The consumer electronics arm of the Virgin Group (search) is introducing a new 5-gigabyte hard-disk portable music player, bringing a powerful brand name in music to the increasingly crowded product space.

Virgin Electronics hopes its slim Virgin Player, which debuts Tuesday and is smaller than a deck of cards, will rise as a lead competitor to Apple Computer Inc.'s (AAPL) wildly popular iPod (search) players. Apple dominates the portable player market that is filled also with choices from Rio Audio (search), Sony Corp. (SNE), Samsung Electronics, and Creative Labs Inc., among others.

But few of the rivals have introduced a direct challenge to the iPod Mini model, which has a 4-gigabyte capacity. And that's the segment San Jose-based Virgin Electronics is pursuing — people who may want to tote about 1,000 songs in their pocketable devices but don't necessarily need the whopping 20-gigabyte-or-more capacity of audio players offered by Apple, Sony, Samsung and others.

"No one else has the same sort of brand energy that Apple or Virgin has. Plus, our heritage is music," said Greg Woock, chief executive of Virgin Electronics. "Apple is dominating, yes, but the market share that it has today is not going to last."

The Virgin Player has 20 percent more storage capacity than the iPod Mini. It is slightly larger but is a half-ounce lighter at 3.1 ounces. Virgin claims it has eight hours of continuous playback time on its rechargeable lithium ion battery — the same as the iPod Mini.

The player will be available for $249 at the end of October.

Unlike the iPod, the Virgin Player includes an FM tuner. But it has another notable difference: while the Virgin Player is fully integrated with its sister online music store, Virgin Digital, it also plays tunes purchased from other online music services that use the Windows Media Audio or MP3 formats.

That's a more agnostic approach compared to Apple's iPod, which works with downloaded songs only from the Apple iTunes Music Store (search) in the Advanced Audio Coding format or songs ripped from CDs in the MP3 format.

Virgin also sides with the set of music providers, such as Napster (search) and RealNetworks Inc.'s (RNWK) Rhapsody, which believe online subscription services will one day become more lucrative than the basic pay-per-download model that Apple helped pioneer.

The Virgin Player supports Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) new copy-protection technology that allows online music subscribers to listen to vast catalogs of songs on their portable players.