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The Cutting Edge

New Nomad Jukebox Digital Music Player Really Turns Up the Volume

Audio: Essentially an MP3 unit on steroids, product's 6-gig hard drive can store the equivalent of 150 CDs.


It looks like a portable CD player and it plays music, but that's only half the story. Or, to be more precise, a 150th of the story.

The Nomad Jukebox, which hits stores next week, is a digital music player that can store the equivalent of 150 CDs in a neat package weighing less than a pound.

That's right, you read it right the first time.

The aptly named Jukebox carries a whole library of music. You can play the songs in any order and make your own playlists.

The Jukebox and the PJB100, a similar device launched last year by Korean manufacturer HanGo, are perhaps the most exciting gadgets yet to use the digital music technology known as MP3.

Smaller digital music players using this format have been around for more than two years, but have not yet become a mainstream product because of the expensive memory chips they use.

A typical beeper-sized MP3 player costs $250 and carries one or two hours of music. When you tire of the music, you have to go back to your computer and switch out some of the music files, which takes some time.

The $499 Jukebox and the $695 PJB100 short-circuit this problem by replacing the memory chips with a 6 gigabyte hard drive, much like those in laptop computers.

The sheer volume of storage invites awed number-dropping: 6 gigabytes is 100 hours of near-CD quality music, or four days of continuous listening, or 2,000 songs. Connect a microphone to it, and you can record 10 hours of sound with the same quality as professional digital audio tape, or DAT.

To transfer music to the Jukebox, the owner puts a CD in a computer CD-ROM drive and uses the Jukebox' accompanying software to transfer the music to the computer hard drive. This takes five to 15 minutes per CD. Then, the music can be transferred via cable to the Jukebox.

The Jukebox is even a new way of distributing music.

It comes with 20 hours of music and audio books, including Beethoven, Mozart, and--for those who can't wait for Survivor II--the complete Robinson Crusoe. There's even some rap from Singapore, which happens to be the home of the Jukebox's maker, Creative Labs Inc.

The head of Creative Lab's U.S. division, Craig McHugh, says they are thinking of selling Jukeboxes with different kinds of music pre-loaded.

"Maybe you can have a country and western version, with 20 country and western songs," he suggests.

But for all its potential, the Jukebox is clearly a first-generation product, and doesn't deal entirely successfully with the challenges it creates.

For one thing, it's hard to organize 2,000 songs on a 1-by-2-inch LCD screen. It shows five album titles or artist names at a time, so it can take some time to scroll to those ZZ Top tracks at the end of the list. Navigating around isn't easy either, because both the library of stored music and the playlist are accessed by the same button.

A 17-year-old who tried out the Jukebox and is accustomed to the colorful MP3 player programs typical on home computers these days was disappointed by the monochrome display and data-entry limitations, but stuck the device in his baggy pants pocket, put on the headphones, and carried it everywhere.

Ideally, the Jukebox would have a little keyboard, where the user could tap in the name of the song to be played. No doubt we will see such devices in the future.

We also had some problems playing a few MP3s downloaded from the Internet. They will play fine on a software PC player, but may be impossible to load into the MP3 player or skip while playing. This problem has occurred with other MP3 players as well, and is not unique to the Jukebox.

Another problem noticeable with smaller MP3 players is magnified by the Jukebox's storage capacity.

CDs are recorded at different volume levels, and mixing songs from different CDs on the playlist can send the listener diving for the volume control all too often. Some programs for reading CDs include a feature that evens out sound levels, but the Jukebox's program does not.

Creative promises four hours of battery life with the included rechargeables. In our tests, they lasted little more than three hours, a pretty normal relationship between claim and reality.

But one of the best uses of the Jukebox may not be as a portable device dependent on batteries. Plug it into powered speakers and you have a mini-stereo system, ideal for playing MP3s in rooms away from the computer, such as the kitchen. There may even be a remote control for the Jukebox in the future, Creative says.

The device's usefulness in cars is obvious too. Connect it to the stereo with a cassette adapter and to the cigarette lighter for power and you can drive coast to coast without hearing the same song twice--or even touching the Jukebox.

The Jukebox is a good start and will be worth its price for many music lovers, but a second generation of these is likely to be easier to use, lighter, and have longer battery life.

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