By Richard Menta 2/09/02
We have to admit, we took our time with our review of eDigital's latest player. Who wouldn't with an entire gigabyte of songs stored in a flash-sized player. You can thank IBM's Microdrive, a minute hard drive of identical dimensions to compact flash cards that offer capacities of 340MB, 512MB, and 1GB. The MXP 100 uses this drive and leverages it advantages into a competitive MP3 portable that offers more memory than standard 64MB players without ballooning to the size and weight of jukebox portables like the Nomad Jukebox.
It also offers another feature that is actually more practical than gimmicky. Using a technology called VoiceNav, you can jump directly to a specific track by simply saying the songs name. When you have a few hundred songs to scroll through, the ability to jump directly to a song by simply saying its name becomes a welcomed convenience.
The eDigital MXP 100
As we said, the e.Digital MXP 100 comes with a choice of 340MB, 512MB, and 1GB MicroDrives and is about 25% larger than a Rio 500 flash portable. That makes it small enough to conveniently fit in a pocket.
The MXP 100 has 8MB of built-in memory for skip protection and can play tunes compressed in the MP3 and WMA format. Files are transferred to the MXP 100 using its Music Explorer software through a USB connection. Rounding out the features, the MXP 100 has voice recording capabilities, the VoiceNav feature mentioned above, 8MB of built-in memory for skip protection, and runs on an excellent set of lithium-ion batteries that had no trouble handling the power hungry Microdives. We got several hours of use out of them, not as much as the 10 hours Apple claims its iPod gets from its lithium polymer battery, but still good.
The player handles tunes using the MP3 and WMA formats. The MXP 100 is secure music capable supporting several digital rights management protocols including Intertrust, Windows Media DRM and IBM's EMMS.
As of this writing, pricing for the MXP 100 are $399 for the 1GB version, $349 for the 512MB, and $299 for the 340MB. We tested the unit using both the 1GB and 340MB drives. The MXP 100 will also take all sizes of CompactFlash cards including SanDisk's soon to be released 1GB version, which will use considerable less power than the MicroDrive, but will run more than double the price when released.
What's most interesting about this player is that the unit's most unique feature is not the MicroDrive itself, but a user interface called VoiceNav. VoiceNav allows the user to control the unit using vocal commands. For those of you who have used jukebox or other high capacity portables, you know how tedious it can be search for a particular song when there are hundreds of them to scroll through.
Developed by Bell Labs' Advanced Technologies (a division of Lucent) the MXP 100 is the first consumer product to use this voice navigation interface. Once engaged, the user can navigate playlist folders, select tracks, and play tunes by simply speaking one of several command words into the built-in microphone.
VoiceNav has an fluid phonetic dictionary embedded within it offering speaker-independent recognition. Unlike a software product like IBM's ViaVoice, which needs to learn each individual user's particular speech patterns over time through regular use, VoiceNav requires no such learning input. That's a heck of an accomplishment if it works well.
So, how well does it work?
The basic commands for VoiceNav are Play, Folder, Track, Next, Back and Done. The MXP 100 also recognizes track and folder names, analyzing the spelling of each word, applying standard pronunciation rules and the attempt to match the expected wave patterns of these words with any words spoken into the unit's internal microphone.
Considering the broad palate of individual speech patterns including accents and regional dialects, this is not an easy job and why the progress of voice recognition over the last decade has been a challenging one. Think if President George Bush used this player to call up a track name with the word "Nuclear" in it (he pronounces it "Nu-cu-lar") and you get the idea.
VoiceNav's includes the most up to date applications of speech recognition technology and, as someone who has used IBM's ViaVoice, it shows it. Music Explorer's interface works here too, insuring that track titles and artist or album information from digital music tracks are saved and transferred to the MXP 100 as recognizable phrases.
To activate VoiceNav you press the record button when in music play mode (you need to press and release the button. If you hold it, you will activate the unit's internal voice recorder). Navigation using VoiceNav only operates when a song is not playing (manual controls will allow navigation when a tune is pumping), therefore there is no "Stop" or "Pause" command. The "Done" verbal command is used to disable VoiceNav vocally.
Using the basic commands only, we had no trouble navigating back and forth between folders and songs. We even tried various accents to throw the player off, everything from Brooklyn to southern to bad impersonations of various Monty Python and Simpson's characters. It is very impressive when you shout the word "Folder" talking like Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and it still works.
We could fool it a few times, and sometimes the word "Play" would act a little sluggish, but overall it got off to very good start.
Bearing in mind that speech recognition not yet the equivalent of the chatty computer on TV's Star Trek, the MXP 100 did an excellent job of pulling up our song requests. VoiceNav worked best when we spoke the entire file name, artist and song title, in the order it appeared on the screen.
If the unit had trouble discerning a phrase, it let out a short beep through the headphones as a request to repeat the phrase. We noticed it was easiest when you got a clear pronunciation on the first shot.
Under the best conditions, we would name a song in our normal speaking tone and pace and the unit would jump to the song. Sometimes when we called for that same song title we would get the beep instead. If we got a beep, the player required us to speak more deliberately and slowly otherwise it would beep again, suggesting VoiceNav drops down a gear, possibly to sample more intensely.
