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PC Answers MP3 Supertest

480w intro

Every decade has its symbols; In the 1970s it was gold chains, in the 80s shoulderpads and floozy hair, in the 90s it was looking glum and thin, but what of the noughties? We at PCA reckon that gadgets could have their decade; we opine that in ten years time we will be looking back at pictures of iPods and iRivers, saying “I can’t believe I owned that, it doesn’t go with my nose at all!� Possibly.

Well, as with gold chains and shoulderpads, if you’re going to regret your fashion choices, why not enjoy them too? The only question is, which gadget promotes your enjoyment the most, which is ‘the sex machine to all the chicks?’ (Or chickesses.) It’s not the printer, nor the photocopier, despite all the office Christmas party thrills. Look, we’ll give you a clue – look at the title of the test…

Yet, even if you know you want an MP3 player, how do you select for it effectively? What are the criteria you should be looking out for? Crucially, how much should be spending to secure those criteria?

What to Look For

Firstly, have you already got some music files? If you have, check the format; there’s no point buying a music player that can’t play your tunes (check out the column on the next page for information on different media types.) Once you’ve done that, ask yourself, do you want a flash player, a hard disk player, or will you even wait for a Microdrive player (see the box on page xxx.)

A Hard Drive player (AKA MP3 jukebox, Disk player or Mr Big) can have a capacity up to 80Gb at the moment, and this total should continue to advance as laptop drive prices fall. They have their advantages; specifically capacity, and hence room for more special features, such as EAX, musical games and so on; but despite their bulk, they are considerably more fragile than an equivalent Mini-disc or walkman, and much more time-consuming and expensive to repair.

Flash players (AKA keydrive, flash drive, thumbnail, boomstick) have at most a fortieth of the capacity of their larger hard disk brothers, at half the price. This might not seem like a good deal, but they’re much more convenient, look cooler and don’t break as easily (so we’re told.) They’re also solid state, so they can maintain stuff in memory without power; something that hard drives, and the forthcoming microdrives really can’t. (And they’re just so small!)

Once you’ve made your choice, ask yourself if you’re going to be using your player on computers other than your own. If you are, then make sure the product is plug and play; that is, it doesn’t need any drivers to operate on Windows 2000 machines and better. There’s no point having a thumbnail drive, if you’ve got to take around a CD and documentation with it – you might as well go for a larger one.

Once you’ve decided that, it’s only the design that’s holding you back. For that, you’ll need to look yourself (despite our best attempts we’re not perfectly in tune with your tastes.) So go on, have a look!

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Details

Made By

Buy It

Price

Body

Verdict

4 summaries

Score

Xclef

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It is an X-clef, it has ceased to B#; and other terrible jokes. But can the Xclef avoid being one?

Details

Made By Multichannel Labs

Buy It http://www.advancedmp3players.co.uk

Price 250

Body

Xclef HD-500 40GB

249.00

The biggest player on test certainly doesn’t have a sense of humility, being bedecked in silver and black like a Star Wars villain as it is. But it is, we have to admit, the outsider in this race; it’s cheaper than the rest of the hard drive players yet, bigger and at 40GB, it’s not too shoddy in the storage department either. So what does the villain threaten?

Again the display on this is disappointingly simple and strange to use with a perverse selection of buttons performing arbitrary functions. Though it does have a touch of the humour of the iRiver, it’s much more unpleasant to actually use, especially with such a large screen. Interestingly, this has a radio like the iRiver, but oddly you can record from it; the iRiver, you’ll remember, claimed that the hard drive interfered. Either the Xclef has dealt with this problem somehow, or has just ignored it. Whatever the situation, we could find no problems with radio recordings on the Xclef, and the reception seemed better than we got from our normal radio.

Oddly, there were also a few glitches in the operation of the interface, occasionally pausing between tracks and taking a long time to start up from cold. Again, we were pleased to see that this case had a simple hold switch and showed up as a generic volume with file system on the PC, making file transfers easy to and from multiple computers. Overall, a simple, reliable and relatively cheap case, for the user on a budget.

Verdict

4 summaries

+ Good value

+ Passable

– Ugly interface

– Occasional glitches

Score

70%

Apple iPod 40GB

Brushed up nice and clean for the test, old Mr iPod is looking spic and span. But can the codger stay the distance?

