Swimming laps with Finis' SwiMP3 player

A cure for boring pool workouts

Everyone has addictions. Some, like crack, heroin, cigarettes, and even coffee, are wrapped up in chemical dependencies. Others, such as the need to obsessively monitor Facebook, Twitter, or the goings on in World of Warcraft, seem more behavioral. Somewhere between the two lies the addiction to lactic acid I've developed over the years.

In order to feed this need for muscle pain, I masquerade as an athlete. I did my first triathlon when I was 12, and have done numerous races since, including marathons, a couple of solo 24-hour mountain bike treks, and even an Ironman. It's been nine years since that Ironman, and as I settle into my 30s, the itch to do another has returned. I can't bear to let a decade pass without proving to myself that I still have what it takes to swim 3.8 km, bike 180 km, and run a 42 km marathon.

Although I haven't done a big race in years, I've kept up my weight training, running, and riding one of six bikes—another addiction. Fortunately, this means that I'm not too far off where I need to be for the final two Ironman legs. The initial swim, however, presents a considerably more daunting challenge. I haven't swum seriously in years, mostly because there are few things more boring than staring listlessly at the bottom of a pool as I swim back and forth for an hour or more at a time.

On a bike, I'm always going fast enough to keep myself entertained by the passing scenery. Running and weight lifting have less to offer on that front, but at least I can zone out to music with an MP3 player. Unfortunately, that hasn't been possible in the pool. Water-resistant MP3 players are few and far between, let alone ones designed for the rigors of swim training.

I'll need to hit the pool three to four times a week over the next year to bring my swimming back up to speed. As one might expect, the prospect of spending that much time blankly staring into the not-so-murky depths, distracted only by the occasional drifting Band Aid, hardly has me enthusiastic. That's why I was more than a little interested when a company called Finis asked if I might like to test its appropriately named SwiMP3 portable audio player for swimmers. Why, yes; yes, I would.

By far the biggest challenge associated with making a swim-worthy MP3 player is getting the music to someone's ears while they're sloshing around in the water. Finis doesn't use traditional headphones here, instead opting for more exotic bone conduction technology. Rather than piping sound into a listener's ears through the front, or I suppose side, doors, bone conduction channels vibrations to the inner ear through other bones in the skull or jaw.

With the SwiMP3, one's cheekbones serve as the conduction conduit to the inner ear. The necessary vibrations are generated by tiny speakers housed in sealed, plastic pods that clip under goggle straps just in front of your the ears.

You will, of course, look a giant of a dork with the SwiMP3 strapped to your head. But then you probably didn't look all that cool in goggles and a Speedo, anyway. At least the SwiMP3 is comfortable to wear, which is more than can be said for my goggles. Or my speedo.

Don't get your hopes up that the SwiMP3 produces fantastic sound, though. Its music playback is a little faint out of the water and is accompanied by a hollow loudness when submerged. The lower ranges of the spectrum tend to be overdone, as well—an apparent by-product of the bone conduction process itself. Despite its less-than-perfect playback quality, though, the SwiMP3 still sounds good enough to break up the monotony of a pool workout.

Finis says the SwiMP3 is suitable for any stroke and that it can survive down to a depth of 10 meters. However, the fact that the device's loudness fades in and out depending on whether one's head is submerged can be a little distracting. I noticed this oscillating when doing the breast stroke between interval sets and also when swimming in particularly choppy open water. Of course, I was also eating waves every few breaths during that open-water swim in the rough, so consistent loudness was the least of my problems.

When swimming freestyle in calmer conditions, the SwiMP3's playback was much smoother, even during thrashy sprints. The pods stayed securely affixed to my head, and I didn't feel like they were slowing me down. My girlfriend noticed a little bit of drag when she took the SwiMP3 for a few laps, though. To be fair, she's a former national-level swimmer who used to wear a bathing suit "a lot" of sizes too small to reduce drag. I'm not nearly that hard-core—or that fast.

The SwiMP3's button controls are consolidated on one side of the unit. One acts as a reset switch for the player, so you really only use three of the buttons for navigation. The track forward and back buttons double as volume controls when held for a couple of seconds, and depressing them both toggles random playback. Even the power button is a multi-purpose affair; it pauses and resumes playback with a click and powers the unit when held for two seconds.

Without a screen, the SwiMP3 is considerably more difficult to navigate than most MP3 players, especially since it lacks something like the VoiceOver dictation scheme that Apple has for the display-less iPod shuffle. Fortunately, I didn't find myself needing to fiddle with the controls during actual workouts. What might have been a serious shortcoming for a standard MP3 player becomes less of an issue when you consider the environment in which the SwiMP3 is meant to be used.

Forgiving the SwiMP3's limited 256MB storage capacity isn't quite as easy. I didn't even know they still made MP3 players with this little memory. Granted, 256MB is still enough room for a few hours of music, which should last the length of even the most demanding swim workout. But given today's bargain-basement memory prices, it still irks me that Finis cheaped out on the SwiMP3's capacity.

I tested the SwiMP3 with variable-bitrate MP3s that scale up to 320kbps, and the device didn't flinch. It's also compatible with WMA tracks, but not Ogg files or DRM-encrusted iTunes downloads—you'll have to convert those before loading them onto the player. Filling the SwiMP3 is a snap, though. A little nubbin on the back of the unit, which you'd think would flap around annoyingly while swimming but somehow doesn't, houses a standard USB interface that should work with any PC or Mac. Finis offers SwiMP3 Media Manager software for download on its website, too, but there's no need to bother with it. The player acts as a standard external storage device, so you can drag and drop MP3s without messing with third-party software. It's possible to load the SwiMP3 using iTunes or Winamp, as well.

Connecting the SwiMP3 to a USB port also charges the player's battery. The process takes about three hours, and you'll get about eight hours of playback from a full charge. An LED embedded inside the SwiMP3's plastic shell blinks while the unit is charging and goes dark when it's finished. During playback, this LED also serves as a low-battery indicator.

Our SwiMP3 sample arrived with a small carrying case, a pair of goggles, and a swim cap. Those are nice little accessories to throw into the box, but they do little to soften the blow of the player's $125 street price.


To put that price into perspective, consider that a 4GB Sansa Clip gets you 16 times the storage capacity for just 40% of the cost. The Clip also has a screen, better playback controls, and much longer battery life.

Except it doesn't work in the water.

The SwiMP3 does, and well enough that boredom-stricken swimmers should give it serious consideration. $125 may be a heck of a lot to drop on a 256MB MP3 player, but it's a small price to pay for the ability to add music to what might otherwise be a dreadfully boring swim workout.TR

Tags: Multimedia Personal tech

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