By Richard Menta- 01/11/00
Remote Solutions Personal Jukebox is a milestone product. By that we mean any product whose breakthrough innovations are so significant, they influence the future course of its industry. The iMac, which presently has PC manufacturers scrambling to breakout of the beige box routine, is a recent example of a milestone product.
Personal Jukebox raises the bar in several areas and there is no doubt the leaders in MP3 portables are re-evaluating their future product releases. The most obvious element is Personal Jukebox's huge storage ability.
Up until now, all MP3 portables came with either 32MB or 64MB of memory, capable of holding anywhere of 9 to 20 song files at the standard 128k compression. This is the most limiting factor of MP3 players (many manufacturers advertise player capacity using songs compressed at a lower quality 56k setting. This stretches the limit of 64MB units to two hours), but promises of 300MB units using expensive flash memory or IBM's pricey, but tiny, micro drive litter manufacturer press releases.
The Personal Jukebox uses a 4.8G laptop hard drive, larger than the IBM's but far cheaper per MB of storage. This translates to a whopping 81 hours of music or 1200 songs and that is measured using the the higher 128k compression.
Think about this for a second. Right now, the largest capacity flash memory on the market is a 224MB CompactFlash card which Delkin started shipping Dec 99. The only player using that particular card to date is the RCA Lyra. The cost of the 224MB card is a very steep $800. Add to that the $200 cost of the Lyra costs and your up to $1,000. The Personal Jukebox offers more that 20 times that capacity and does it for $799.
And that is another area where the Personal Jukebox will affect the industry - price. Think about S3's (formerly Diamond's) Rio. The next generation of players is to include a unit using IBM's 300+MB micro drive. While this drive obviously has a size and weight advantage over the Jukebox's, how much can they actually sell it for now that its MP3 capacity, in a span of a few months, has gone from huge to modest. The player hasn't even come out yet! Indeed, these new Rio's may possibly be scrapped because market forces might not allow them to sell at prices that would cover the costs of those expensive micro drives.
The good news for consumers is that Remote Solution has provided shoppers with a choice. A choice that puts pressure on the companies supplying the storage cards and micro drives to drop prices, less they watch the MP3 portable industry shift to laptop drives - a seasoned, and far more competitive, arena.
The Personal Jukebox is a large an heavy unit for an MP3 player, closer in size and weight to a portable CD player. That's still a pretty reasonable size, especially since you can tote far more music along. It may not be the first choice of joggers for whom the smaller the better, but everywhere else it was a blessing
Real Jukebox uses a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery which give the unit a very long life considering the power needs of the hard drive, about 10 hours. This battery is another feature that makes this unit a candidate for milestone kudos. The battery charges inside the unit which comes with a power adapter.
The unit, which comes with both a cassette and cigarette lighter adapter, was ideally suited for the car. We didn't even bother to use the lighter adapter, we just attached the cassette adapter, popped it in the cassette bay of our radio, closed the player in the glove compartment, and ran tunes the whole day on just the battery. No CD changer in the trunk, no miles of speaker wire to lay.
We also hooked our player up to the stereo system. At this point we had a dozen CD's worth of music and if the Personal Jukebox seems big when compared to other MP3 portables, it is sleek and petite when compared to the bulky 100 CD carousels that equals it's music capacity.
Getting started: A
The unit includes Jukebox Manager, an intuitive drag-and-drop interface that easily allowed us to rip and download files to the player. We had no problem loading the software to our PC. A key (and another milestone) feature is the user has the ability to rip and encode MP3 files directly to the players hard drive, bypassing the need to load these files on your computers hard drive first. This is a major convenience in both time and system space.
The player connects to your PC through a USB cable, the only way to go when you have the power to download hundreds of megs of MP3 files in a shot. Downloads were quick and simple.
Big and easy. The unit doesn't have some of the nice features in other units, like the ability to scan within a song, but it did the job well and that is what's most important. The controls were precise and effective.
The Display: A
Excellent. The display on the Personal Jukebox is twice the size of the nearest competitor and they put it to good use. The unit shows no less than six categories of information simultaneously, avoiding the need to navigate through various sub-menus to display the info you need. This includes CD and folder titles (the player can separate music by genre or album title) track name, tone and bass settings, battery consumption, volume, bit rate of the music, a counter, and more.
While the unit does not come with a backlight, the letters were big and clear and were very readable in all but the lowest light conditions.
The Personal Jukebox comes with a fine set of Koss headphones. Some may choose to go with low profile earbuds - the Sennheiser MX-4 earbuds are our recommendation - but there was no need to upgrade for the sound quality, the Koss's did the job well
The reason MP3 player's will eventually send the cassette the way of the 8 track is convenience and the ability to store large amounts of music without taking up physical space. The biggest complaint of 32MB and 64MB portables is that they simply are not there yet, requiring you to constantly run back to your PC to swap music. The Personal Jukebox IS there right now as Jukebox owners can hold most (if not their entire) CD library, leveraging the advantages of the format today.
The industry seemed ready to bring larger capacity units by 64MB increments, thereby using capacity as a continual upgrading point, similar to how PC's use chip speed to get you to upgrade your system every few years. Personal Jukebox jumped over all that malarchy and now stands alone as the pre-eminent machine. The $799 pricetag should cause ripples in an industry that would have today priced this much capacity in the thousands.
The unit is not a perfect instrument. It's a tad heavy for the exercise minded, you can feel the hard drive mildly vibrate when it changes tunes, it doesn't have some useful scan and backlight features. So what? We'll take four-and-a-half gigs of extra space over a backlight anyday. In other words, the advantages this portable offers far outbalances the couple of minor niceties it may be missing. This unit is more expensive than the $150-$200 portables on the market, but it offers far more bang to the buck.
BUT - and this is important - this does NOT mean that every other portable on the market is ready for the dustbin. The reason is the memory expansion slots most have, the saving grace of the industry. Right now a 32MB flash card sells for about $100, quite a bit of money. Those prices will go down!
As mentioned above, what makes the Personal Jukebox so significant to the industry is that it pressures memory manufacturers to drop those prices quicker. In a couple of years, 32MB cards will sell for around five bucks and 300 MB cards will sell for about $50. At those prices, these flash cards will essentially become the new cassettes. Heck, we might be able to buy them pre-programmed with music from the record store like any other album (the Rio people saw this early and added sleeves to the carrying case of the Rio 500 that holds 8 flash cards).
When that happens, users will get that bang for the buck, even on units that already been on the market for a year. They also get the size and weight advantages not offered by the large Remote Solutions machine.
Bottom line, not everyone has $800 to spend right now for the Personal Jukebox. For a fraction of that cost, the better of the 64MB players like the Rio 500 and the RaveMP can do just fine till memory card prices drop. Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later.
Final Score: A+ (a Milestone Player)
Creative's 6GB NOMAD Jukebox can be ordered from Amazon for $423. Available in Blue and Silver.
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