The NOMAD MuVo from Creative Technology is a fairly nifty combination MP3 player/USB micro drive. The 128MB version I recently purchased was only $30 more than some name brand 128MB key drives. So, if you're looking for an MP3 player that can also back up/transport your data, it could be just the thing you're looking for if more advanced devices like Apple's iPod or NOMAD's jukebox are out of your price range.

The MuVo -- which comes in 64 and 128MB sizes -- is a cigarette lighter-sized device that comes in two pieces. It's packaged with a neck strap, battery, and a pair of reasonably decent earbuds.

The outer dark blue piece is essentially a power pack that holds a single AAA battery; you get 12 hours of play out of a single battery. There's a small lanyard hole to attach it to the included neck strap. The neck strap works pretty well; the device is tiny enough to ride unnoticed beneath a sweater or sweatshirt, and that combined with a pair of earbuds can make for a very lightweight music system. However, the neck strap got annoying at the gym; the small Case Logic neoprene armband carriers designed to hold the Rio hold the MuVo and its earbuds just fine, and are quite a bit cheaper than the armband carriers that NOMAD sells from their website. Alternately, you could just take to wearing pocket tees to the gym, because the drive is certainly small and light enough to carry in your breast pocket.

The second piece is a white USB micro drive with MP3 player controls that slides into and out of the power housing. The controls are very simple: play/pause, track forward, track backward, loop, sound up, sound down. It's very much like a standard cassette tape player in that regard; you don't get a menu, or shuffle, or any bells and whistles. There's one aspect of the player that might trip you up at first: you have to hold the "play" button down for a solid five seconds before it will power up (this is actually an intelligent feature to keep your player from being triggered by accidental bumps).

To upload or download MP3s and other files, you plug it into your computer's USB port. It works without drivers on MacOS and on Windows 2000 and mounts as a small removable drive. Installing the drivers for Win98 was painless. The MuVo's file tranfer has worked like a breeze on all the computers I've tried it on.

The only annoyance I've had is that the unit is a few milimeters too thick for some USB port arrangements. It wouldn't fit into the port on my MacAlly keyboard at all, and I had to shift the cables on the back of my G4 to give it enough room to go in. Likewise, it was too big to go into the USB port on my roommate's Compaq laptop without unplugging the power cord. Thus, Creative's marketing claim of "no cables needed" is, while technically true, functionally misleading. I solved the problem easily enough with an extension cable, but that's an additional bit of expense/hassle that some people may find annoying.

And, of course, the lack of any way to run the device off anything but battery power could be a drawback for some people.

On the whole, though, I've been pleased with the MuVo. The MP3 functions, while simple, have served my needs, and the sound quality is skipless and decent. File transfer between computers and platforms has thus far been swift and flawless. And you couldn't ask for a smaller player; anything more petite than this one would be quite easily mislaid, unless it were a headphone-incorporated unit (which I imagine we'll be seeing down the road).

April 2004 Update:

I've discovered a slight cross-platform file transfer problem. Every once in a while, if you upload a song in Windows to the MuVo, the song will not be deletable if you start using the drive with a Mac. It's mildly annoying, but not insoluble if you have access to a PC.

Creative has also vastly expanded the MuVo player line, increasing the storage capacity of the combo flash drive units and adding small LCD menus as well as adding square large-storage (up to 4 GB) USB devices that resemble other MP3 players. Some models also come with built-in FM tuners.

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