most of us have seen the reports of PortalPlayer’s attempt to bring WiFi and Bluetooth to the digital audio player world. Basically, the company has partnered with a chip maker called CSR and claims to have the ability to enable device makers to create an MP3 player with WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities. The reason for this is fairly obvious: You’ll be able to sync files and transmit audio without any wires. Since PortalPlayer chips power most flavors of iPod, various Apple-related sites are abuzz with reports that Apple may come out with a WiFi-enabled iPod by the end of this year. Will it really happen? And will the product satisfy consumers? I’m not so sure.

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One of the main drawbacks of integrating wireless technologies into a device is shorter battery life. Apple isn’t known for having exceptional battery technology, and unless the company has gotten some battery life secrets from a company like Sony, I’m pretty sure that any WiFi capability will suck an MP3 player’s battery dry very quickly. I’m hoping that the power consumption of this WiFi chip will be as efficient as PortalPlayer claims it will be, and that the implementation allows the chip to be active only when it’s in use (unlike some current WiFi-enabled devices, in which the WiFi component is constantly drawing power).Bluetooth, on the other hand, is a far less power-hungry technology, and integrating it in players will let users get rid of those silly Bluetooth dongles. If Apple includes Bluetooth in a future iPod, for example, you’d be able to use products like the Logitech Wireless Headphones for iPod without making your iPod about 25 percent longer, as happens with the current product. Unfortunately, Bluetooth audio is still pretty lousy, especially when compared with WiFi transmission or wired headphones.

Not to mention the agonizingly slow file-transfer speeds that limit Bluetooth’s usefulness as a sync method. But because of Bluetooth’s relatively low power requirements, Apple (or whichever unnamed manufacturer, since PortalPlayer wouldn’t tell us who’s going to get their new technology—wink wink, nudge nudge) may opt to include Bluetooth in upcoming devices and wait until battery technology catches up with WiFi’s needs.Once WiFi is integrated into MP3 players and PMPs, however, it will certainly spawn another segment of the already-huge portable accessory market. iPod accessories alone are expected to be a $1 billion industry this year. I predict that one of the hottest-selling accessories will be the giant battery packs that extend the iPod’s battery life. These will likely be must-haves if WiFi is involved. On the other hand, maybe this is the push Apple needs to start making players with removable batteries.

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