Like a lot of Windows users, I could only drool at the iPod after it was released in 2001. With 3 gigabytes of MP3s on my hard drive, but only 64 megabytes of flash RAM in my Vaio MusicClip, I was forced to pick and choose ten or eleven songs out of hundreds to listen to on the train. While the tiny size of the MusicClip was convenient, I still dreamt of the day that I could carry around all my MP3s in my pocket, like I suspected many Mac users were doing. Stuck on my late model Vaio notebook, I hoped for the day that the iPod would work on Windows. My dream (almost) came true on June 22, 2002, when Toshiba released the Gigabeat MP3 player in Japan.

Although there are several key differences between the Gigabeat and the iPod, it is blatantly obvious that there were many an iPod in the hands of the Toshiba engineers and designers when they put this machine together. While slightly larger than the iPod, the look of the front face of the Gigabeat is nearly identical. Where the iPod has a scroll wheel, the Gigabeat has a four-way circular button, with a smaller play/pause control stuck in the center. There are also two buttons on either side of the circle, marked Menu, which brings up a system options and configuration controls, and Navi, which switches the LCD display between a directory listing, and a song status screen. Volume controls are located on the right edge of the player, while a key/drive bay lock switch and a button to open the drive bay door are on the left edge. The entire player weighs 235 grams with the hard drive inserted, and it measures 7.2 cm x 2.2 cm x 11.2 cm; a little too big to comfortably put in the pocket of your jeans, but compact enough to stick in a jacket pocket. The Gigabeat supports MP3, WMA, and WAV playback, and updateable firmware leaves open the possibility of support for other formats in the future. The Gigabeat comes with a small carrying pouch, bud earphones, a protective case for the hard drive, and a screenless wired remote control.

The biggest difference between the Gigabeat and iPod (except for that Windows/Mac thing) are in the options for file transfer, and this is where the Gigabeat loses to the iPod. The Gigabeat has a removable 5 gigabyte hard drive that can be inserted directly into a computer's PC card slot, and also a USB 2.0 port. Both of these methods promise speeds approaching or exceeding the Firewire used on the iPod, but the Gigabeat software forces the encryption of each and every file that is transferred. The encryption not only kills transfer speeds, but makes it impossible for a file that has been moved to the Gigabeat to be moved back, even to the computer the file originally came from. The software for the Gigabeat is little more than a file manager, (even bearing a striking resemblance to the Windows 3.1 File Manager), and has no internal MP3 player, and only gained a ID3 tag editor in the latest update.

Except for an option to sort files by filename or date, there are no options to sort songs automatically by genre, artist, or album, although you can get a similar result by sticking the files in subdirectories yourself but this can get tedious after a while. This makes finding the song you want rather difficult, and its not uncommon to have to push buttons twenty times before getting to the song you were looking for, and also makes the remote control of limited use. Songs can be made to play normally or randomly; repeating or not; in one folder or across all folders. There are also options to only play the first ten seconds or one minute of songs only. Seek times between songs were abysmal on the first revision firmware, with one or two second waits between songs the norm, but this has been greatly improved in the most recent updates.

I first saw the Gigabeat while browsing through an electronics store in Tokyo, and almost put 50,000 yen down on the counter that day. My mighty MusicClip was still in working order though, and I decided to tolerate my 70 minute MP3 limit for a little while longer. Also, with rumors circulating that the iPod would soon be made Windows compatible, I held myself back. I eventually came back to the Gigabeat after my MusicClip took a tumble down a long flight of stairs, and I found out that the iPod wasn't going to work with my old Vaio. At first, I was disappointed with the slow transfers and encrypted files, but the long battery life and sound quality (after I ditched the included earphones for slightly better ones) made up for those things in my mind. After I had transferred the bulk of my MP3 collection (which took something like three hours over the PC card interface on my P266MMX), I had tons of music wherever I went. The battery lasts me three or four days of normal listening, and newer software seems to have made the transfers faster, though I don't find myself making multi-gigabyte transfers anymore, so the speed doesn't bother me as much now. Although the equalizer is limited (with only five presets and no manual control), the sound quality is more than good enough for casually listening to properly encoded files, and I can no longer leave the house without my Gigabeat in my pocket. Despite its many shortcomings, I am happy with my Gigabeat.

So should you get a Gigabeat? The answer is probably no. Now that the iPod works with Windows, there is no reason to get one of these unless you are stuck on Windows 98 (which the iPod software doesn't support, IIRC), like I am, or you hate Apple or something. In terms of look and size, I think the Gigabeat beats every hard drive based MP3 player out there, except for the iPod. It might have been THE MP3 player to get for Windows had the iPod stayed an Apple only machine.

The Gigabeat is available in Japan for just under 50,000 yen on the street. North American and European releases are planned but not yet scheduled.

Quick Update: It seems during my hibernation, I missed some other choices that have appeared. GangstaFeelsGood has informed me of the Nomad Zen and Archos which both make me feel inadequate again.
Another Update (Months later..): I bought an iPod.

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