Details

Made By Apple, duh!

Buy It amazon.co.uk

Price 394.99

Body

…And in the white corner, weighing in at a bantamweight 0.39lbs, is the undisputed champion of MP3 jukeboxes, the Apple iPod. The iPod has seen more coverage in these pages than is strictly fair, but then it was the first small-form factor jukebox and was released way ahead of the opposition. Its only major flaw was its price, but as the technological advantage has been eroded, so has the financial disincentive.

With upgraded firmware and improved design, the latest iPod is very attractive. It has excellent playlist features (including a wonderful quiz about your tracks), it synchronises smoothly with the excellent iTunes on Mac and PC, and generally does everything it can to please; I mean this device even organises your contacts. The control system is unique, and great to use (once you understand it…), and subtle backlighting to buttons and screen make it a delight. It also has more personalisable accessories than any other player, from docks to headphone

That said, it’s not all rosy using an iPod. Though their customer services will repair or replace broken iPods, they can be a little slow doing it and are expensive as well; iPods do seem to break often enough to make this a problem. Also, the battery life on the iPod isn’t that hot, and if the batteries themselves start to wear out, they can be prohibitively expensive to replace. Also, there’s no FM or voice recording, and the remote is only included with larger models (including this one), but has no LCD. Finally, the LCD display, despite its ease of access, could be called a little… primitive? A contender certainly, but so was Ivan Drago.

Verdict

4 summaries

+ Classic clean design

+ Innovative feature list.

+ Customer services have been criticised

+ Battery Life

Score

91

Philips HDD100

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The man in black, he from Del Monte, he say “ooh, that looks really cool.’

Details

Made By Philips

Buy It http://www.pixmania.com

Price 216

Body

Ah, the evil iPod rears its head. This black beauty does look like a mirror image from Labyrinth or some 80s action soap like Knightrider, out to steal the iPod’s friends.

Unfortunately, on the basis of this test, it won’t be stealing anyone soonish. For a 15Gb player, it just costs too much, even though it’s built to the same size as the iPod. And just like the iPod it scratches easily, thumbprints show up over it, and you’re afeared to touch it with anything but Minstrel gloves , in case you smudge it (though it is strappingly robust beneath the veneer.)

There are also stability issues; during testing, we got occasional freezes, even when we had attempted to upgrade it. We have heard the computer software is very buggy, but can’t comment properly, as it wouldn’t run at all on our test Athlon. Moreover the actual sound output of the unit is very low compared to rivals; not bad for a classical afficiando, but for Indie and Raawk fans who like to pump the volume up, this isn’t going to oblige.

On the flipside, the design is luvvly jubbly; finding files is easy with its fast-scroll button (though not quite iPod). The supplied headphones are also surprisingly good, with a wired remote that’ll work with any headphone set, and the optical recording is a unusual boon. Overall, not worth the cash, unless you want an iPod, but don’t want to be seen with an iPod (and like torturing yourself.) KARR to the iPod’s KITT, the HD100 is nice to look at, but is ultimately a bit poor.

Verdict

4 summaries

+ The iPod’s evil twin

+ Best headphones on test.

– Stability of software/firmware.

– Expensive.

Score

Creative Jukebox Zen Xtra

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It’s big, it’s cheap and the software never works. Or perhaps Creative are going to surprise us…

Details

Made By Creative

Buy It amazon.co.uk

Price £293.79

Body

Zen’s are a love or hate thing. They’ve always played second fiddle to the iPod, and often as such a distant second, that they’re playing from the stands. When they finally carved out an identity for themselves, it was as a larger cheaper version of the iPod.

Again, much has improved about the Zen Xtra. The new larger display is usable, but not so handsome its competitors. Though it has grown since the last iteration, it still isn’t quite up to spec, and doesn’t look as nice as the iRiver’s. It’s also missing a radio, a wired remote and numerous other elements that are freebies with the iRiver. However the actual interface is easy to use, if not exactly intuitive, and the selection of filters, effects uppers, downers and so on, is second to none thanks to the EAX technology built into the system.