If the song has a one-word song title not repeated on another tune, the VoiceNav can jump to it just by saying that word. Because there is only one word to analyze, it works quicker too. Still, the unit was more accurate when you said the full track name. The more words you say, the more time the unit takes to digest and act on the command. Type A personalities take note.
It helps if the words in a title are actually in a dictionary. The track "Sum41 - Fat Lip" for example, "Sum41" is not a word. Surprisingly, when we said just the word "Sum41" the MXP 100 found the correct track almost every time. The same thing happened when we said just "U2" to find U2's One. Most impressive.
Testing VoiceNav -
Now realize that external ambient noise can affect results and so we tested VoiceNav under several conditions. We chose a mixture of song titles, some short and simple and others more apt to challenge VoiceNav like Sum41. Among the titles on our player as each track is written:
Detroit Cobras - I'll be home again
Howie Day - Babylon
Sam Philips - Love is everywhere you go
Thee Midnighters - The town I live in
Sum41 - Fat lip
Sundays - Summertime
U2 - One
Sonics - Have love will travel
Robert Johnson - 32-20 Blues
Sebadoh - Willing to wait
Beach Boys - Kiss me baby
Lit - Miserable
Incubus - I wish you were here.
As soon as you enable VoiceNav the folder of where the tracks lie begins to blink. Saying "Track" causes the cursor to highlight and blink on the first track name. You say another track name to switch songs. A good way to judge how long it takes to switch is count how many times the cursor blinks on a song between when you call for the next track and when it actually appears.
Test 1 - Ideal conditions. Quiet room, MXP 100 is laying on the table. We speak directly to the player about a foot above the internal microphone. - Result: Superior if you say the entire song title, but order matters.
We were able to run through the entire list above twice - artist and song title said in the exact order they appear in the player - without a single miss. Average time it took to find and display the proper track was about 4 cursor blinks. The quickest were "Lit - Miserable" and "Wishing" at three blinks. The longest was "Robert Johnson - 32-20 Blues" at seven blinks. Finally, we called "Howie Day - Babylon" really quickly, practically mumbling the last word, before we threw the unit off. Excellent performance, better than we expected.
We then tried the same test just using either the song title or the artist alone and our results dropped to about 75%. Some artists had several songs on our player (Howie Day - Australia for example) posing a dilema for VoiceNav over which track to select when only the artists name was uttered. When VoiceNav did find the proper track successfully, it did so in about the same time as it took with the full title, an average of about 4 cursor blinks.
Now for a simple twist. We next spoke the full track title, but said the song title and artist name in reverse order as it appeared on the display. Here VoiceNav had trouble, giving us the beep on every single attempt. Order, it seems, matters with VoiceNav. We're guessing that it's because VoiceNav develops an expected vocal wave pattern, looking at the title as an entire phrase rather than word for word.
That could be a little frustrating to users who have tracks where the order of the artist and song name in the title is mixed. Still, when you get the order right the results are outstanding.
Test 2 - Walking outside with occasional traffic passing by. All track names said in proper order. - Result: very good to excellent.
When standing still, our results were nearly identical to those above. Saying the entire title name we got a hit almost every time. The only times we missed were when vehicles would pass as we spoke.
Next we repeated track names while walking. Here the results were very good, but the player sometimes needed an extra cursor blink or two to find the tracks. A couple of times it missed without traffic, but about 90-95% percent of the time it hit. A possible reason may be the motion from walking puts a slight quiver in our voices that make it a little harder for VoiceNav to understand. Still the unit performed excellently.
Because of the lessened performance we received under ideal conditions when we said only the artist or song name or when we said the track name in reverse order, we didn't bother to test that here. In those situations we already know the results will be hit or miss.
Test 3 - Difficult conditions. Using VoiceNav in a crowded gym. - Result: ambient noise proved too much for VoiceNav.
We tried and found that the background din of music, talking, and slamming weights was too much for VoiceNav. Once in a blue moon we got the track to shift, but not until speaking loud enough to draw the gaze of a few patrons who wondered why we were yelling at our MP3 player.
Transfer Software -
The drag and drop transfer software, Music Explorer, was simple enough and it did the job, but it pales against the better transfer programs. This includes Intel's excellent Intel Audio Manager, which arguably had the best mix of ease and elegance.
Music Explorer does not do the best job in letting you know how much space is left in memory as songs are loaded. There is a blue bar that slowly disappears as you use up the unit's capacity, but the bar does not show remaining megabytes in number form unless you sit the mouse cursor over it, bringing up a small pop up. It works, but could have been done better.
The MXP 100 requires the unit to be plugged in during file transfers. This is done to prevent accidental damage to the unit as loading a large number of music files can take time. If the unit was on battery only and the charge should run out during transfer, it might cause internal harm to the MXP 100's system. A heads up safety feature.
Most of the controls are located on the front faceplate. They were a little close together, but thanks to their different sizes and shapes we had no trouble locating which button was which without looking. The toggle on the side worked well, but it took on a lot of duties so you had to pay attention to what you were doing, at least until you got all the moves down. The menu system is well laid out.
