Hottest trends in MP3 player tech

Another year, another slew of portable audio players in every shade and colour this side of Neptune. But is there anything new in music-on-the-go? As CES draws to a close, there are a few developments of note.

The ever-improving integration of audio playback into mobile phones is one such development. The best example has to be the gorgeous Sony Ericsson W350 Walkman Phone. It looks stunning, is easy to use and can hold up to 470 audio tracks. Music can be synced with your PC wirelessly over Bluetooth.

Gimme all your iLovin'

In terms of sheer volume of product announcements, the winner is - again - the category 'iPod accessories'. There are enough new add-ons for the iPod and iPhone this year to sink Steve Jobs' private yacht. There are all the usual suspects - sports straps, carry bags, custom casings and in-car connectors.

There are also yet more blinking iPod docking stations and iPod-connecting hi-fis too. Polk Audio has got three of them; boxy-looking mini hi-fis with built-in iPod connectors that go by the name of miDock (iDock is presumably taken). Prices range from $120 (£60) to $230 (£120).

JBL, meanwhile, has a new On Stage IIIP iPhone/iPod Loudspeaker Dock with a suggested retail price of £170. Don't laugh: the hi-fi industry was fading away until the iPod - perhaps ironically - brought music to a whole new generation, rather than killed it off as many had predicted. Good news for Sennheiser, which has a whole new audience for its noise-cancelling headphones.

Of course, prices for portable audio players continue to come down while their storage capacities go up. 32GB players now typically fetch less than $350 (£180) - the SanDisk Sansa View, for instance, which hits US shelves in March. Expect to see more flash-based players in 2008 too.

Convergence and sharing

Crucially, form factors and user interfaces of portable audio players are converging - if that's the right word - and generally following Apple's lead.

Few players these days don't bare some sort of resemblance to the iPod. Most might have bigger screens than Apple's iPods, but they still retain a scrollwheel for menu navigation. But there is some innovation - the iRiver Clix dabbles with an OLED (or more accurately, an AMOLED) screen.

And while the market remains largely divided between iTunes-compatible products and everything else, at least there are more devices with AAC playback, such as the Creative Zen Stone Plus (from $60 / £30).

Surprisingly, there are few developments in technologies and solutions that allow us to 'share' and 'stream' our personal music collections.

The Belkin Rockstar ($20 / £10) has to be the wackiest new idea when it comes to content sharing. Picture a group of kids in the school playground, huddled together with a single MP3 player connected to five sets of headphones via a central star-shaped jack. What will they think of next?

Creative's solution, on the other hand, is to stick a speaker on the back of its Creative Zen Stone series. Argh. Not on the train, please.

Finally, Philips is almost single-handedly keeping the wireless audio streaming flag flying with upgrades to several of its Streamium products. A new alliance with RealNetworks should make Rhapsody content more easily available on them.