If you say MP3 today, most people will know that you are talking about a music file, commonly downloaded from the internet or created from audio CD?s. I can remember the time when MP3 was a format just picking up speed, and when MP2 was used to do the same task. MP2 however, would take about 100MB for an entire album, where MP3 can do the same in about 60MB, depending on quality. Personally when I rip MP3?s I use a high bitrate and my albums end up around 100MB anyway. When MP3 players first arrived, they had small amounts of memory ? typically 64MB onboard, with an expansion slot. I had a Rio 500 for a while that had a total of 96MB of memory. This was enough for a custom album, but that was it. We eventually saw the rise of MP3 CD players and jukebox MP3 players. Jukebox MP3 players contain hard drives which have plenty of space for your MP3 collection. We are going to take a look at two different hard drive-based MP3 players today – one from Archos, and one from Creative.
Archos Jukebox FM Recorder 20:
- 20GB Hard Drive
- USB 2.0/1.1 for up to 480Mbps
- MP3 30-320 kBps and VBR
- FM Tuner Built In
- LCD Display 112×64 Pixels
- Up to 12 hours playback time
- Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery
- Carrying Pouch
- MusicMatch Jukebox Software
There are the accessories for the Jukebox FM Recorder 20. You get a stereo RCA cable to hook the unit to a home theater system, the USB 2.0 cable, headphones with built in volume control, AC adaptor, carrying pouch, and the software/manual. The headphones fold together to make a decently small package, but I would recommend that you ditch them and go get a nicer pair. I use Sennheiser MX 500 earbud headphones for listening to my MP3 player of choice. There isn?t much else to say about the accessories, they work as promised.
Archos MP3 Player
Taking a look at the controls of the Archos, we see they are laid out in a basic circular pattern. Up and Down for menu navigation/sound control, Left and Right move between tracks, and then there is stop and menu (on and off if held down). In the center is the play/pause button, and the three buttons at the top select functions such as the FM radio. Overall the controls on the Archos are pretty easy to use, but the menu system could be better.
I tried out the FM radio, and it did alright unless it was near my computer system, but I can hardly fault it for that. Having the ability to listen to FM radio is nice, but may not be what you want to do when you have 20GB of MP3?s on the system. One other big plus for the Archos Jukebox FM Recorder 20 is that it doesn?t require drivers for using the hard disk. It will work automatically and allow you to transfer MP3?s or any data to it, so if you take it to work and need to take a large file home for some reason you can just hook it up and copy the file to it. It?s always good when there are no special drivers required to access a USB disk device.
AC and USB Port
The Archos has a line out and a line in port, and an AC port and USB port. All of these are pretty self explanatory, and it?s good to see Archos using the standard small USB connector instead of a proprietary one, making the cable easy to replace should you lose it.
Exploring The Jukebox
In these two shots you can see that it?s easy to get to the jukebox and copy files over. Organization can be done with folders, but MusicMatch is better suited to manage your player. In device manager, the Jukebox shows up as a Hitachi USB hard drive.
The Good And Bad:
Overall the Archos was a decent player, but there are some issues that I had with the player. First off, though the LCD is backlit, it?s of the old style, lights at the bottom type and doesn?t work all that well. When turned on, it takes quite a while to load the OS and get going, and it?s a bit less responsive to commands than the other players we are looking at today. One thing you can do is display info about the song while you are playing it, but if you are playing a long song the unit must access the drive several times. This isn?t a problem, but when it accesses the drive, the display lags and you can?t do anything. In an eleven minute song the Archos accessed the drive 6 times. Also concerning battery life I found that the claim of 12 hours of continuous playback was not quite right on my unit. On a full charge it ran for about 11 hours and 15 minutes, 45 minutes short of the 12 hour claim. This isn?t a huge deal, and it may have only been my particular review unit.
Though meant to be a portable unit, the Archos doesn?t seem to be built as well as the other two units. The rear seems very thin, and with a hard drive right behind it, you will need to be careful. Regardless, with hard drive-based MP3 players you will need to be careful all the time.
