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Portable MP3: The Nomad Jukebox

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The MP3 format is revolutionizing our music-listening lives. Unfortunately, for those of us on the go, carrying the revolution along has been a problem - practical portable MP3 solutions have been some time in coming.

If you already lug a laptop, it's an option - but a heavy one with limited battery life, and your MP3s must compete with your work for limited disk space. You could burn your MP3 collection onto CD-R discs to play on the laptop (and I have); but that often leads to disc-swapping, since the song you want on the spur of the moment is invariably not on the CD-R you have loaded. The laptop approach can work well if you're already carrying the machine with you, but it's overkill if all you want is a portable way to listen to music.

Dedicated portable MP3 players have bred like rabbits in the last year or two, with even large retail outlets like Best Buy offering several different models. Almost all use solid-state memory for storage, which has several advantages: no moving parts, small size, no possibility of skipping, and low battery consumption. A year ago, I was given a Rio 500 (which I still think is the best memory-based player), and overall I've loved it. However, I probably would not have bought it for myself, because memory-based players have a significant disadvantage: flash memory is expensive, so the playing time of these devices is limited (typically just 30 minutes to 2 hours). I've been an apologist for my Rio in the past, but its playing time is a serious handicap for me.

<http://www.rioport.com/>

Another portable option is the crop of newly arrived CD-MP3 players, which are essentially portable CD players that can play CD-Rs containing MP3 files. Starting at around $100, they're cheaper than most memory-based players, and at 11 hours per CD-R you can listen to music for far longer time periods. Unfortunately, the early units have a lot of rough edges. Moreover, since they're essentially CD players with a hugely expanded per-CD capacity, they don't enable users to organize and manage their music collections on the fly. And as I noted before, putting your music collection on CD-Rs can result in frustrating disc-swapping. Nevertheless, I probably would have bought one eventually, if I hadn't received a new toy: the Nomad Jukebox from Creative Labs.

<http://www.nomadworld.com/products/jukebox/>

Creative has produced some well-regarded memory-based MP3 players with previous Nomad models. On paper, the Jukebox looks ready to top them all. Instead of expensive flash memory, it uses a relatively cheap 6 GB laptop hard disk, offering up to three and a half days of continuous music. This is by far the biggest attraction of the Jukebox - while 6 GB isn't enough to hold my entire collection, it is enough for my vocal favorites and a sizeable chunk of instrumental songs. Since it owes its lineage to the computing side of the fence and can read ID3 information tags on MP3 files, the Jukebox can better organize and present information about my music (like sorting tracks based on artist or album) than the CD-MP3 players. Finally, as a product from a major manufacturer (Creative also makes the SoundBlaster line of sound cards and other PC peripherals), one could expect a well-designed and polished consumer product. How well does the Nomad Jukebox live up to that potential?

Queue It Up -- The Jukebox's playing function is built around a play queue; songs are added to the play queue from the various Library search and organization features. The Library has four categories for accessing songs: Playlists, Albums, Artists, and Genres (Rock, Jazz, etc. - all pulled from the ID3 tags). With Albums, Artists, and Genres, you burrow through lists of sub-categories (for example, choosing Genres, then SoundTrack, then Cowboy Bebop OST 1; or Artists, then America, then America's Greatest Hits) until you reach the individual song you want. You can also use the Search feature to jump directly to a spot in the list, which can help with long lists. Unfortunately, there is no apparent way to get a simple alphabetical list of songs; you must go through two or three levels to see individual songs, then move up a level or two and back down if you're picking songs from different albums. This is especially bad if you mostly pick up a few songs from each album, as I do, instead of including entire albums. For that reason, I find playlists the best way to work with the hundreds of songs you can load on the Jukebox. If you have Macromedia Flash installed, Creative has a Flash demo for the Jukebox on their Web site that gives you an idea how this works.

<http://www.nomadworld.com/flash/Jukebox_ Interactive.asp>

There are essentially two ways to create playlists. Once you have filled the play queue, you can save it as a playlist; however, filling the play queue manually is sufficiently tedious that I seldom bother - particularly since there's a better method. The Jukebox comes with SoundJam MP, one of the best MP3 encoders and players, and SoundJam sports a plug-in architecture for controlling MP3 players (most, if not all, of the Mac-compatible MP3 players use it). The SoundJam plug-in, in addition to loading songs onto the Jukebox, enables you to build playlists - and thankfully lets you work with the entire alphabetical list of songs at once, in addition to organizing by Artist, Album or Genre. Thus, I find the easiest way to play songs is to use SoundJam to make either short, focused playlists I can load into the play queue or long catch-all playlists that the Jukebox can play in random order.

<http://db.tidbits.com/article/05988>

The Speed of Sound -- On the plus side, the player sounds great. I've listened to it through the wrap-around headphones that came with it, the bud headphones from my Rio (which tend to sound better), a set of amplified speakers, and plugged into my home stereo; to my ears, the sound quality is excellent on all four. Despite using a hard disk (a moving part), I couldn't get the Jukebox to skip from shaking it, thanks to a large RAM playback buffer. And unlike Mac-based MP3 software, I couldn't get the Jukebox to skip from program activity, like switching the system settings, searching for songs, going from the song list to individual song details and back.

