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All Music, All the Time
The Nomad Jukebox can store and play more than 2,000 songs, but flash-memory MP3 machines travel better

We have entered the Golden Age of Gadgets. Ever-cheaper and more powerful chip technology is enabling engineers to gin up digital appliances we never dreamed would be essential to our happiness, like Net-surfing microwave ovens and photo-taking PDAs. Having embraced the Post-PC era, hardware manufacturers are now zealously trying to outguess each other in a high-stakes game of What Do Consumers Really Want? Some will guess badly. Moore's Law tends to interact with Murphy's Law, and when that happens we wind up with digital paperweights such as the Apple Newton.

Nomad II .

Until the markets have spoken, it will be hard to distinguish the Newtons from the Nintendos. Exhibit A: the Nomad Jukebox, a new portable music player from Singapore-based Creative Technology. The machine, an outrider for the Post-PC era, appears upon initial examination to be something better left uninvented. The only way to describe it is to call it a Hard Drive on a Stick (stick not included) — six gigabytes of pure digital storage capacity leavened with a specialized operating system, 12 buttons, seven input and output ports and a minimalist LCD display. In a world of jewelry-like cellular phones, the Jukebox barely qualifies as "portable." It weighs as much as a full can of Coke and has the dimensions of grandpa's Walkman.

The Jukebox is, in other words, the antithesis of the flyweight MP3 music players now on the market, including Creative's own Nomad II. Until now, all MP3 players have relied upon compact flash memory cards and solid-state electronics, not spinning disk drives, to store bits. Engineering-wise, this makes a lot of sense. There are no moving parts, and the beeper-sized Nomad II easily slips into a shirt pocket for the daily commute. Low power consumption allows it to get by for days on one AA battery. Besides excellent headphones, the Nomad II ($329) also comes with an FM radio receiver.

the Nomad Jukebox.

I got bored with it in less than a week. The Nomad II suffers from a blight common to its class. The expensive, 64-megabyte memory cards found in top-end MP3 players hold only a dozen or so songs in high-sound-quality mode. When the soundtrack starts to get stale, you have to load a new one, meaning a 20-minute session transferring songs from your PC to the MP3 unit. Most of us don't have the time for this ritual every day.

That's where the Jukebox's inner beauty begins to eclipse that gawky exterior, if not its steep $500 price tag. Because it has a 6-gigabyte hard drive, most music collectors would be hard-pressed to even come close to exhausting the machine's capacity.The drive can soak up the contents of roughly 100 CDs and can dispense MP3 tunes for more than 100 hours without repeating itself (the life of the Jukebox's AA rechargeable batteries is only about three hours, however, so music marathons require it be plugged into the wall).

With its variety of input and output ports including USB for fast PC connections, the Jukebox is also versatile. Besides playing MP3s skimmed from the Internet, it comes with a software "ripper" application so you can copy your CD collection to your PC's hard drive — a process that takes only about 15 minutes per album — and then to the Jukebox. You can use the machine for audio books. Plug in a microphone and it becomes a digital audio recorder with 10 hours of capacity.

That's the input side. There are several output options as well. The Jukebox jacks into a home or car stereo system for playback. Think of it: you can toss that kludgey 20-disk CD-changer out of the car boot and still have every tune you own at your disposal when on the road. Connected to powered speakers, the Jukebox becomes a stand-alone boom box.

In designing the Jukebox, Creative's engineers faced an interesting challenge: how to manage 2,000-plus songs without keyboard or mouse, with only a small monochrome screen for visual cues? Their answer is software called Music Disk Operating System (MDOS), a program pre-loaded on the Jukebox. It's an admirable solution that allows users to locate, arrange and play their music collection fairly intuitively. As long as header information is properly encoded on individual MP3s (often not the case if you are trading tunes on Napster), the machine will automatically file music so you can retrieve it by artist, genre and album name. You can of course build scores of custom playlists — music for, say, beer bashes and another batch of tunes for intimate dinners. Software is also included so that you can tweak the way the music sounds by adding, for example, concert hall effects. Overall, playback through the Jukebox is CD-quality, but digital purity can vary depending upon the source of MP3 files.

The machine performed flawlessly, but Jukebox navigation does have its drawbacks. The LCD display is only big enough to show the names of four tunes, artists or albums at once; scrolling through endless lists to locate a particular song is tedious. Two oversights are particularly glaring. 1) after selecting a line-up of songs you want to hear by shifting them from the "library" to the "active queue" screen, you can't change your mind and delete them individually — you have to either wait until the song comes up in the play rotation and skip past it, or kill the entire line-up and build a new one from scratch. Dumb. 2) Would somebody please make an MP3 player that retrieves tunes at random, matching the capability of any decent CD player? Neither the Nomad II nor the Jukebox have a "random play" function.

The Jukebox is version 1.0, after all, so it is not without faults. The most irritating design flaw is a trait shared with Nomad II — an unobvious power switch. No doubt to save cost, Creative's engineers chose to have the "play" and "stop" buttons do double-duty for "on" and "off." Fine, but the devices offer no visual cues to suggest this is the case. Since most people with a new toy immediately slip in the batteries and try to turn it on, the out-of-the-box experience is a frustrating one — 15 minutes of button poking before giving up and diving for the manual. On the Jukebox, Creative has tried to remedy the goof with a plastic instruction sheet stuck on the case telling users how to turn it on and off. This little afterthought is good for a chuckle, but does not indicate a thought-through design.

Besides the mystery switch, the Jukebox has other minor annoyances. There's an infrared port that does nothing (Creative says it is going to bring out a wireless remote control). There is no charging light. The Jukebox comes with a protective case, but you can't attach it to your belt. Unless you wear cargo pants the only way to tote the machine on foot is in a day pack or handbag. Unlike the headphones on the Nomad II, those on the Jukebox do not incorporate an inline remote controller. If you want to switch tunes or adjust the volume, you have to haul the Jukebox out of your pack to get at the buttons.

Mega-storage music-machines similar to the Jukebox are hitting the market. SSI Computer of the U.S. makes one with an implausible 20 gigabytes of storage ($699). There are also new CD players such as the Philips Expanium that can play MP3s burned onto disks. What they lack in tune-management capability is made up in economics — they cost around $200, less than half the Jukebox's price.

Being able to carry every song you've ever collected everywhere you go is pretty cool, and the Jukebox is a worthy digital intermediary — a way to store and shuttle music between PC and other appliances. But flash memory cards will get cheaper and more capacious, so we should in the not-distant future see sleek, reasonably priced, high-capacity MP3 players capable of storing 30 tunes or more. In that context, stripped-down disk drives strike me as overkill, transitional products with a short shelf life. On his way to inventing practical electric lighting, Thomas Edison said that he discovered "5,000 ways not to make a light bulb." Consumers will decide whether the Jukebox is a bright idea, a nice try or a failed Post-PC experiment.

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