The Creative Nomad Jukebox MP3 Player
Note: This has been UPDATED at the bottom!
I just received mine from buy.com, and figured I'd write home about it. First, some factual corrections to Orange_Julius's w/u which aren't his fault 'cuz it didn't exist when he wrote that...
- Price: I got mine for $422 from buy.com. Plus shipping (maybe $12).
- Battery Life: More like 4 hours. But they give you two sets of NiMH rechargeables, not bad.
Controls and Form Factor
The player feels and looks almost exactly like a high-end Discman. It's obviously using the same form factor; whether for consumer acceptance or to save money on plastics I have no idea. It weighs 13-14oz (or about 0.4 Kg), and has a plethora of buttons on the front: Play, Stop, Skip Back, Skip Fwd, Up, Down, Lib, EAX, and three 'soft' buttons that change function according to the display. Play and Stop, held down, double as the power on/off buttons. This isn't a problem (usually - see 'software' below) because not only is the 'hold down' time fairly long, but there's a control lock on the side of the unit. Lib is 'Library,' and puts you into Library mode where you can view and search for (and queue up) tracks from your unit's 6GB library. EAX is Creative's version of DSP Surround modes, such as Hall, Arena, Stone room, Club, etc. etc. It's OK; nothing to write home about. I found that EAX lowered the gain on the output fairly significantly, and the stock circuits or headphones (not sure which) aren't too strong in the first place. Not back, just a little anemic when on headphones.
Finally, there's a 'soft' volume wheel next to the headphone jack, and a reset button on the bottom of the unit. The latter is depressed and shielded like that on a Palm V. There's an infrared window that Creative Labs claims is for a soon-to-be-released remote control/car adapter option.
The sound coming out of the unit is fine. It sounds pretty much exactly like what comes out of my Mac or PC. Although there is some hiss in the headphones, that appears to be mostly circuitry noise - hooking up the Line Out to a decent stereo and playing a 128kb bitrate MP3 almost entirely eliminated the hiss. It's only really noticeable if your MP3 was recorded a tad soft, and you have the volume cranked to compensate. Let me revisit the volume issue. The volume wheel is soft, which means it spins infinitely, and a display pop-up on the screen displays the volume as you do so. The values are 1 to 20. At anything below 10 with the stock headphones, I couldn't hear anything at all. Huh? At 20, it was okay, but not ass-kicking loud; at times the subway would drown it out when I was riding home. That's no good. I suppose I could jack the EQ up all the way (there's a parametric EQ setting, but engaging it even with the values pushed up seemed to make the sound softer) but why should I have to? I want volume 20 to mean this one goes to eleven, damn it.
The EAX, frankly, didn't impress me. I couldn't hear a big difference in sound when changing the settings, mostly because turning it on made things softer.
Well, right here it pretty much makes up for all the rest of its problems. It does indeed, as claimed, hold around 125 CDs worth of music. The 6GB works out to around 7 cents/megabyte of storage space. Wow. That compares to the flash versions at around $3.50/meg, when a 64MB player goes for around $225. I remember when hard drives themselves dipped below a dollar a meg. :-)
Power is not bad. They warn you to charge the batteries for 12 hours before using it; I managed to get in a 4 hour charge, and they lasted for 2.5 of their expected 4 (at full charge) on the way home. There's a prominent sticker which cautions you to only use Creative Labs rechargeable niMH batteries in it. Schyeah. The batts are the typical 4 x AA batteries, and the rechargeables are AA formfactor (you get 8). They only charge in the unit, which is sort of a pain, but not bad. I don't honestly know if you can use regular AAs (I dont' see why not) as emergency road food for the box.
This is a mixed bag. The CD does include Mac and PC software; the Mac side installs SoundJam MP, which is a good player/organizer/ripper. I already owned the Plus (licensed) version; this one is different, however, being modified to communicate with the Jukebox, and it didn't seem to find my registration key from the old one. I have to ask SoundJam (er, Casady and Greene) about that...last time I had to ask them about licenses, they treated me very well. I'd lost my license code, and I emailed them, and they looked it up and emailed it back in 4 hours - not bad, considering I'd bought the software 8 months before.