Unfortunately, performance in other areas was slow, sometimes downright glacial. Turning it on - or waking it up after an automatic sleep - takes a minute and a half on my filled Jukebox before it's ready to play. This is an eternity in contrast to the instant-on of my Rio - compare the lengthy wake-from-sleep of a PowerBook to the instant-on of a Palm, multiply by three, and you'll get the idea. I suspect a large chunk of this time is spent reading the song catalog for display: switching to the list view of a play queue with 860 songs takes a full 45 seconds, while switching to a queue of 50 songs is almost instantaneous. In addition, there is sometimes a lag stopping a song or switching songs, and the display often lags behind the player by 1 or 2 seconds. None of these are show-stoppers, but they make using the player considerably more tedious.

Battery life is also a disappointment. The Jukebox includes two sets of four high-capacity 1600 mAh NiMH AA batteries, notably stronger than most over-the-counter NiMH batteries - and the extra capacity is necessary, because even the stronger batteries last for only about four hours of continuous play. The Jukebox can charge NiMH batteries when it's plugged in with the included AC adapter, but very slowly - four hours with the player off, and a long 10 hours with the player running. I'm glad Creative used standard AA batteries instead of a custom battery pack - I can charge AA batteries with the NiMH charger that came with my Olympus digital camera, and buy alkalines if all the batteries run out away from AC power - but Creative needs to work on power consumption and charging speed.

Sound Fiddling -- The Jukebox doesn't just play music as-is. Creative heavily promotes their audio-enhancement technology, grouping several features under the EAX label: Parametric EQ, Spatialization, Environment, and Playback Speed. Unfortunately, although these features provide noticeable effects, I don't think they improve the sound, and most of them strike me as gimmicks.

The Jukebox's volume range is a bit less than I'd like. The scale runs from 1 to 20; however, although 8 to 10 is a comfortable listening range in a quiet room, my office at work needs around 15, and even at 20 the Jukebox is too quiet for me to use comfortably with headphones in a moving car. I'd like to see more volume at the high end, although I suspect higher settings would further reduce battery life.

Finally, there are operational glitches I'd classify as bugs.

  • When the Jukebox goes to sleep automatically, it doesn't save your position in the play queue. This can be annoying if you have a long play queue and didn't manually put the Jukebox to sleep since the start of the queue. Sleeping the Jukebox manually doesn't always work either; if the battery level is "Low or No Battery" (which can be as high as 60 percent charge, in my experience), it still loses your position in the queue.

  • The Jukebox has two "mix play" settings: Random, which does "continuous random play," and Shuffle, which is supposed to play each song once in random order. Unfortunately, Shuffle does not work as I'd expect. For the office, I have an 860 song playlist that provides background music, and I want it randomized to avoid too-frequent song repeats. Shuffle seems to be made for this; I would expect it to go through the entire play queue through once without repeating a song, as long as the queue is not cleared or modified. Instead, over a two-week period of playing time, I have some songs that come up fairly frequently, and others that almost never come up. I haven't used Random as much, but it appears to mix the songs more evenly. My guess is that Shuffle resets its songs played list whenever the Jukebox goes to sleep, and something in its only-play-once algorithm keeps it from randomizing as well every time it restarts.

This list of problems makes the Jukebox sound worse than it is. On reflection, it does perform a competent job of the core task of playing MP3s. Some problems and annoying quirks may be inherent in dealing with thousands of MP3 files; however, I'd have preferred Creative had improved the speed and fixed bugs instead of offering gimmicks like EAX.

Interface and Design -- Physically, the Nomad Jukebox is an example of polished industrial design. The case is about the size and shape of a portable CD player, presumably for familiarity, and I find the gently curved design a pleasure to look at and handle. It's solidly built, and the controls are conveniently located. In addition to the usual Play/Stop/Next Track/Previous Track buttons, the Jukebox has a pair of Up/Down buttons, for scrolling through lists; dedicated buttons for jumping to the library and system setting functions; and a set of "soft" buttons, labeled by the LCD display, which perform various context-sensitive functions. All of the buttons feel sturdy, and you can feel a comfortable click when you press them.

My only serious quibbles with the physical design are the too-large size (the laptop hard drive at its heart is smaller than a pack of cigarettes) and the small LCD display (in song lists it shows only 6 lines of 25 characters - not enough for managing the number of songs the Jukebox can hold).

Unfortunately, the interface doesn't quite live up to the industrial design. For instance, the Jukebox lacks a dedicated Pause button. In my experience, most players without a Pause button re-use the Play button: press once to play, press again to pause. On the Jukebox, you press the Stop button instead: press once to pause, press a second time to stop. Although there's a logical argument for this usage, the other convention seems more common and I'd have preferred it. There are other quirks in the search feature: left and right soft buttons move through the letters of the alphabet (something I usually visualize as scrolling up and down), while the up/down buttons move the cursor left and right through the song name. (Huh?) At least the Jukebox's operating system is upgradable, and I hope Creative will release a version which fixes these irritants.

Nomad's Land -- If I'd had to spend the money for the Nomad Jukebox myself, would I have bought one? At $500 (often discounted online to $450 or less), it's not exactly an impulse purchase, but I'd probably still buy it if I had the money. The ability to take a decent chunk of my music library with me - and have it instantly accessible - is quite intoxicating. So far, the Jukebox has only one major competitor, the HanGo Personal Jukebox PJB-100, and although on paper it seems to address many of my criticisms above, it's both more expensive and from a relatively unknown company.

<http://www.pjbox.com/>

In the end, the Jukebox is not the no-brainer decision that it could have been. The device has strong basic capabilities, but is dragged down by a few serious flaws and other minor annoyances. The Jukebox could have been better - and from a company like Creative, I was expecting something better.

 

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