A review of MP3 players finds function triumphs over fashion Perhaps there is a reason most MP3 players are designed to look like cigarette lighters, with mini-joystick controls for volume and track navigation - it works. A comparison of five MP3 models from three manufacturers shows that fashionable looks seem to come second to usability. Two Sign models - the Si-200 and the Si-300, with shiny aluminium cases and cool-looking mirrored light-emitting diode displays are produced by the same company, AVC Technology, as is the plastic, cigarette lighter-shaped Soul SO100. For my money, the Soul is a hands-down winner, but then perhaps I am not the right person to judge the 'alluring top-quality crystal' set into the Si-200 that, apparently, is 'set to win every woman's heart'. In any case, it might be a short-term romance - the crystal on the unit I was testing fell off when the aluminium top popped off. Better-quality glue might be the answer for the crystal but, given that the casing seems to be held together with the industrial equivalent of sticky tape, one would have to hope that womankind treats the unit gently. The Si-300 is a better bet. It is lighter, comes with a neck strap (an odd omission from the features of its stablemate) and has button controls on either side that actually make sense after they have been used for a while. But a temperamental control lock, which stopped the unit from playing anything at all more often than not, was a big disappointment. By comparison, the SO100 was a dream to use. Just hose in the MP3s from your computer and toggle your way into musical oblivion. It has a range of equaliser settings, an FM radio and a recording function. It may lack the ability to record tracks directly from your CD player via a line-in connection, but it has one big advantage over the more expensive Sign models - controls that work. For more volume or less, flick the joystick up; to go to the next track, flick it sideways. It is foolproof and a lot less frustrating in the dark. It seems to come with about 2km of headphone cable, which is a bit excessive, but upgrade to a better quality headphone and you have a usable portable music player. The SO100 has one other feature that is absent in the Sign models, which sparked some curiosity - a plastic cover for the USB cable input plug. If such plugs need protecting, why don't the more expensive models follow suit - or is it just that the kind of people who buy a bright orange or green MP3 player usually have more lint in their pockets than the average fashion victim? Two other models, from Oregon Scientific and Truly, also seek to expand the MP3 design envelope - with mixed results. The Oregon Scientific MP210 is a great shape (only 6.6mm deep) and slips easily into a shirt pocket. It also has the best headphones of the models tested (with a built-in neck strap) and costs roughly $200 less than the next cheapest model, the SO100. However, it also features the 'world's first see-through display' on an MP3 player and a cheap black plastic toggle switch from hell on the side of the unit. The display certainly looks cool - until you try to use it. Dark grey characters on a light grey glass background are not easy to see, and the blue backlight does not help that much. Combine that with the fact that the descriptions for the various control buttons are on the opposite side of the unit from the barely readable screen and you have a problem. All that would not be too serious if the MP210 had a toggle control that worked, but the thin, sharp plastic wheel on its side is a nightmare to use. It is hard on your thumb - pushing it in feels like it might draw blood at any moment - and does not give you any degree of confidence that it will perform whatever function you desire. Truly's MP301 packs a lot of features into its small body and has a very clear, colour liquid-crystal display screen, about the size of one on a mobile phone. It can store photos and song lyrics, and even has a few games built in. For a joystick-free MP3 player, the controls are not too bad and it has all the usual MP3 features plus a line-in connection. However, it is a bit hard to figure out its intended market. Given that most gadget addicts will already have a mobile phone with games and a photo gallery, will they really want to pay more for an MP3 player with similar functions? Perhaps it is designed for the mobile-phobes among us (there are a few around) clinging to that last line of resistance that separates them from the Hong Kong hoi polloi. To sum up, if you want an MP3 player that does not pretend to be anything else (and you can relate to its cheap and cheerful 1960s laminate-table aesthetic), go with the Soul SO100. It does the job with a minimum of fuss. If you want to make a fashion statement, consider the others, but be prepared to put functionality a distant second.