What is still irritating is that Windows XP doesn’t recognise it as a hard drive, meaning it requires drivers to transfer files. This has been improved, so it is now accessible through My Computer, and it’s more drag and drop rather than being forced to use the confusing and arbitrary MediaSource software bundled with it. There are other pieces of software that allow you to transfer files to it more easily, but we don’t see why you should buy them when you’re been supplied with one.

It also still (and it pains us to say this) feels a little cheap and bulky. Considering it’s just a hard drive with a thing shell, that’s not surprising, but it’s the looseness of connection; it feels like there’s lots of space inside it. That said, for the price you won’t find more storage space, and it’s hardly the worst drive on test.

Verdict

4 summaries

+ Excellent value

– Weak software

– very short warranty

– complaints about customer support.

Score

82%

IHP-120

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! iPod Killer guilty verdict! Extra! Extra!

Details

Made By iRiver

Buy It

Price amazon.co.uk

Body

If the iPod were to be found murdered, there would only be one suspect, though calling anything about this player suspect feels wrong. The iRiver is the best unit on test here. Coming in at slightly larger than the iPod, and slightly more expensive, the IHP-120 contains just about every input and output a power user might lust after, and a few more besides.

You can use these inputs and outputs for very high quality recordingAlso supplied is the dinkiest inline remote, that replicates pretty much all of the main units abilities, and has it’s own dinky LCD screen (that’s incidentally better quality than that of the Muvo NX). The whole design is coherent, and a bit geeky. It almost look like it was designed to piss off iPod fans, and looking at internet forums, it certainly does. We like it anyway.

The display is also good, operating at a very high resolution, and with tremendously professional interface elements that are fairly easy to learn to use, though the text may be small for the visually impaired. We were also perturbed to find that we couldn’t record from the radio with this player; yet far from being a glitch, this is apparently a design feature to protect the hard drive from the radio waves (the whole hard drive shuts down when the radio’s in operation.) Now that’s thinking ahead!

For something with these many extra bits you do have to pay more, but if you want the best bits you have to buy this one.

Verdict

4 summaries

+ Excellent build quality

+ Unbeatable feature set

+ Great battery life.

– minor quibbles only, proprietary software

Score

93%

Joybee 150

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Is the Joybee a plain old square, or is there something more to it?

Details

Made By BenQ

Buy It easyetrader

Price 112.98

Body

With a smooth chrome and gold finish the Joybee 150 looks like it belongs in a 1950s gangsters pocket, next to a cigarette case, and a ‘rod.’ After the over-designed Sony it’s the next smallest player we have, and it certainly feels right. The shape allows for a large screen, and plenty of room for big easy-access buttons that don’t spoil the front and back of the player.

Yet when you turn it on, what is this? Cheap monochrome LCD, with big chunky letters like alphabetty spaghetti?! Something this irritatingly poor came as a big surprise after it’s apparent sleek outside; it appears that, in players at least, simplicity of design doesn’t indicate anything more than laziness (have a gander at the Philips HD100). Our temper was improved little by some shmo leaving De La Soul tracks on the player to shock our Indie ears when we booted it up.

Ignoring the hideous interface, the BenQ has all the usual elements, and a few pleasant tricks as well. It appears on your computer as a generic volume (no drivers!), and transfers files effectively, with no fuss. There’s also a strange little folder called ‘E-book’ – apparently designed with reading on your MP3 player in mind. It also has a line-in, a mic-in, a radio with 30 programmable stations, and the ability to record, just like the iRiver IFP-380T. Finally the coup de grace; a small wired remote, barely smaller than the Joybee, that extends the headphone cable to a manageable length. So, despite the hideous interface, and quirky firmware, not a terrible design.

Verdict

4 summaries

//Verdict//

+ Demure but classy

+ Wired remote

+ Various gadgets

– Terrible interface

Score

Muvo Nx

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Should the pioneer of mobile flash music/storage be revered or scrapped? You decide! (well, we do.)