The problem is that the Jukebox support appears kind of rudimentary. You get a window that shows you what's in the Jukebox at the moment, in one big list - no folders. Also (to my annoyance) I couldn't find a way for it to name files using their ID3 tags. This is made worse by the fact that I couldn' t get the ID3 tags to display on the jukebox either! Although it knew about them, because it would let you filter the selection list by Artist, Album or Genre, the files themselves were named just as they were on the disk. This made looking at the play queue sorta awkward.
Back to SoundJam. There is, of course, no way to download MP3s from the Jukebox to the PC, as a sop to the RIAA. Kudos to Creative Labs, though, although trumpeting 'future SDMI compliance,' they note that the SDMI firmware upgrade will be optional and identified clearly as such; in addition, it will be a separate module (so tech support claimed) so that you don't have to install it to use future upgrades. The downside probably will be that SDMI-encoded music won't play. You can, however, up- and download other file formats like WAV just fine - and yes, if you just rename an MP3 to a WAV, you can up/download it. It won't play on the jukebox though. Real WAVs will - the Jukebox records from Line In to WAV files. I tested it by renaming an MP3, a word doc, a Visio drawing and a floppy image (Linux disk image) to .WAV and uploading them, then downloading them and naming them back - works. Cool. Emergency file storage space.
Finally, although you can make a playlist in SoundJam and upload it to the Jukebox, it appears to simply upload the files referenced - it doesn't upload a playlist. I still haven't figured out how to make it upload a playlist from the Mac. As far as I can tell, you can't build playlists on the unit itself, either. I also noticed that the USB file transfer on the Mac seemed a lot slower, and there isn't a 'hot' transfer queue - you select a bunch of files and say 'go' and then it makes you wait until it's done. At only around 400K/sec that might be a while. Furthermore, if you put SoundJam into the background, it pauses the upload without warning you! All in all, while I still love SoundJam, their support for this thing is laughable, and I still don't know if Creative gives you a full license for SoundJam MP Plus (Altivec support for ripping, more formats, etc.)
The PC side installs Creative's own 'Creative Jukebox' app. I presume it's much like the one for the Nomad64, although I haven't seen that. It's much better at communicating with the jukebox that SoundJam; it has a live transfer queue, and a much, much more intuitive 'double window' system for transferring files. Select them on the left in a modified but standard windows explorer pane and click 'Transfer' - and they jump to a 'queue' pop-up window and begin uploading one at a time. However, you can continue to browse, select and add files to the queue while it's running. Again, it seemed quicker on the PC than the Mac. (PowerMac G4/500, Dell PIII/733). I must say, though, ripping is YARDS faster on the Mac, probably due to Altivec - ripping the same album on the Mac took around 43% of the time it took to rip on the PC, and that's with a slower processor.
I have to keep playing with the software; neither package is too intuitive, so I may just be doing stuff wrong. However, I couldn't figure out how to download a playlist on the Creative windows app, either.
This leaves us with the software on the unit itself. Thank God Creative promises it's 'upgradeable via the Internet' because the flashware in this thing sucks ass. Why? Let me count the ways -
- No shuffle mode. What? I got 573 songs in here and I gotta listen to them in alpha order!??
- I still can't get playlists to work. This is my problem, but I'm a damn sysadmin toy freak, it shouldn't be this hard to figure out.
- You can't zip fwd/back within a song. Huh?
- Going from 'Library' to 'Queue' (Play) mode is annoying, and takes several seconds; you can't perform library ops from the Queue mode and vice versa. A moded walkman? No, no, boys. Bad.
- The power software appears twitchy. Both times I let it run out of battery power while playing, it put up the 'battery' icon on the display (good) and then froze (bad). I couldn't even turn it off; that's a software function. It just sat there (with the drive running, no less) until I punched the reset key, which turned it off. Oh, great. I can now crash my Walkman.
- The EAX stuff seems to mostly muffle the sound.