On a more positive note, I already mentioned the ability to use this player as a portable hard drive, and the fact that it doesn?t require drivers. Also the speed of the device is quite good if you are using a USB2 connection. I was able to transfer 400MB?s of songs in just 40 seconds. On the quality of the sound on the Archos, it?s good, but not the best out of the two players. I already mentioned that the headphones should be tossed for some better ones. The Archos was able to get quite loud, but there was more hiss discernable on the Archos. Just so you know, I was using Sennheiser HD580 headphones and Sennheiser MX500 earbuds for my testing.
—– EXTENDED BODY:
Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen:
- 20GB Hard Drive
- USB 1.1 / FireWire for up to 400Mbps
- MP3/WMA/WAV Support
- Time Scaling +/- 50%
- Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery
- Up to 12 hours playback time
- Travel Pouch
- 16MB Buffer
- FM Tuner/Recording with optional FM Wired Remote
Jukebox Zen Accessories
Included accessories are headphones, travel pouch (bottom picture), Firewire and USB cables, AC adaptor, and the manual/software. Just as I recommended with the Archos, ditch the supplied headphones as they are not the greatest, and are also not that comfortable. The travel pouch is really nice, can hook onto your belt and leave all controls and the screen accessible. This can be a bad thing as you may end up scratching the screen. I recommend some Fellowe?s Write Right PDA screen protector for any MP3 player. Simply cut it to the required size and apply.
Creative Jukebox Zen
The controls for the Jukebox Zen are all around the sides of the player, leaving the front looking very bare except for the LCD. I like this approach myself, and the placement of the buttons is done well. The first set shows the previous/next track rocker button, the play/pause button, and the menu button. Along with this is a ?Quick Scroller? ? which is basically like a Sony Jog Dial, if you have ever used one of those. This type of controller lends itself very well to an MP3 player as you can scroll it up or down to move through playlists or songs, and push it in to select a song, feature or playlist.
The second set of controls features a rocker button for volume, a button that switches between the playing song and the current loaded list, and the power button. Out of all the buttons, the power button has a recess on the top and is harder to press, which is a bit annoying at first but once you get used to the button it?s not so bad.
The ports are on the top of the player and are the headphone line out with a long flat connector next to it for the wired remote. The I/O interfaces are the standard small FireWire and USB ports. The D/C port for charging the battery is along the left side of the player at the top.
While Creative built a good player, they are backing it up with worthless software. The Play Center software is clunky and not the easiest or fastest software to use. While it can do a lot ? rip CD?s and encode them, transfer files and create playlists, etc. it is not the greatest tool. At this point in the review I?m going to take a look at something you simply must buy if you are a Nomad owner or will be a future Nomad owner.
Don?t get mad, get Notmad:
A company by the name of Red Chair Software has developed the absolute best software (Notmad Explorer) you can buy for managing your Nomad. The software is very cost effective at only $25 for the Jukebox Zen version and $35 for the universal version and as low as $10 for the MuVo version. I would like to thank Red Chair Software for graciously providing me with a copy of Notmad Explorer for testing purposes. They were very helpful, quick to answer questions, and have been very patient. Thanks guys!
Notmad Explorer – Playlists
Here are some screenshots showing first the basic explorer interface, it lets you drag and drop files or folders, will automatically create playlists if you want, lets you manage and create playlists, albums, genres, artists, and data files. It also includes a web interface called Notweb Explorer, which will allow you to play files from your web browser. The search function is very useful and works quite quickly at that. Notmad Explorer unlocks the Jukebox Zen and makes using it a joy. Creative may not have written the software, but there is a large community of Nomad users ? one of them just got fed up with Creative?s software and built what is the best interface for an MP3 player I have ever seen, bar none. Creative support will even suggest that their users go download this software. All MP3 players need to come with software that is this functional and easy to use.
If you have a Nomad, you need Notmad ? it?s true. You will not be disappointed and I stand firmly behind this software. I even ran into a bug and they helped me resolve it. The bug was caused by my MS Intellimouse software, and after Notmad was installed was opening a new explorer window if I double clicked on anything to open it, instead of keeping it in the same window. This was very annoying, and a registry setting fixed the problem. The issue only showed up with the MS Intellimouse software installed, and Red Chair Software replied very quickly to my request and sent me all of the registry keys that their program changed ? a mere four. From there, troubleshooting the issue was simple, and it didn?t cause any problems with the Notmad software.
