When Size Matters: Nomad Jukebox

Despite the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA’s) best efforts, MP3s are here to stay—a benefit to those of us who don’t have a vested (i.e., financial) interest in the music industry. With thousands of songs from the most esoteric of artists at our fingertips, does anybody really miss prowling through Tower Records or weeding through several forgettable tracks just to find that one song you really want?

The problem with MP3s, as compared to traditional media such as CDs or even MiniDiscs, is that this computer-based format ties you to either a PC or to a clumsy portable device when you want to listen to your music. Although most portable MP3 players perform fairly well, you’ll find yourself craving more storage space after you fill up the 32MB, 64MB, or even 128MB of flash memory that comes standard on most devices. Sure, 64MB can store the latest Backstreet Boys album at something less than CD quality, but if you’re craving a little variety or planning a long road trip, you’re out of luck.

Enter Creative Technology’s Nomad Jukebox, a portable MP3 player that features a mind-numbing 6GB of storage space—more than 100 hours of CD-quality audio. That’s enough space to store all the sonic contraband you have now and probably anything you’ll acquire in the future.

The Nomad Jukebox comes with a set of stereo headphones and carrying pouch (since this review, Creative has released the Nomad Jukebox C for $269, which provides the same functionality, minus these extras). The device looks like a standard portable CD player, so you can take your MP3 collection with you without looking like a geek. Two analog line-out jacks let you easily connect the device to your stereo system, and a line-in jack lets you connect a microphone to record audio. Portable karaoke, anyone? Maybe not, but the Nomad Jukebox gives you all the input and output jacks you would expect from a consumer device. A handful of buttons on the face work in conjunction with the backlit LCD display to let you quickly skip, seek, and search through your collection—even in the dark.

To upload MP3s to the Nomad Jukebox, you connect the supplied cable to a free USB port on your PC and use Creative’s PlayCenter software. The sustained file transfer rate is just shy of 1Mbps, which is respectable, but a far cry from the 10Mbps standard that USB devices can support. Unfortunately, you can transfer files only from your PC to the Nomad Jukebox. Because the device is Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI)-compliant, you can’t share your music collection after you transfer everything to the Nomad Jukebox.

Out of the box, the Nomad Jukebox plays .wav, MP3, and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, but the unit features flash-upgradeable firmware that makes it essentially future-proof. If new audio formats emerge, you should be able to upgrade the device to support the new codecs (i.e., components for encoding various music formats)—Creative willing. Almost gratuitously, the Nomad Jukebox uses Creative’s EAX technology to apply environmental effects. In the PC world, developers often apply EAX effects to games to create a better sense of depth and realism by using spatial separation. It’s cool technology, but there’s a difference between hearing raindrops falling around you while you’re playing Deus Ex and hearing the same effect while listening to the latest Nine Inch Nails CD on your way to work. With EAX enabled on the Nomad Jukebox, you just get unwelcome reverb.

Sound like a dream device so far? Well, it is. Kind of. The problem with the Nomad Jukebox is its inherent fragility. Cramming 6GB of storage space inside a pretty silver case and keeping it affordable necessitates the use of a hard disk. Not only does this approach make the Nomad Jukebox bulkier than your average SmartMedia-based MP3 player, but it also adds a mean time between failures (MTBF) factor. Basically, you have to baby the Nomad Jukebox if you don’t want it to die a premature death—don’t shake it, don’t leave it out in the sun, and don’t leave it out in the cold. And, yes, this means jogging is out, although the device does feature a 5-minute antiskip buffer. Also, the Nomad Jukebox ships without a remote control, although the unit boasts an IR port.

At $299, you’re paying the same price that you would for a traditional audio player, while reaping the benefits of portability. Creative also offers several accessories for the Nomad Jukebox, including an accessory kit with carrying pouch, backphones (i.e., headphones that wrap behind the head), cassette adapter, and four AA rechargeable NiMH batteries for $49.99, and the Cambridge Soundworks Playdock PD200 (a Transformers-esque device that converts the Nomad Jukebox into a boombox) for $199.99.

If you’re an audiophile who doesn’t plan to take your MP3s to the gym with you, or you just want to play your MP3s away from the PC, you’ll want the Nomad Jukebox. With a staggering amount of storage space at a relatively low cost, the Nomad Jukebox is the only portable MP3 player you’ll ever need.

Creative Technology
Web: http://www.nomadworld.com/
Price: $299
Decision Summary
Pros: Massive capacity; good search facility; input and output jacks let you integrate the device into your stereo system.
Cons: Do you really want to carry a hard drive around with you?
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