By Richard Menta and Robert Menta 5/29/03
The Apple iPod has definitely upped the ante in the MP3 portable market. Presently, the iPod accounts for one out of every four digital music players sold, which has been achieved by setting the benchmark for relatively lightweight players that possess high storage capacity. It also didn't hurt that it is the only MP3 portable to get a prime time TV commercial, during "Friends" no less.
New digital music portables have set their sights on the iPod, hoping to sway buyers with an improved mix of features. The Neuros is one of the latest models in this batch of contenders.
The Neuros 20 GB MP3 Digital Audio Computer is available on Amazon
Calling itself a digital audio computer, the Neuros offers features not only unavailable in the iPod, but also unique to the market as a whole. One of the most significant is that the Neuros will be the first hard drive based digital music player to support Ogg Vorbis.
That's an important distinction because, midway through this review, Apple released a new and improved iPod that has taken the standard of quality even higher.
The Neuros uses a backpack design that gives it flexibility when it comes to storage configuration. Its faceplate holds the microprocessor, but not the power and memory, which are contained in detachable modular units that connect to the back of the faceplate. The player is available with a slim 128MB flash memory backpack, a heavier and thicker 20GB hard drive backpack, or both packs bundled together. It's always nice to have options upfront, upon purchase, rather than have to rely solely on future upgrades that may or may not become available.
The backpack style memory works very well for the manufacturer, too, because it allows them to react to the marketplace quickly without needing to resort to a full product redesign.
The Neuros uses USB 2.0 to connect the unit to a PC and is powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery that promises 10 hours of continuos playback. The Neuros also offers 5 programmable presets for the radio.
MyFi is Neuros' name for the novel FM broadcast feature on the player. Using this feature, one can set the unit to transmit music files remotely through an empty FM frequency on any radio. The advantages are self-evident for anyone who has ever user a cassette adapter to connect their CD player to a car radio, and it is one of the most innovative and convenient features of the Neuros.
The Neuros is set to AutoDetect by default at the factory. While this function is active, the Nueros detects headphone use and bypasses MyFi. If the headphone jack is not being utilized when as song is playing, the unit will engage MyFi and transmit audio through the selected FM channel on the radio.
When MyFi was engaged and a song was playing, we inserted the headphones to see if we could hear music. We didn't -- the player didn't switch. In order to revert to headphones the user has to stop the song, back up to the main menu and then select the song again. Returning to the main menu sets off the AutoDetect feature, which will detect the phones and switch the unit back to non-broadcast mode.
The channel from which the radio picks up the remote signal can be set by using the volume keys (the unit broadcasts a steady level when in broadcast mode, so the volume control is not needed on the unit; volume is controlled on the radio receiving the signal). The user simply finds a clear band on the radio and manually sets the same frequency on the Neuros.
Better yet, the AutoScan feature can be utilized to seek out an open frequency automatically. Once AutoScan finds a suitable frequency for broadcast, the user needs to remember to remove the headphones (needed initially as an antenna for the unit) or MyFi won't engage. Since we committed the sin of not fully reading our user's manual, we occasionally found ourselves scratching our heads over why the unit was not broadcasting.
We first tested MyFi using a small FM receiver that we moved about the room as the unit played. Despite some interference issues related to central New Jersey having such a crowded FM band (there are few empty frequencies here and those that exist sometimes experience bleed-over from adjacent stations), the feature operated pretty well. The Neuros has a range of about 20 feet, which is more than adequate.
We also took the Neuros for a long drive in the car and found it operated nearly as well as it did in home use. We received some distortion at times, but were satisfied with the results (the landscape along major roadways in NJ is dotted with high-tension power lines that caused some disruption). We even tried the Neuros on a frequency that clearly had a station broadcasting on it and found that for the most part its signal would play over a strong commercial signal, though the commercial signal would come in and out as the car altered direction.
It's worth noting that music sent by Radio frequency (RF) is of lesser quality than a direct signal by cable. This is the nature of radio and one of the limitations of using a short range broadcast mechanism to replace annoying wires. Overall, the convenience offered my MyFi outweighs these limitations, which is why we feel the option is so worthy. Those who want the higher sound can still use the headphones.
Ogg Vorbis and Linux support
Anyone who reads sites like Slashdot knows that many folks have an affinity for the Ogg Vorbis audio codec, a more modern compression scheme that offers better fidelity than standard MP3s and is open source to boot (which means it's free of any license issues and costs).
Digital Innovations announced last February that they have joined forces with Ogg's creator Xiph to develop Vorbis playback and Linux support for the Neuros (the Linux beta, Positron 1.0 Beta 1, was released May 23rd). The Neuros will soon be the first hard drive based player to play Ogg Vorbis.