The Good And Bad:
The worst thing about this entire package is the software. Luckily we have some great third party software available ? other MP3 players don?t have this luxury. The extra software does add to the price of the setup as a whole, which isn?t cheap. That brings to mind another troublesome spot. I actually purchased a Jukebox Zen, and it all turned into a review. Regardless, I sent off a rebate form with all the required info and I have not gotten the rebate check promised and it is well after the timeframe stated on the rebate form. I even sent everything with delivery confirmation so I know for a fact that it was received. This is a common thing with rebates, companies hope you either don?t send them off or forget about them. Well guess what Creative?I haven?t forgotten. Again, the headphones aren?t that great.
Skipping to the good stuff, there is quite a bit. The Jukebox Zen has an excellent display, and I mean excellent. The blue backlight is great and navigating around the menus and playing songs is very smooth and simple. There are not many delays, except when you start playing a song and it has to spin up the drive and read it, but even then it?s not too bad. On the same 11 minute song that was tested on the Archos, the Jukebox Zen only had to spin up the drive once to cache additional information, and the unit was still as responsive as ever. Additionally, the claim of 12 hours of playback for the Jukebox Zen holds to be true. This is great as it means that on a single charge it can get you through most any road trip you can take.
Build quality on the Zen is really well done. The whole case is anodized aluminum and it has a very solid hefty feel without being too heavy. One of the other design features that comes off really well is the quick scroller button ? this is what makes navigation so smooth.
Sound quality on the Zen is very good, and it can get very loud without a problem. The other cool thing about the Zen?s sound is that it supports EAX environments, as well as Time Scaling. With Time Scaling you can speed up or slow down a song without altering the pitch so it sounds like it should, but just faster or slower. This is useful for extracting lyrics from artists who are singing 3.25 X 10^20 words per second.
Copying the same 400MB?s of files to the Zen over the FireWire connection yielded a wait of 1 minute and 15 seconds, not as fast as the Archos? 40 seconds, but then the files had to go through a software program (Notmad Explorer) which does some processing and creates playlists, rather than just being dumped onto the drive in a folder like with the Archos. Still, the FireWire connection is speedy and you will definitely want to use it over the USB 1.1 connection. Creative recently released a Zen with USB 2.0 only which you can opt for if you have USB 2.0 available. I used the FireWire port on my Audigy card to test with. It?s good to know that the port is actually working.
After using both of these MP3 players, the obvious winner to me is the Creative Jukebox Zen. The Archos may win in price at around $250 to the Zen?s $300 price tag, but the Zen is built better and has a feeling like it will last. The Archos feels cheap in comparison to the Zen and uses plastic where the Zen uses aluminum.
There is a point where both of the players don?t fare so well ? software. I personally don?t really like MusicMatch Jukebox, and I loathe Creative?s PlayCenter. Luckily you can copy folders over to the Archos using just Windows Explorer. The reason the Zen sits better in this category is not because of what Creative did, but what third-party software writer Red Chair Software took upon themselves to do. Creative is very lucky to have a community of people dedicated enough to the Nomad line that Notmad Explorer popped up. But this tacks about $25 onto the price tag of the system, though it is well worth the money.
When talking about sound quality, the Jukebox Zen is the clear winner. It also boasts EAX and Time Shifting features. EAX to me isn?t that useful, but some people enjoy it. Neither player wins any points with the quality of headphones included with the package. They simply don?t cut it for anyone serious about their music.
A key component for a portable of any type- whether it be MP3, Audio CD, or anything else, is usability. It is important for a product to be easy to use and work well. Creative did an excellent job with the Jukebox Zen as the buttons and controls are very well laid out. This isn?t to say that Archos? solution was bad, but Creative?s implementation was much better.
So after all is said and done, the Jukebox Zen looks to be the MP3 player to buy. The only other competition that I see for the Zen is Apple?s iPod for windows. Apparently Apple didn?t think they would compete very well because they didn?t want to be included in this review. They should place a bit more faith in their product I think. One of our staff has one, but he doesn?t do reviews and it would be impossible to pry the iPod from his hands. He does enjoy it and is impressed with it though, so if you are looking for an MP3 player I would say it?s a safe bet with either the Zen or the iPod. I really enjoy the Zen, even more so because of the Notmad Explorer software.