Details

Made By Creative Labs

Buy It http://www.amazon.co.uk

Price 94.99

The Muvo and Zen get updated so often, that they’re running out of letters now; the next Muvo is going to be the Muvo 2, rolling in at a whopping 1.5Gb. If you can’t wait for that, you might want to go for the Muvo NX, though we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

The Muvo’s thunder has been stolen somewhat by the Oracom ORC200. Everything the Muvo does, the ORC200 does better. The Muvo has a new LCD screen – the ORC200 has a bigger, brighter one. The Muvo has a thumbwheel interface – The ORC200 has buttons and switches galore. Part of this relative weakness is due to the Muvo’s age – the basic item was the first flash stick music player, and there haven’t been that many updates to the basic structure. The interface in particular, though brand new for the LCD, is difficult to read and hard to navigate. (Apparently, you can even flip the screen 180 degrees which, while not eminently useful, is a nice touch.)

The Muvo comes with a welcome choice; you can use the Mediasource program bundled to transfer files, or you can simply drag and drop in windows explorer. Equally welcome is the choice of muvo colours, as Creative supply a spare battery casing, and the voice recorder, encoding into MP3 in real time for up to eight hours. However, we did notice that the player appeared to be missing the obligatory radio tuner, and hence all the recording capabilities associated with it.

If you looking for a player with a proven track record, the Muvo isn’t half bad; it’s well designed, neat, and has the Creative brand associated with it. But for ten pounds more you can get a slightly better player with twice the capacity, leaving the Muvo looking just a little shamefaced.

All that said;

Verdict

4 summaries

+ Original sinner

+ neat design…

– Aging rapidly

– there’s a better value product available.

Score

ORC200

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If the great helmsman had his way, we’d all be Oracommunists. But with specs like this, even that can be forgiven.

Details

Made By Oracom

Buy It 104.99

Price

Body

As kids we’re endlessly inundated with the imperatives ‘be original, be yourself’, and a thousand other platitudes directed at making us realise that only baddies copy. And I think most of us almost believed it.

But, kids, listen; plagiarism pays. Cheating works. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants and Orocom have trampled on Creative; well, they’ve taken a good long look at the Muvo design and, while we’re not going to libel them by saying they’ve stolen anything, they’ve certainly been… inspired.

The ORC200 separates into two parts, one of which contains the battery for mobile music, while the other acts as a USB key. The design is solid, there’s a large LCD screen with clear text and handy icons, that displays exactly what’s happening with the key clearly, whether it’s a track listing or file transfers. It also doesn’t need any drivers, just appearing as a generic volume on your computer, like all the best thumbdrives.

The one thing that is really missing is a Hold button, to avoid nudging the buttons when you’re listening to it, and maybe slightly longer headphone cables, as we don’t all have shirt pockets. Apart from that, the ORC200

Verdict

4 summaries

Score

92%

iRiver

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That old iRiver, it keeps on running, it keeps on running along… but for just /how/ long?

Details

Made By

Buy It

Price

Body

IFP-380T

The smaller iRiver has the same design credentials as the bigger, with the same cybergeek look, that looks simultaneously tacky and appealing. Whichever you find, it certainly seems resilient. The larger AA battery promises a longer battery life, and the extra power is put to good effect in a large colourfully animated screen, resplendent with toonies and little touches; unlike the other units on test, someone has accepted just how limited LCDs are and worked within their bounds, creating a menu system that’s really fun to use, even if the convolutions are initially confusing.

It also has a neat little recording system that encodes directly into MP3, and stores straight into the memory, a straight-forward equaliser set-up, and a wonderful little radio built in which picks up better quality radio than most speakers (and which you can also record from.) The jog dial’s easy to use once you understand it, and the hold button is placed so that it’s hard (though not impossible) to nudge, re-emphasiing the feeling of overall build quality. It’s also one of the few units on test, even among the Hard Drive Players, to have a audio line-in as well as USB.

Irritating on the other hand is the size of the unit, and the need to install software drivers to get the music on and off.Again this limits the use of the player as a data-transfer key. Beyond these problems, and the limited memory (just below 2 albums of MP3s), we have little hesitation in recommending this for those looking for a slightly kookier Muvo.

Verdict

+ Kinda gawky lookin’

+ Large display

+ Larger battery

– Drivers needed.

Score

0.6 in. 15

Height 2.9 in. 74

Width 1.4 in. 36

NW-MS70D

The gadget king produces another curious scion, but just how inbred is it?

