Mon, 11 Sep 2000

Nomad Jukebox can play 100 hours of non-stop music

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP): Forget about Napster, forget about I'm already hooked on MP3, almost to the point of being addicted. And the culprit is Nomad Jukebox from Creative Technology in Singapore.

At a glance, this device looks like a Sony Discman. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice there is no slot for any removable medium. Instead, there is an LCD with seven lines of text. It can run on four AA batteries, but Creative included two sets of NiMH rechargeable batteries in the box. The Reviewer Guide claims that, fully charged, these batteries provide four hours of playing time.

The control panel has the Play and Stop buttons, which also function as the Power Up and Power Down buttons, respectively, when pressed for a couple of seconds. There is also the Scroll button and the Skip Backward and Skip Forward buttons. There is a button for entering the library of music files, and another to call up the EAX (Environment Audio Extension) menu as well as the settings of the entire system. Just at the bottom of the LCD there are three so-called softkeys. The functions of these keys change, depending on where you are on the on-screen menu.

Nomad Jukebox could be called a small computer in itself. It comes with a lot of music stored on its 6 GB hard disk, including collections of the best pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Bizet, Mozart, Verdi and Vivaldi. The demo playlist includes my favorite Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which sounds as crystal clear as the CD because the file was encoded at the 128 kbps rate. There are two line-out jacks that allow the MP3 player to be connected to four speakers to create realistic surround effects. A line-in jack will enable you to record music or voice from an external source. If you are a journalist and you have a microphone with a pre-amp, you can use this device to record interviews or live coverage.

After adding several tracks from my favorite Engelbert Humperdinck and Jimmy Cliff CDs, I still have a little bit less than 4 GB hard disk space. Creative states that Nomad Jukebox can store 100 CDs worth of music, and you can have more than 100 hours of CD-quality music to listen to should you ever have nothing else to do for four days and four nights in a row. You would need the power adapter, of course.

Ripping the music

The beauty of this gadget is that it easily allows people to create MP3 files from CD collections.

Thus, the idea of being able to create collections of music files for personal use -- not to exchange them over the Internet with other people -- sounds really appealing. There is a strong reason for that.

"The record companies often mix great tracks with some really boring ones," says Sim Wong Hoo, Creative Technology's CEO and chairman in his keynote speech at a media event last month. "Creative's Nomads give us the flexibility that allows us to listen only to the music that we really like."

The company emphasized, however, that it did not intend their MP3 players to be used to pirate copyrighted material, but that it would be difficult to control as this gadget can also be used to store MP3 files downloaded from the Internet.

Creating an MP3 file from a track on a CD is called "ripping", and it is almost like a drag and drop activity. Nomad Jukebox comes with software called PlayCenter 2.0 for PCs or SoundJam MP for the Mac. The unit itself connects to the computer via a supplied USB cable. When the software is loaded, the PC takes control of the Jukebox.

When I popped a Ray Charles CD into the PC's CD-ROM drive, clicked on the Audio CD button on PlayCenter, the list of the tracks appeared on its left panel. However, since the compact disc did not contain the name of the individual songs or the name of the artists, I had to type them in manually. An easier way would be to download the list of names and artist from a special website called CDDB, which has a public domain database of CD titles and their lists of contents. PlayCenter can be set to connect to this site automatically.

Once the tracks were properly encoded and selected, all I had to do was click on the Transfer button. The ripping process was extremely fast -- partly thanks to the power of my newly assembled Pentium III 733 MHz machine. It took only a couple of seconds to convert a 3-minute track into an MP3 file. When the ripping process was completed, the tracks -- now in the MP3 format -- existed on both the PC and the Jukebox. I could have set the software not to leave a copy on my hard disk.

On the Jukebox, the special Music Disk Operating System (MDOS) automatically stores the music files in alphabetical order. Three categories are provided to make searching easy. You can group all the stored MP3 files based on the artist names, the music types (jazz, classic, rap and so on) or the album titles.

To play the music, you have to locate the songs that you want to include on the playlist manually first, and then press the Queue softkey to add it to the list. Once the list is ready, you can press the Play button, sit back and enjoy the music. The active playlist can be saved for later use, and new playlists can be created easily. Entering the name for the playlists with the Plus and Minus buttons will be quite a hassle, unfortunately. It is worse than having to enter names into the phonebook using your cell phone's keypad.

The EAX audio technology allows you to adjust several audio parameters, including boosting the bass, midrange and treble frequency ranges. It can create a 3-D sensation if used with headphones. It can even slow down the playback of music without altering the pitch. This is really an amazing breakthrough in audio technology. It is a great feature if you want to transcribe a recorded conversation, for example, as you can slow down the speech without changing the pitch of the voices.

An infrared port is already built in, although there is still no use for it today. Creative is working on a remote control device that will utilize this port. In the future, it may also be possible to transfer music files using the infrared connection. In addition to MP3 and WAV formats, Jukebox can be programmed to store and play any future music file formats.

Some Imperfections

The Nomad Jukebox is still imperfect in many respects. To start with, it is difficult to really use the device before reading the guides and manuals, and that means usability needs to be improved. The PlayCenter 2.0 software is not very intuitive, either. For example, there is no drag and drop as well as copy and paste facilities would normally be taken for granted in a Windows program.

More annoying is the fact that there is no way to rearrange the sequence of the songs on the playlist. Once a playlist has been created, the only way to change the order of its contents is to delete it and create a new one. The LCD screen could use some improvement in readability.

The choice of the command Open instead of Enter is quite unfriendly. The assignment of the Open key is confusing, too, as sometimes you have to use the center softkey for Open and sometimes you have to use the one on the right. The Plus and Minus commands also sound rather strange; I don't quite understand why Creative does not simply use the words Up and Down instead. The good news is that the firmware can be upgraded with software downloaded from their website.

Creative Technology has introduced a new category of electronic devices that they call Personal Digital Entertainment (PDE). Whether the market will accept them remains to be seen.

Creative was not the first to come up with a portable MP3 player, but their Nomad line has been the choice of editors, particularly Nomad II and the newer Nomad II MG. The US$499.00 (RRP) Jukebox is the top of the line model, and, for now, it seems that the Nomad Jukebox does reflect how we are going to listen to music -- or even audio books -- in the future. (