Presently, most digital music players support MP3 and Microsoft's WMA format as the defaults. Manufacturers chose WMA because they assumed Microsoft would be in the best position to challenge the MP3 codec. It didn't work out that way, few people we know bother with it.
Apple, on the other hand, decided to place its bet on the ACC format, with its iTunes store. The result was that in a few weeks Apple sold three million song files, propelling ACC well past WMA as the second most used digital music format. The reason is a simple one. It was the availability of content under compelling terms, not the technical viability of the codec itself, which drove ACC's adoption. (many of the download services like PressPlay use WMA, but their services to date has been quite uncompelling to consumers).
Ogg Vorbis is great, but its success lies in it being similarly adopted by the masses. That means that on top of having to find its way into digital music portables, it has to find its way onto services. Because of its open licensing it has strong potential -- maybe not initially, but over the long haul based on the simple premise that service providers like the concept of "free." So, if it catches on, like we predict, and more downloads become available in the format, the Neuros will have a significant advantage over it's competitors. The BBC has been experimenting with Ogg Vorbis for a while now so the codec already has some noteworthy supporters.
FM Receiver and HiSi
HiSi (short for Hear it, Save it) is another innovative and useful feature. Ever hear a song on the radio you like, but can't get the name of either the tune or the artist? HiSi attempts to solve this problem with a clever use of the player's record function.
The HiSi feature is an automatic song recognition system. Whenever you hear that unfamiliar tune, you hit the bright orange button on the faceplate and it will record a 30-second sample direct from the airwaves. Double-click on the orange button to continually record the whole song or more, if you wish. The next time you connect your player to the PC and synchronize it (to update firmware among other things), HiSi will go online and seek out that song from an online repository that contains a digital fingerprint of a wide variety of popular titles (the repository and the audio fingerprint technology are provided by Relatable). HiSi will then attempt to match the sound signature. If it's successful, it will provide the artist and song title.
We recorded several tunes. Some were popular like Eminem's "Sing for the Moment" and Toto's "Africa." Others were more obscure including some we pulled from a religious channel. Some of the songs came from stations with strong signals and others, the Eminem song in particular, came from a weak station with a lot of distortion in order to see how the feature performed in less than ideal conditions.
HiSi recognized the distorted Eminem and the clear Toto song on the first try. The feature had trouble with less popular tunes, though. One obscure reggae/rap tune we grabbed from a college radio station was incorrectly guessed as a Van Halen tune. To be wise guys, we also recorded a channel that had nothing more than some fluctuating sonic distortion. That track came back with a best guess of some song entitled "Benditos Malditos."
Despite its limitations -- limitations that had more to do with Relatable's limited, but growing, library -- we were still quite impressed with this technology; it performed strongly under ideal radio conditions with popular songs. Fortunately, it will only be a matter of time before the Relatable database expands to include more artists and genres.
The only setback came in the FM tuner itself as we found that it lacked sensitivity. We compared it to an inexpensive Sony shower radio we had in the house and the Neuros had trouble pulling in stations the Sony picked up clearly. Depending on the type of area the user lives in, this may ultimately limit the variety of stations available from which one can listen and record.
One more interesting point. As CNET pointed out, since the Neuros both broadcasts and receives radio transmissions, this technology can be used to beam songs to other Neuros users (though the radio frequency quality of FM is not as good as direct MP3 transfer). Using this technique, the Neuros can also beam to other digital music players that can record from radio like the Archos FM.
The unit can make voice recordings and we were very impressed by the quality of the built-in microphone. It picked up a lot less extraneous noise than other players with voice record features we have tested. Playback was good and clear.
The Neuros can also do line-in recordings that compress a direct audio feed into the MP3 format (and soon Ogg Vorbis?). This feature is most useful to those who have music in non-CD formats like vinyl or cassette.
Neuros Sync Manager is a very interesting and at times frustrating interface. Its pluses are that it offers some terrific features that improve the convenience of the player and extend the usefulness of many of the player's other features. The frustrating part involves the program's occasionally boggy performance, which is prone to crashes.
Initially, installing the software proved to be a chore as we attempted to load the program on both a Win 2K and Win 98 machine. In both cases, the CD provided seemed to be missing a .dll file needed to run the installation program. We corrected this by downloading the latest version of Neuros Sync Manager from Digital Innovation's site. Even then, we ran into a couple of obstacles, but eventually we got the program going.
Internally, Neuros Sync Manager offers a very convenient upgrade scheme, one of its pluses. When the program is started it will ask you how often you wish to schedule updates. A pop-up window will ask you to choose daily, weekly, monthly or never. Since the product is new and still has some kinks in the software, we recommend doing it more frequently. Also, there are new features on the way like the Ogg Vorbis support we mentioned earlier. The program allows you to check for firmware updates too, which should be updated frequently as well.