Details

Made By Sony

Buy It http://www.empiredirect.co.uk

Price 209

I will admit, at the expense of Sony street cred, that it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how to use this. It was obvious that it was very cool, and that I’d look funkadelic if I promenaded it about. Yet I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the strange toggles and dials were for, despite the minute explanatory text, nor could I get it to play any music, because I couldn’t find out where the hold button was… Either I’m a fool, or this device is very confusing.

Yet this is also the smallest, lightest MP3 player on test. It has an absolutely fantastic, simple interface, that matches the looks to die for, and is clear to read and easy to use. It has a very funky looking, and easy to use docking station for transferring music and charging, and simple bud earphones.

If you’re a nosy parker, you’ll have looked at the score and been surprised how low it is. It’s that low because of two things; proprietary formats, and proprietary software. This player operates using Memory Sticks, Sony’s proprietary storage solution and prefers ATRAC3, Sony’s proprietary audio format. The latter is good, more efficient than MP3, meaning this little player can hold up to ten albums. Yet the similarly confusing bundled software makes the conversion process lengthy, and repetitive; though there are free converters available. You’re unlikely to want to convert all your MP3s to this format, as if you want to play them through any games, or use them as music samples, you’ll have to convert them back. A gem of a player then, flawed by parochialism.

+ Terrific quality

+ Wonderfully cute

– Proprietary Formats & Irritating Software.

– Expensive

Score

//column//

Old lamps for old.

Why swap to a newer MP3 jukebox.

If you’ve already got an MP3 player, maybe you shouldn’t be reading this round-up. Yes, the players have improved over the last two years, adding stability and OS interoperability; but they have stayed essentially the same as well, meaning there is no real need to upgrade unless your current model is completely unusable. Certain older jukeboxes can be upgraded mind, possessing as they do simple laptop hard drives inside them. Only attempt this if you’re truly technically minded, as its not wise to destroy your favourite

//column//

Music Formats

ATRAC3,WMA, MP3, OGG

//column//

Software

There’s nothing more annoying than proprietary software, and nothing more likely to crash your machine after a few seconds.

//column//

Headphones

If you’re buying yourself a good-quality music player, why stick with the bundled earphones. Many of them are good, notably on the more expensive players, but they’ll be simple bud ear-pieces, which are leaky and might not have. If you’re looking for a good set of headphones, you might want to consider a set of noise-cancelling phones – try Bose for quality, or Panasonic if your budgets are a little tighter.

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Columns

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290 word conclusion

It’s clear from this test what criteria we were judging on; capacity, quality, price and features. We tested the MP3 players using a selection of tracks, featuring everything from Miles Davis to William Shatner, to try and get a good variety of sound. Most sets produced decent sound, and where they didn’t it was more due to the quality of the MP3/WMA/etc. than to a problem with the sound hardware.

Rating them on style and features, there are two hard drive players that stand head and shoulders and above the rest. The iPod is still a favourite, being so far in front for so long that it should have a massive technological. Coming in a joint first is the new IHP-120s from iRiver. Obviously we’ve not ahd the opportunity to test these over the long run like the iPod, but we feel they’ll hold up well

For flash players, the outcome is less obvious. The Oracom has come out well, basically being an improved Muvo at a much lower price. Again iRiver have excelled themselves in this field, though their . And the chasing pack is led again by Creative, the pioneers of flash players in this country, with their entirely respectable, and hopefully more reliable, Muvo NX.

110 word other box

//end box//

Microdrives

The next big leap in MP3 player technology is going to be from Microdrives. These beauties look like Compact Flash SD cards, but are in fact tiny hard drives, crushed into a ludicrous space, with all the extra components left out. This means they have a much higher capacity potential than flash memory, but then again, they’ll have the same problems that a portable hard dive has; fragility and the need for power. Initial examples are supposedly starting at 512, moving up to 1.5Gb by the time you read this, and 5GB soon after that. Creative labs promise their Muvo 2 series will take this form, and are on the shelves as of now; unfortunately, due to maufacturing difficulties we’ve not seen any examples for review, so we’d hold off buying them until we’ve tested reliability. Until then consider iRiver’s iFP-599T at http://www.advancedmp3players.co.uk, a 1GB video/MP3/WMA player.

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