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MP3 PLAYER/SOFTWARE ROUNDUP – ISSUE 5

 

IOMEGA HIP-ZIP

The thing about most personal MP3 players is that there are no moving parts so unlike tape and disc players they won’t skip when you bounce boogie or bop to the music. That also means there’s less to go wrong or wear out, they’re robust and cheaper to make, which brings us to the Iomega HipZip…

 

HipZip is basically a wearable miniature floppy disc drive that uses Iomega’s cute little 40Mb PocketZip discs. In other words it’s mechanically complex with lots of moving parts. The discs are fragile  -- compared with memory cards -- and it’s pricey, but we think its really rather good!

 

The main advantage is that PocketZip discs are less than a fifth of the price of memory cards of equivalent capacity; 40Mb discs sell for between £8 and £12.50 each (they’re sold in packs – two for £25, four for £50 or ten for £80). Whilst the discs are not quite cheap enough to start building a collection, it does mean less faffing around, trying to manage a large collection of tracks on a limited amount of solid-state memory. There’s a lot more besides to like about the player. The smart two-tone dark grey/purple case is not much bigger than a tape cassette storage box and it feels quite substantial. It’s powered by rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries which take around 2 hours to top up and will run the unit for up to 12 hours – so Iomega claim… The best we got was just over nine and a half hours between charges, which is still pretty good though.

 

There are few controls to worry about with play/pause/stop skip and fast wind on the front; volume and menu select on the side. Discs fit into a slot on the top, protected by a hinged cover that’s doomed to be broken off if it catches on the wearer’s clothing. On the front there is a big backlit display, the viewing angle is quite shallow but catch it in the right light and it’s readable and packed with information, including track, title and artist, time and mode. It has a simple to use menu control system with all of the usual replay options (repeat one/all, random, skip, fast wind/rewind), plus independent bass and treble and three equaliser presets (rock classical jazz).

 

MP3 track transfers (or any other sub 40Mb files you care to copy across) are via a USB link to the PC. This benefits from being fast and (usually) very easy to configure, and as an added bonus Iomega has included file manager software for Macs. Unfortunately we had a lot of trouble with the installation. It doesn’t seem to be compatible with Windows ME; it completely trashed the Registry on our test PC, (fortunately ME is easy to recover). Installation on Windows 98 was very slow a couple of times we thought it had frozen. The Iomega installation program didn’t get on with the CleanSweep monitoring program on one of our PCs. In short we were not impressed, it all felt a bit flaky and we hope newer versions will have the bugs ironed out. The only good thing to say about it is that you get a fully licensed copy of the constantly improving Music Match jukebox/CD ripper software.

 

The earphones supplied with the player are a reasonable quality with soft rubber hooks to stop them falling off. They are tolerably comfortable and with a bit of fiddling around, produce a quite decent sound, though bass tends to be a bit thin. General sound quality (monitored through pukka headphones) is good with no significant processing noise and lower then average levels of hiss. Mechanical stability is excellent and it never missed a beat during a prolonged and vigorous shaking session.

 

HipZip makes an agreeable enough sound but you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from the better memory card models in the same price band, or even cheaper players heard through good quality headphones. The real bottom line is HipZip’s lower running cost and convenience; memory cards are still quite pricey and if you have a lot of tracks you want to listen to then it’s going to get expensive, or cumbersome, as you have to keep swapping files on the PC. PocketZip discs are only a little larger than memory cards, they need to be looked after a bit more carefully and probably won’t last as long but they work at least as well and are a whole lot cheaper. Definitely an interesting and innovative alternative to a conventional player, hopefully the iffy software will improve, if so, and you have a big collection of tracks, then it’s well worth thinking about!

 

Typical price             £290

Media                           PocketZip

Memory (int/sup)            2 x 40Mb discs

Memory (max)            n/a

Formats                        MP3 & Windows media

PC min sys                   Pentium or higher/63Mb/30Mb free/Windows 95/98, Mac OS 8.6/9, 20Mb free disc space

PC I/O              USB

Software                        IomegaWare file Manager, MusicMatch Jukebox, CD ripper

Phones             ‘sports’ type in-ear        

Power   /life                   lithium ion rechargeable/9.5 hours

Size                              110 x 68 x 28mm

Weight              200g

 

Features                       repeat one/all, random, play list edit, track skip, fast wind, manual bass/treble & 3-mode equaliser, track/title/artist/time display

 

Contact             www.iomega.com/europe

 

Ease of use                   8

Features                       8

Performance                  8

 

 

PINE D’MUSIC SM-200C

Pine was one of the very first companies to sell a personal MP3 player in the UK and to date it has produced some well-specified memory card models. The recently launched SM-200C shows the company is staying in touch with developments; it’s a personal CD player that plays MP3 tracks on CD-R/RW discs, one of several we’ve seen recently, but this one is a bit different.

 

To begin with it doesn’t look like an old off-the-shelf personal CD player that’s been tweaked to play MP3 tracks. The styling is imaginative and it has a decent sized LCD that shows track and title info. Pine recognises that personal CD players are likely to be used on the move and it has a 10 second anti-shock memory, plus it comes with a carry case, two sets of earphones (in-ear and back loop) and a set of rechargeable batteries. It will play just about any MP3 file, up to and including recordings with bit rates of 320kbps and it comes with some useful PC software in the shape of a full version of Music Match jukebox and CD ripper.

 

Disc playback facilities are brief and to the point – there’s no track program option  – but it does have the usual repeat and random play and intro scan. There’s also a five mode equaliser but for some reason this only works on MP3 tracks.

