Portable MP3 players have now been around for a couple of years. The first and second generation of players were based on flash RAM, which is tiny, battery-thrifty, and convenient, but extremely limited in terms of play time. Back in January of 2001, I reviewed Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox (see "Portable MP3: The Nomad Jukebox" in TidBITS-562), one of the first players that uses a small hard disk to store songs instead of flash RAM, which extended play time up to 100 hours of music.
I loved the concept, and the Nomad Jukebox had a number of good qualities. Unfortunately, it also had a couple of glaring flaws that kept me from wholeheartedly recommending it: working with the thousands of songs the player can hold was cumbersome unless it was hooked up to your computer, and it was glacially slow at times. The $500 list price was also a sticking point, but that's since dropped to $300, making the Nomad Jukebox a far more attractive proposition. Sadly, Creative Labs hasn't fixed the software flaws I noticed, so I've also been looking at alternatives, such as the Archos Jukebox 6000.
Archos Technology isn't well known in the Macintosh market, but they've exhibited portable storage products at the last few Macworld Expos, and at Macworld Expo in July 2000 they showed a mock-up of a hard disk-based MP3 player. By Macworld Expo in January 2001 they had a working unit, named the Archos Jukebox 6000, and in the months since then it has begun showing up in retail stores. When Best Buy put it on sale for $200, I decided to give it a whirl.
Hardware Design -- Like the Nomad Jukebox, the Archos Jukebox 6000 uses a 6 GB laptop hard disk to store music (a 20 GB model is also available), four rechargeable AA NiMH batteries for power, and USB to connect to your computer. The Archos is significantly smaller than the Nomad; where the Nomad is about the size of a portable CD player, the Archos is about the size of a portable cassette player - half the size of the Nomad, and small enough to fit into a pocket. The controls are simple: a pair of buttons and a four-direction navigation disk. I think Archos tried to pack a few too many features onto those buttons - I would have preferred a few extra dedicated controls for functions like volume - but on the whole I'd say the unit is well-designed.
I see only two significant flaws in the hardware design:
The USB connector on the Archos is a Type A rectangular socket, which is normally only supposed to be used for a master USB device like a computer or a hub; peripherals are supposed to use the square Type B socket. Although USB A-to-B cables are readily available, the USB A-to-A cables the Archos requires are difficult to find. The Archos comes with one A-to-A cable, I wanted to leave extra cables plugged in at home and work. I never found one at retail, even in computer superstores like CompUSA and Micro Center, and eventually I had to order some from an online store.
Although the Archos shipped with two sets of rechargeable batteries, these should be considered as user replaceable rather than user swappable. The batteries fit in rows on either side of the controls, the ends fitting under the padded plastic caps at the corners of the unit. Removing the batteries involves prying outward with a screwdriver blade while trying to lift up on the cover. Prying the covers away from their catches requires a fair amount of force, and after just three swaps the slots for the pry-blade were chipped and scarred. (The padded caps make it a little harder to fit the unit in your pocket, but they're only a minor nuisance.)
I've listened to the Archos through headphones and hooked up to external speakers, and it sounded good to me both ways (although notably quieter than the Nomad through external speakers). However, I freely admit that I'm no audiophile and probably wouldn't notice problems others might. In general operation, the Archos is quite speedy, and I haven't run into any of the dramatic delays that cripple the Nomad at times. Battery life seems quite good, perhaps a bit longer than the Nomad's: I can typically get a day's use at work on a single charge, though that's not continuous usage.
Overall, while I don't think the hardware is as polished as the Nomad Jukebox, the Archos Jukebox 6000 is sturdy and well-built.
User Interface -- The Archos feels simpler and less sophisticated than the Nomad, which is not necessarily a disadvantage: sometimes simpler translates to faster and easier. For example, the Nomad reads the song library when you turn it on and builds a song database with the ID3 tags for Artist, Album, and Genre, letting you search on them. The Archos does not, but the Archos starts up much faster than the Nomad.