- Let me reiterate, NO SHUFFLE MODE?
- Where the hell are my painfully checked and entered ID3 tags???
Anyhow, Creative has promised Shuffle and fwd/back search in the next rev.
I'm still glad I bought this (I didn't own any portable music option at the time). However, if I had already owned a flash MP3 player, I might've wanted to wait and see if the price went down and/or the software improved after the holiday rush. It's barely usable now; although you can, in fact, have all your music, organizing it is well-nigh impossible, and it has roughly the same battery life as my iBook playing MP3s. It does, however, fit in a pocket and work on the go. Oh yes, the buffer - there's an 8MB buffer. That prevented any skips from occuring when I was using it, swinging it in a bag, walking, running for a subway, whatever. No problems.
One thing I'm curious about - it takes an awful long time to load up a new song. I presume this is because it has to spin up the disk. I want to know why it couldn't be smarter about caching. I understand that if I hit controls and change the play order on the fly it'll have to spin up and reload, but if I'm just playing the curernt queue, why does it need to spin up for every song? Why not just load 8MB at a time regardless of track boundaries? I'm not getting the full power-saving benefit of the cache this way.
So that's it. I like mine, the neato factor is huge, and I like having the entire contents of my 'favorites' MP3 folder with me wherever I go. I just wish they'd done one more software rev before releasing it.
Okay, so I have to eat some crow. As Orange_Julius notified me and I found out, there is a shuffle mode. There's also a random mode. I'm not totally clear on the difference, but will get back to you. To access the play modes, you need to select Details while in Play mode and a song is playing. Then the rightmost soft button will cycle playmodes.
What else...oh, yes. You can construct playlists on the Jukebox by adding music to the current play queue and then by going into the EAX mode, which doubles as machine settings. Scrolling down the list (I hadn't done that) offers some more options, including 'save playlist.' It lets you name your playlist. I also figured out how to create and d/l them using Creative Jukebox on windows, but not SoundJam on the Mac.
Hmmm...ah. Amongst all the nice correction hoo-hah, I'd like to point out a subtle problem whose subtlety makes it even more annoying. This is that while the track/playlist/album/artist names are case-insensitive in both Creative Jukebox and SoundJam, they are case-sensitive on the jukebox itself. This means that if you upload tracks by 'underworld' and by 'Underworld' they'll show up as separate artists. The annoyance factor of this is compounded by the fact that Creative Jukebox won't accept a title change just to change case - you have to make a substantive change, hit return to save it, then go back in and change it back with the new case info. Bleargh.
This is made even more of a problem by the fact that I still haven't figured out how to get the #$&*@(@* thing to accept uploaded tracks using their ID3 tag info for track names instead of their filenames. I tend to store files with just track names inside a folder named for the album inside a fodler named for the artist. This means that when browsing the music available on the jukebox, all I get is track names. I have to hit 'Detail' to see artist/album info. Dumb.
Batteries...after a few 'normal' charge/discharge cycles, I'm seeing around 3-3.5 hours per battery charge. I haven't tried regular Duracells yet. The other annoyance is that while in use the NiMH cells get extremely hot, enough so that I worry about electronics (although I guess the HD itself might be the heat generator not the batteries...)
Some minor nitpicks re: the software again. The backlighting is sorta braindamaged; it keeps coming on and going off on my unit even after I upped the backlight delay time. In addition, even if the lock switch is on, pressing a key will illuminate the backlight and trigger a message on the screen telling you to switch off the lock to use the controls. Huh? This means that when my Jukebox is in a case, say, every time I press a key by accident while it's in use, it fires up the backlight and offers up messages (occasionally, I have noticed, spinning up the HD to do so). This has to just suck battery life.
The lock won't even prevent it from coming on. It'll come on, boot up halfway, then announce that the lock is on and shut back down. It will keep doing this if the play button is pressed down, say by a carrying case or something in your bag while it's off.
More as it happens.
I gave this thing away the same day the iPod became available, and have been a happy happy iPod user for 1 yr+.