When you first open the Neuros, select "File" and then "Search Computer for Music." Here you can direct the application to search the entire contents of your drive(s) or just specific folders. The Nueros will then catalog all of the tunes available and place them in the programs library list.
The PC Library function has some great attributes and a couple of annoying deficiencies, adding to the Jeckle/Hyde persona of the Neuros Sync Manager.
The biggest plus comes when you synchronize the unit to the Neuros Sync Manager. The player doesn't just download a select set of particular tunes, it also loads the title list of available music in the PC Library.
Let's say you have the 128MB version of the Neuros and fill it with 35 tunes from the 1,000-song library in your PC. You now want to select a new 35, but instead of having to wait until you get home to choose the new set, you consult the list on you player that dispays all of the available songs on the PC. You can select which songs to remove and which songs you want to download right in the player itself. When you return home, all you need to do is attach the player to your system, open Neuros Sync Manager, select "Synchronize" and walk away. The Neuros Sync Manager will remove the old set and download the new set of files automatically. This feature is most handy for those who choose the 128MB version of the Neuros since most people who have the 20GB unit will load their entire collection in one shot.
Synchronization is a strong point of the Neuros Sync Manager and why its name is appropriate for the interface. With the touch of a single button the Neuros will:
Neuros Sync Manager also has a few negatives characteristics. First, if your tunes on your PC are laid out in a series of easy to navigate folders the application is unable to replicate that layout. Instead, the program lists all files in one folder, which for those who have a substantial collection, can prove quite tedious when choosing songs. The other problem we had was the programs tendency to crash on occasion. Thankfully, updating the Neuros Sync Manager is a very easy and automated process. You can chalk up the software bugs to growing pains and over time we expect they will be corrected.
We found the keys on the Neuros to be well defined and, with the possible exception of the preset buttons, well laid-out. The width of a man's thumb equals two preset keys, which occasionally made it tough to hit the correct one. The buttons engaged cleanly and we had no problem manipulating the other controls.
There are certain controls that do double duty and, thus, it's a good idea to run through the manual first, but overall they integrated well with the display and worked fine. We found navigation to be direct and intuitive. This made running through areas like the settings menu particularly satisfying and simple.
Even though he Nerous' display is not up to the standards of the best displays we have seen, like those on various Rio products, the screen was clear and simple and we had no problem navigating the various menus. One minor annoyance was that the screen does not have a scrolling title line. So, if the song name is longer than the maximum number of characters visible, the name is cut off.
Excellent and the coming addition of Ogg Vorbis support will only enhance it even more.
Size to Capacity Ratio
The dimensions of the Neuros are 5.3" x 3.1" x 1.3", compared to the dimensions of the new iPod at 4.1" x 2.4"x 0.62". With regard to weight, the latest Apple sets the standard for a jukebox portable at a mere 5.6 ounces, shedding nearly an ounce from the original. The Neuros, on the other hand, weighs in at a heavy 9.4 ounces, more than even the Rio Riot (8.8 ounces) and the Archos Multimedia Jukebox (9 ounces).
Svelte dimensions and low weight is what propelled the iPod portable to an over 25% share of the digital music market. The Neuros has features that could make it an iPod killer, but it falls short in the one area that may count most: size. It felt like a brick in our pocket, with squared, pointed edges that poked our legs. Overall, it's the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise impressive portable, but one that can be corrected. Since the faceplate of the Neuros alone is sufficiently small and light, one would have expected that Digital Innovations would have created a smaller backpack using the same Toshiba drive found in the iPod. We hope it's something they consider for upcoming models.
Linux and Ogg Vorbis users can rejoice as they have in the Neuros a portable that caters to their needs. Though not perfect, it's a good all around player for all.
The groundbreaking features of the Neuros, including its HiSi technology and
upcoming Ogg Vorbis support, earned it some consideration for milestone jukebox
portable status. Unfortunately, it's held back from gaining that designation
by its unfavorable size-to-capacity ratio, a clunky box design, and a transfer
application that is still rough (though shows promise). The unit performed like
a new generation portable, but felt like it was trapped in the body of a first
generation jukebox portable. The flash version of the Neuros sheds the weight
and bulk of the 20GB version, but it come at the cost of limiting users to only
128MB of memory.
But as we said before, the Neuros' player and application can be easily updated. Let's see if Digital Innovations takes advantage of this ability and quickly delivers a less cumbersome backpack and improved transfer program in the near future.
The Neuros 20 GB MP3 Digital Audio Computer is available on Amazon
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