The Archos offers a single main menu, with options for Volume, Bass/Treble controls, Play Mode (once/repeat/shuffle/scan), Language (English/French/German), Hard Disk (space used/remaining), Diagnose (checks disk for directory corruption), Firmware (version check), External (MP3 or line in), and Contrast (adjusts the LCD display). Accessing the menu is simple and quick. I'd also like to see a setting for adjusting the sleep setting; the Archos sleeps after 40 seconds of idle time, regardless of power source, and that's often too short.
Loading Songs -- You can load songs onto the Nomad Jukebox only through an MP3 software plug-in that came with the now-defunct SoundJam MP, is currently supported by iTunes, and appears to also be supported by the new Audion 2.5. You must use your MP3 program to copy and manage the Nomad's library of songs. Although using MP3 software gives you some helpful tools for working with songs, it also has annoying limitations as the only way to manage your player.
In comparison, the Archos Jukebox 6000 appears to the Mac as just another PC-formatted USB hard disk. After you install the Archos USB drivers, the Jukebox 6000 pops up on the desktop as a disk when you plug it in, and you can simply copy folders of MP3s to it. It doesn't care one whit what MP3 software you use on the Mac.
I like this approach; it's less fuss to manage than even the best plug-in for an MP3 program, and it gives you more control over organization. Songs on the Nomad can only be organized by the Album, Artist, and Genre tags, unless you use playlists; thus I often had to resort to kludges like changing the Genre tags on a set of songs I wanted to group together. The Archos, by contrast, lets you create your own folder layout, grouping songs however you like. You can even copy non-MP3 files and folders to its hard disk, which gives it a further use as a battery-powered portable storage device.
Emulating a hard disk also lets the Archos work better as an MP3 peripheral for your Mac. The SoundJam and iTunes plug-ins for the Nomad allow you to control the Nomad from the computer, which is easier and more powerful than running it from the built-in controls. Unfortunately, the Nomad's music doesn't play through the Mac's audio system, so you'll either have to add a separate set of external speakers for the Nomad or borrow the ones you have plugged into your Mac. Neither solution is optimal. But because the Archos is just a hard disk, you can use your favorite Mac MP3 player to play songs from it through your Mac speakers.
Unfortunately, this hard disk approach also has some downsides. You can copy ordinary files and folders to the Archos's hard disk (it displays only folders and MP3 files when you're browsing its contents on the LCD display), but these folders can clutter the directory listings. Also confusing is the way it also shows the Mac OS's invisible folders, along with the invisible folders File Exchange creates to hold Macintosh file system information on a PC hard disk.
Those problems are mostly annoying, and at worst, confusing for novice users. But there's another problem that's much worse and which is exacerbated by a near-fatal error in the manual that's corrected only in the ReadMe file and the support section of Archos Web site - a package insert or sticker in the manual would have been welcome.
Because the Archos's hard disk mounts on the desktop, you can use Erase Disk to format it as a Mac disk. The manual halfway encourages you to do so, saying that you won't be able to use it as a disk on the Mac unless you use File Exchange or format it as a Mac volume. Unfortunately, formatting it as a Mac disk keeps it from working as a MP3 player because the firmware that reads the disk doesn't recognize a Mac-formatted disk. You can partially recover from reformatting by using the Finder's Erase Disk command to format the disk as a 5.5 GB DOS disk, something not mentioned in the ReadMe file (which suggests hooking to a PC to reformat). To complete the recovery and re-enable all functions, you must download the firmware update file from the Archos Web site and copy it to the Archos's hard disk. This fragility is the biggest problem with treating the Jukebox 6000 like a hard disk; I found this out the hard way when some of my playlist-building experiments corrupted the directory and forced a reformat.
Despite these concerns, I prefer being able to treat the Archos as a normal hard disk to using the Nomad via MP3 player plug-ins. If Archos can become more aware of the Mac and clearly explain these issues in a Mac-friendly way, they'd be most of the way to a solution.
