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November 30, 2000

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Unchained Melodies
Taking MP3 to the streets
By STUART WHITMORE

December 20, 1999
Web posted at 4:35 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:35 a.m. EDT


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I'm free. At last I'm free. Regular readers will be familiar with my little MP3 habit. I'm partial to downloading the odd song gratis from the Net. And I love filling my hard drive with sounds copied from my CD collection. It's like fitting my PC with a 20-disc CD player and setting the controls to "shuffle." I've even hooked my laptop up to the stereo, allowing me to blast out a random selection of my favorite tunes at neighbor-baiting decibel levels.

But I've managed to drag myself away from the keyboard. The reason: I've got MP3 to go. For the past few weeks I've been using the Nomad, a Walkman-like device from Singapore's Creative Technologies that, come to think of it, isn't much like a Walkman. The concept is the same -- music on the move -- but the Nomad is smaller than a cassette, let alone a whole cassette player. Even better, it's all digital. There are no moving parts. So there's no tape to get chewed up, or CD to skip when I hop. After lusting after an MP3 player for so long, it's everything I hoped it would be. Well, almost.

If you're thinking of treating yourself to an MP3 player like the Nomad this Christmas, be warned that you're still an early adopter. You'll need a certain amount of tech savvy, fairly deep pockets and patience with the fact that what you're shelling out for may still have some rough edges.

Physically the Nomad is all smoothness and light. It comes with a magnesium casing that makes other MP3 players I've handled feel cheap and plasticky. And it weighs just 64g (until you put the two AAA batteries in). But it also comes with a clunky docking station about five times its size. The Nomad rests in the docking station to recharge its batteries (which have a respectable five hours life span) and to pick up MP3 files from your PC.

I was hoping for the freedom to swap MP3 files between my two PCs at home and work. I can't. To do that I'd have to carry the docking station, its power pack and the thick cable that links the docking station to the parallel port of the PC. Hardly an option. The parallel port connection has another downside. That hole is probably already occupied by your printer. And setting up the port to work with the docking station involves messing around with the BIOS settings of your PC -- ground zero for your machine's settings. That's not something a nervous novice user would feel too comfortable doing.

The Nomad comes with all the software needed to play MP3s, copy CDs and transfer music to and from the player. I found the software a little buggy and downloading files was complicated by the fact that the Nomad doesn't always sit properly in its docking station. There are other grumbles. Sending files to the Nomad was a fairly sluggish process as parallel ports are not renowned for lightning fast transmission speeds. The player boasts a shuffle function, but it often repeats songs it has already played before it moves on to fresh tunes.

The Nomad comes equipped with 32 megabytes of memory, which can be upgraded to 64 megs with a flash memory card -- a wafer-thin piece of plastic the size of a large postage stamp. If you want CD-quality sound, the rule of thumb is a megabyte a minute, so 64 MB gives only an hour's worth of music. Respectable, but remember you won't be carrying any spare minidiscs or cassettes with you. When you get bored of listening to the same old songs, it's back to the PC. It is possible to double play time if you record the tracks at a lower quality, but the sound suffers badly on quieter songs like acoustic ballads. The final gripe is the price. At $249.99 for the 64MB model, the Nomad isn't cheap.

But forget the quibbles. The first ever Walkman was hardly perfect. Most importantly the Nomad sounds great even at a volume loud enough to drown out the city traffic. And it was great to be wired for sound again. (I long ago gave up on my portable CD player, too bulky and too fragile for carrying around Hong Kong, and I never invested in minidiscs.) Being able to run around the streets with the tiny Nomad hidden in my shirt pocket, mumbling incoherent snatches of Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call at complete strangers, was wonderfully liberating. By getting in early, you also get a chance to show off, too. Hand your player to some clueless friends and watch with mirth as they turn it every which way they can trying to work out why they can't open it.

If you're not so desperate to impress, it would be worth waiting until after Christmas before opening your wallet. MP3 players are going to get better, smaller and cheaper all the time. Second generation players (Creative will debut its Nomad II in the first quarter of next year) are junking the parallel port in favor of zippy USB connections. The cost of flash memory is falling, while its capacity is rising. It won't be long before today's 32MB flash memory cards are replaced by affordable ones with four to eight times the storage space. Even Sony, maker of the Walkman, is readying a digital version of its franchise for release early 2000. Now all I need is for someone to start selling wireless headphones so I don't keep getting in a tangle. Dear Santa . . .

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