 

It’s just as well that it has the anti-shock facility since it is very touchy with it switched off. The back loop headphones produce a wispy and unsatisfying sound; the in-earphones are much better with a quite reasonable bass response that gives audio CDs some depth but the lead is way too short. MP3 playback is okay but even high bit rate tracks sound cramped and the equaliser function does little to help.

 

A touch pricey but audio CD playback is not too bad at all. The anti-shock system works – provided you don’t take it jogging – and it’s a capable, if uninspiring MP3 performer. If you’ve got a PC with a CD burner it’s worth short listing.

 

Typical price             £180

Media                           Audio CD, CD-R, CD-RW

Memory (int/sup)            n/a

Memory (max)            n/a

Formats                        MP3, audio CD

PC min sys                   n/a

PC I/O              n/a

Software                        sampler album, MusicMatch jukebox/CD Ripper/CD-R burn

Phones             back loop headphones & in-ear phones    

Power   /life                   2 x AA rechargeable/3-hours

Size                              130 x 142 x 30mm

Weight              280g

 

Features                       repeat one/all, random play, intro scan, track/title/time display, anti-shock memory, 5-mode equaliser, supports variable bit rates up to 320kbps, carry pouch

 

Contact             Pine, 01908 218243, www.pineuk.com

 

Ease of use                   8

Features                       7

Performance                  8

 

MICROBOSS ROCK MP3

Bizarre just about sums up this very strange device! We’re still not exactly sure what it’s all about, but rather than confuse matters further lets see what it can do. It’s housed in a mini hi-fi system sized box and the main feature appears to be Video CD playback. The Video CD format emerged briefly a couple of years before DVD and promptly bombed. Picture quality was only slightly better than VHS and most movies had to be spread across two discs. Video CD lives on in the Far East but here discs are scarce; you might come across some in a junk shop or at a car boot sale.

 

Of more immediate interest to us is the fact that it plays MP3 files on CD-R/RW discs and there’s a useful spin off from the VCD facilities in that deck mode, status and track titles are displayed on the TV to which it is connected.  The on-screen display also comes in handy for audio CD replay and is used to program track replay and access the players many and various functions. They include a karaoke with twin microphone inputs, variable echo and a pitch control function that works on all disc formats. It changes vocals, making them sound slow and bassy, or like you’ve just swallowed a balloon-full of helium.

 

All of this would be mildly interesting and novel, but for the fact that sound quality is spectacularly bad! The compression on MP3 tracks is evident at the best of times but on this player they sound as though they’re coming at you through a baked bean tin. Audio CD quality is awful with no bass or treble content to speak of, far too much hiss and processing noises and the player is really sensitive to dirty or grubby discs. The only thing is does half well is Video CD playback; picture quality is about as good as it gets and the soundtrack is liveable. Quite honestly we can’t think of any reason to buy one! If you want to watch Video CDs, play MP3 tracks and listen to audio CDs then there are several DVD players that do the job much, much better, and still cost less than the Microboss.

 

Typical price             £175

Media                           Audio CD, CD-R/RW, VCD

Memory (int/sup)            n/a

Memory (max)            n/a

Formats                        MP3, audio CD, VCD

PC min sys                   n/a

PC I/O              n/a

Software                        50 track sampler

Phones             none

Power   /life                   AC mains

Size                              220 x 75 300mm

Weight              2.8kg

 

Features                       Video CD replay (PAL & NTSC): picture search, slomo & zoom, intro scan. AudioMP3 replay: repeat one/all, program play, karaoke facility with echo, pitch control, vocal cut, remote control

 

Contact

 

Ease of use                   7

Features                       5

Performance                  2

 

 

WEB ROME 2

The last time we looked at a tape cassette shaped MP3 player (Web Rome 1, WMP3 issue 2, July/August 2000) we hinted that an improved Mk II version was in the pipeline that might answer some of our criticisms with a proper display and upgradeable memory. Well, here it is, the Web Rome 2, and it really is a big improvement. In addition to the display – fitted to an in-line remote module – and MMC memory card slot it also has a USB port and a completely redesigned control layout.

 

All of the most useful features have been retained though, including the one responsible for it being cassette shaped. Just slot Web Rome 2 into a tape deck and you can replay the MP3 tracks on its internal 32Mb memory or an MMC card. Sensors in the unit monitor movement of the tape decks hub spindles to control play and track skip functions, clever huh? Power comes from a nickel metal hydride rechargeable battery; this typically lasts for around five to six hours.

 

The in-line remote is a bit twee with a graphic of a little man flapping his arms to indicate play mode; the controls are also quite fiddly with one button on the side that seems to do half a dozen different things, with accompanying bleeps that are supposed to make it easier to use… It works fine, though and sound quality from the in-ear phones is fine. The only thing to watch out for is the lead, which has a springy bit in the middle that keeps getting in the way. Playback on a cassette deck works well though treble response – already stilted on some low to mid bit rate files MP3 tracks – can suffer further clipping. The Rome Master file manager/jukebox program is okay – as far as it goes --and the USB connection makes file transfer a doddle. If you’re still wedded to tape you’re going to like the Web Rome 2

 

Typical price             £159

Media                           MMC

Memory (int/sup)            32Mb

Memory (max)            64Mb

Formats                        MP3

PC min sys                   Pentium or higher/16Mb/16Mb free/Windows 98/ME/2000

PC I/O              USB

Software                        Rome Master file manager/jukebox

Phones             in-ear   

Power   /life                   NiMh rechargeable/6-hours

Size                              63 x 102 x 11mm

Weight              68g

 

Features                       repeat one/all, A-B repeat, 4-mode equaliser, in-line remote control, cassette drive replay

 

Contact            Webtronic Warehouse 01753 741090, www.webtronicwarehouse.com

 

Ease of use                   8

Features                       8

Performance                  8

 

 

 

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000, 2605

 

 


 

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