Finding and Playing Songs -- The Nomad Jukebox and the Archos Jukebox 6000 are polar opposites in the ways they let you find and play music. The Nomad practically demands you create playlists on your computer; browsing the songs manually is cumbersome. Manual browsing is far easier on the Archos, but the current Mac version of the bundled MusicMatch software won't let you create playlists in a format the Archos can use, leaving you fiddling with other programs.
The Nomad is based around a play queue. When you select a playlist or play songs manually, those songs are loaded into the play queue. This approach is quite flexible; it lets you set a list of songs to play, then plays them while you browse the library for others. Unfortunately, browsing with the built-in controls is a real chore (see my earlier review of the Nomad Jukebox for details).
Browsing for songs on the Archos can be much easier, because you can break up your library into manageable chunks and set up a sensible folder hierarchy. However, that's the only organization you have; you can't search for songs by any of the MP3 information tags like Artist or Album, and it lists files alphabetically by the name of the MP3 file instead of the Song Name information tag. Despite this limitation, I prefer it to the Nomad's approach because being able to create my own organization is more valuable than being able to search through near-unmanageable amounts of data in the MP3 information tags.
The actual process of browsing through your song library in the Archos is easy, if repetitive. You start with the display showing the first item at the top level of the hard disk and skip through the items there one at a time until you find the folder you want. Then you select that folder and repeat the process until you find the song you're looking for. This process would be easier if the Archos used a multiple-line song display like the Nomad's; the Archos has a two-line display with one line reserved for status information, and a single line simply doesn't provide enough context for optimal navigation.
Unfortunately, the Archos is less flexible in playing songs. In Normal play mode, after playing the selected song in a folder, the Archos continues through the folder in alphabetical order, stopping at the last song in the folder. That's it. If you put an album's tracks in a folder, you must prefix filenames with track numbers to play them in track order; otherwise, they'll be played alphabetically. (I've written an AppleScript script for SoundJam that renames files by the order in a SoundJam playlist, which I'm putting up as-is.)
Since the Archos is playing the song you see in the interface, you can't look elsewhere in your library while you listen; moving in the folder tree stops play, and you can't pick up where you left off without browsing back. The Archos desperately needs a play queue like the Nomad's; with that addition, its manual play system would be near-perfect.
Playlist Support -- Playlists are a bit more primitive on the Archos than on the Nomad; instead of being a globally accessible list, Archos playlists are simply files stored in the folder hierarchy, that you browse to as you would a song file. This in itself isn't a serious handicap, but the included MusicMatch Jukebox doesn't create playlists in the standard Windows .m3u playlist format, which is all the Archos understands.
The .m3u format is actually just a list of DOS-style file paths, saved as a DOS text file. Fortunately, a programmer at the Mac game company Green Dragon Productions has written a program called MacEmThreeYou, which creates an .m3u playlist from a folder of MP3 files dropped on it. With a text editor capable of working with DOS text files, like BBEdit, you can cut-and-paste to make your own playlists out of songs from different folders. Just be careful that the playlists you copy from all start from the same point in the folder hierarchy, as MacEmThreeYou starts all file paths from the folder you dropped on MacEmThreeYou instead of the top of the folder hierarchy.
I've whipped up another quick-and-dirty AppleScript script for SoundJam that uses the full version of BBEdit 6 (I haven't tested it with earlier versions) to build an .m3u playlist from a SoundJam playlist; it's available with the other SoundJam script above. With these tools, playlists become quite usable on the Jukebox 6000. Although Archos links directly to MacEmThreeYou from their Mac Jukebox Support page, I wish they would provide something like these tools with the unit.
No Nirvana Yet -- I still haven't found the perfect MP3 player. The Archos Jukebox 6000 has a different set of strengths and weaknesses than the Nomad Jukebox , but it still has notable shortcomings. On the whole, I can live with the Archos's limitations better than I did with the Nomad's, but at least part of that is my personal working habits. But after reading my experiences, I hope you have enough information to judge which player would best fit your needs.