Holding down the scroll wheel brings you into the menu. From there are sub menus where you can set equalizer settings, backlight time, contrast, microphone gain and other controls. Scroll down to a sub menu, push the scroll in once and you enter. To exit, hold down the scroll wheel for about a second and the word "Done" will appear as a choice. Select it and you will return one level up on the menu.
The display did a good job, though it could be a little hard to see in dimly lit situations. The words came along clear, both with and without the backlight, but the type is small and benefits most when the backlight is on. The MXP 100 allows you to adjust the backlight to stay on either always or at lengths between 1 to 10 seconds, a nice feature that offers that extra flexibility without taxing the battery. You can also adjust the contrast on the screen, another good feature. Still, not as sharp as the displays on the Rio Volt SP250 or the RCA Lyra and Lyra II.
The sound was excellent, aided by a full 5-band equalizer adjustable in the unit's "Setting" menu. The player also has 5 equalizer presets including Jazz, Latin, Dance, and Rock. A microphone gain control allows the user to set the sensitivity of the microphone, a particularly handy feature when using VoiceNav as it can help screen out ambient noise.
Size to Capacity Ratio -
This is where the MXP 100 excels over other portable units. We spent most of our time testing this unit with the 1GB drive and the convenience of having a couple of hundred tunes in our pocket without having to lug something the size of a brick was truly liberating.
The eDigital MXP 100 weighs in at 139 grams (4.9 ounces). That is one third the weight of Creative's Nomad Jukebox which weighs in at a hefty 14oz (397 grams). The MXP 100 is also much lighter than the newly released 10GB RCA LYRA Personal Jukebox at 11oz (310 grams) and the upcoming 20GB Rio Riot at 8.8oz (250 grams). All of those units have greater storage capacity, but you won't be jogging with them. The same goes for the Nomad 3, Creative's successor to the Nomad Jukebox that, while a little smaller than its predessor, comes in at the same weight. The Nomad 3 goes on sale this April.
Outside of other flash players that can take an IBM Microdrive (see review), the only digital music portable that can compete right now with the MXP 100 is the Apple iPod, which comes in at a svelte 6.5oz (185 grams) for 5GB. That's still a third heavier than the eDigital. Also, the Apple is a Mac only player right now, so until it hits the market in a full blown PC version it is not a full threat to the MXP 100's target audience.
There is also promising news on the horizon with IBM's Microdrives. Using a new technology they call Pixie Dust, analysts are expecting a 6GB Microdrive to appear sometime in 2003. IBM refused to deny or confirm this rumor, but Pixie Pust should make a dramatic improvement on Microdrive capacity soon. That's a boon CompactFlash players like the MXP 100.
For those who are looking for an MP3 player with lots of storage, but in as small a package as is available, the eDigital MXP 100 is an excellent candidate. Jukebox portables like the Rio Riot and the upcoming Nomad 3 (both selling for the same $399 as the MXP 100) offer much more memory, but they are also big and heavy to lug around. The FireWire-enabled Apple iPod is a much stronger competitor, but it's Mac only for now.
The MXP 100 itself performed very well. While we have encountered better displays, controls, and transfer programs, the MXP 100 was more than competent in these areas. Besides, our quibbles all take a back seat to the most convenient of features, capacity. The sheer act of NOT having to run back and forth to the computer to refresh tunes for that morning jog is an accomplishment few digital music portables can claim (many that do have the capacity you wouldn't want to jog with). For the extra $100 we recommend going with the 1GB version over the 340MB version as it is a better value, offering almost three times more memory.
The addition of VoiceNav is what truly differentiates the MXP 100 from the competition. VoiceNav proves to be a surprisingly excellent speech recognition system that works effectively at making the playing of your favorite songs more convenient. That makes all the difference between a useful tool and an expensive toy.
Speech recognition - as well as VoiceNav itself - has its limitations like any other technology, but with a little knowledge of how to get the most out of it, VoiceNav's performance was both impressive and compelling. I hardly have a radio voice, yet under the best of conditions the unit successfully pulled up every song I called out without fail (except the last when I intentionally garbled it). The system also performed great in real world conditions, providing there was not too much ambient noise.
We wish we had VoiceNav on our Archos Jukebox, a player we filled with tunes, but made the mistake of putting them all under one directory, making for a lot of scroll and search. I'll guess we will just have to take the time reload all the songs on that player, adding several folders to make searching easier.
You can get further info on the MXP 100 on the company's web site.
One last note, a suggestion for the engineers at eDigital. Now that Intel has discontinued their MP3 portable line it's a good time to pick up the Intel Audio Manager as a future transfer software for eDigital products. Audio Manager is one of the best programs we have come across when it comes to selecting through folders of songs and passing them on to the player. It was simple, intuitive, and elegant. Music Explorer was ok, but there is something better out there and it is about to be lost due to Intel's contraction back to its core computer products. If you can get it grab it.
Rio Volt Portable CD MP3 Player - The new Volt plays MP3 and WMA files from CD for $159
MP3 P2P program reviews:
Review: SongSpy - Feb 8 2002
Review eDonkey2000 - Jan 30 2002