Tuesday, 29 August 2006

MP3 Player: Toshiba Gigabeat S60

Lowdown: Music for every mood, as long as you're not moody for too long.
First thing I want to clarify with regards to this review is that I am no expert in MP3 players. While I have been using PDAs (both Pocket PCs and Palms) as MP3 player, I have no genuine experience with dedicated MP3 players. As a result, I cannot compare the Toshiba to the iPod; what I can report on, however, is on my experience with the Toshiba.
When I bought it I was looking for gigs. I wanted something that would host my collection of CDs (many hundreds), and then some. I also wanted radio reception so I'd be able to catch a few programs I particularly like even while on the train (or at the office, for that matter). And last, but not least, in following with current trends I wanted to have portable video capabilities; don't ask me why, though, it's just a trend thing.
While I think I can safely proclaim myself to be an audiophile, sound quality was not at the top of the agenda. The reason is simple: the venues in which I would be listening to my portable MP3 player do not allow for proper listening anyway; and when I'm home and I control the environment I don't want to listen to MP3 encoded music anyway - I would go for my hi fi setup instead.
Usability: Unlike most of the other MP3 players out there (read: unlike the iPod and its imitations), the Gigabeat does not feature a soft selector button, relying instead on an arrow key like hard central button. While on paper this choice makes it sound as if it would be hard to select a specific song from a list, the implementation is excellent and selection is dead easy with quite an amazing user interface that allows for precision while scrolling yet provides the feeling that only hard keys can provide. You don't need an instructions manual with this one: turn it on, load some songs, and you're all set to go. The iPod is always said to be super slick; this one is definitely super slick on its own rights.
Music can be selected by such parameters as the artist, the album, or the song. However, this can often get annoying, especially if you have an album where one song is by "Queen" and another is by "Queen and David Bowie", which means that songs from the same album appear under different artists. Similar problems occur when one album is under ELO, another under E.L.O., and yet another is under Electric Light Orchestra. But the worst aspect of the interface's limitations is exposed when playing classical music: the player let's you select a track by the performer (say, the London Symphony Orchestra) but not by the composer (e.g., Beethoven), which at least to me would have been more important.
Physically, the device is roughly the same size and weight as the iPod video 60gb device: significantly bigger than the Nano solid state range, but still smaller than a mobile phone.
Overall, as far as usability is concerned, the device is a top performer. Limited to some extents, yes, but still a winner due to its opting to go for simplicity.
Software: The iPod is famous for its ties with iTunes (although you can get plug ins that would do the job with Winamp or through open source applications). The Toshiba is similarly tied to Microsoft's Windows Media Player, which is required in order to synch songs to the device. To be honest, I don't know at this stage whether you just must use Media Player or whether you can get around it, but it certainly seems as if the Toshiba is a Microsoft application through and through, from the interface through to the easy integration.
Now it all depends on what your opinion is on Microsoft Media Center vs. Apple's iTunes. Personally, I hate the two of them: I don't like iTunes' interface, although I admit it's a very powerful application, and I certainly don't like the way Apple drives you towards its own formats and its own services using iTunes. On the other hand, I cannot be said to be a Microsoft fan either, and Media Center is a terribly heavy (PC resources wise) and terribly unstable application. So far I had a smooth life with it and the Toshiba, although I did get a few incidents such as a Simon & Garfunkel song stuck in the middle of a Foo Fighters album - obviously a synch related problem.
I would therefore say that the best option in my book would be to allow me to sort songs on my own in my own folder structure, the same way I do it on my PC's hard disk. However, with most players preventing me from such a privilege (probably in order to protect themselves from copyright breaching lawsuits), the best option here would be to synch to Winamp; since the iPod can do it, it's the winner of this category.
Cost: At $516, it's significantly cheaper than the similar iPod model selling for around $600. It also comes with a power supply, which you need to buy separately in the iPod. I haven't tested the bundled headphones: I don't like the models that stick in your ear; I prefer my Sennheisers.
Music: I read differing reviews on the Toshiba's sound quality, starting from "pretty bad" to "awesome iPod killer". My impressions is that overall, it provides a decent sound quality; no match for proper hi-fi, but enough for portable usage. It certainly beats the PDAs I've been using before and it works better than anything else we've used with our FM transmitter in the car (including an iPod).
Most importantly, with 60gb of music you can definitely find a bit of music to suit every occasion and every mood. It's just amazing to see how much can be crammed into such a small device!
Video: I was worried about the Toshiba's limited support for video formats, mainly its lack of Divx support. However, these worries quickly vanished after two minutes of watching a demo video provided on the Toshiba (dolphins swimming around). For the two minutes in which I watched the video I found myself hunched over and my eyes crossed in order to watch the petite screen; I did not enjoy the experience, and I realized I will never be using the Toshiba for watching videos, no matter what the marketing people say. Anything presented on such a small screen will not be enjoyable, which means only news bulletins or other stuff where information is the only thing that matters (as opposed to presentation) would work.
I will therefore totally ignore video playback aspects in this review, just as I ignore the S60's ability to conduct slideshows with photos you store on it.
Radio: The Toshiba's major advantage over the iPod is its built in FM receiver (there is no FM recorder or a generic recorder, which the Creative Zen Vision M provides). However, I found radio reception to be rather dodgy and unstable, with very minor obstacles causing total losses of reception. So FM is a nice feature, but you simply cannot rely on it - definitely not in venues such as a train.
Battery: By far the Toshiba's Achilles heel. Battery life is quoted to last 11-12 hours, but in real life I keep on getting more like 5-6 hours. I'm actually in touch with Toshiba about it, but they come up with stuff like "are you listening to MP3's or WMA's", or "at what rates are your MP3's encoded", or my favorite - "are you listening on long stints or do you stop and start all the time".
The problem is that 5 hours, or even 6, will not get you too far on a plane, or even on a day's drive. And with the lack of accessories, you can't even get a car charger for the Toshiba yet (although my GPS car charger seems an exact match).
I've been already stranded several times with the Toshiba at work after the battery ran out on me, and I wasn't happy. Its performance is so poor I need to charge it very frequently, and at a quoted life span of 500 charges it would probably last me 500 days.
A poor design indeed.

Advantages: Simple interface, FM reception, large storage capacity, good price for features ratio.
Disadvantages: Lackluster radio reception, inability to act as a simple hard drive, ridiculous battery life span.
Most MP3 player reviews seem to be on an eternal watch for the arrival of the dreaded iPod killer, an animal that seems just as likely to exist as the abdonimal snowman. Is the S60 an iPod killer? Maybe. If you look at it by its features, the answer is "probably", despite its very poorly performing battery.
However, there's more to purchase decisions than functionality. The vast majority of the iPod purchasing public buys it for a certain perceived image, and therefore I suspect that purchasing decision will come down to one thing:
To belong or not to belong? That is the question.

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

Between later problems I have experienced with the Windows Media Player software (refer to http://reuvenim.blogspot.com/2006/09/service-packed.html ) and the player's weak battery (refer to http://reuvenim.blogspot.com/2006/09/sos-gadgets_27.html ), I would recommend stirring away from this player, and probably also from the Microsoft Zune which will be based on this player.