Memory cards are the most portable digital storage – solid-state ("flash") memory in a tiny card, easy to plug into a digital camera, mobile phone, or other portable device. These need an adaptor device to connect to a computer, which is why a flash drive is better for computer use – they already come with the USB connector built-in. Today’s cards have expanded beyond MBs to 1 to 2 to 4 GBs.

USB flash ("thumb") drives are little devices to store all your computer files. These act as a removable disk drive so you plug into any computer and then can drag and drop your digital files to take along anywhere you want to go.

Pocket storage drives go beyond flash memory to use tiny hard disks that let you take more of your data anywhere. Today’s popular drives range from 2 to 4 to 8 GBs. Portable USB disk drives are a bit larger to give you lots of storage in your briefcase. Today’s popular drives range from 40 to 80 GB.

MP3 players, portable music players, store lots (but not all) of your songs so you can have them always with you. MP3 is an audio format, the first popular compressed audio format that is now supported by almost all players (iPod and non-iPod), so "MP3 player" is generically any audio player. The iPod is Apple’s brand name for its three-product line of portable players.

Portable media players store and play your music, photos, and even video. Unlike a personal MP3 player, these have larger screens and speakers so you can share your music collections, photo slideshows, and video clips. These are also useful as a portable business presentation device, especially with A/V outputs to display on a television.

iPod Shuffle. Apple’s tiny USB "lipstick" music player. It does not have a display, so it’s designed to randomly "shuffle" your music instead of having you choose what music to listen to. iPod Nano. Apple’s next larger player, with more memory (2 and 4 GB), but still incredibly thin and light. Adds a color display for photos, but no video.

The new video iPod. Apple’s new top-of-the-line iPod, with hard disk storage (30 and 60 GB). The first iPod that plays video.

There is no easy answer to guessing what kind of player someone else wants. It’s a series of trade-offs between size and features, music-only or photos and video, small or large music collection.

Taking it With You

Start with some media clips on your computer, and then copy them to a portable player so you can view them on the go. The clips on your computer may be music that you have ripped from a CD or purchased from an on-line store, or photos that you have uploaded from your digital camera, or even video clips that you have edited or purchased online.

However, each device only supports certain formats, and even fewer purchased and protected formats. You can play MP3 music almost anywhere, but Windows Media clips do not play on Apple’s iPods, and Apple does not license its iTunes music and video clips to play on any other device than its own iPods.

Software tools like Apple’s iTunes and Microsoft’s Windows Media Player help you with this process so you can organize your music/media collections. You can create playlists of clips that you want to carry on your player, and then sync the clips to the device.

In fact, all these devices (storage devices and players) connect to your computer through a USB cable, and then appear on your desktop as a removable drive. So you can then just drag and drop any of your files back and forth to the device, which downloads them to the memory on the device, or copies them from the device up to your computer.

For devices that play different kinds of clips, however, again only the files in recognizable formats can be played – all the other files will be ignored (i.e., you can drag a spreadsheet file to your MP3 player to bring along on a trip to give to a friend, but you can’t play it as music).

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