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I've given USB MP3 players their own page, in case I ever want to add comments about non-USB, non-MP3 players. Not figuring on this page will be the original portable music cassette and CD players; they distorted music and damaged its media, and their exit in favour of MP3 players came not a moment too soon.

Philips GoGear HDD060 MP3 player

An odd one out in the list, this MP3 player the size of a credit card was positively reviewed in a computer mag, presumably because the reviewers had never tried to install the software. The hardware isn't great, either. But again I'll start at the beginning.

Needing (i) more disk space and (ii) a replacement for an increasingly battered-looking MD-discman, I bought the last HDD060 the shop still had, a pleasantly compact and therefore batter-proof MP3 player, 1 Gig diskspace, USB1. 1 (but how often does one change the contents of an MP3/archive disk?) and an internal battery which won't last forever and can only be replaced at a high price, but MP3 players that take AA batteries are rare, and none were available in that shop at that moment. The battery died within months after purchase and had to be replaced; fortunately within the warranty period. The player comes with a USB cable that plugs into the player with a tiny plug, so I'd better not lose that cable, as a generic USB cable will not fit. It also comes with crummy headphones, the kind with tiny microphones that are supposed to lodge themselves in the ears but always fall out of mine, that don't isolate sound (so everyone else on the bus gets to share your music with you) and that may be worse for one's hearing than a big headset with two shells that clamp over the ears. I was lucky that this thing worked for me: surfing on it later, I read a salesperson's testimony that alarming numbers of HDD060s are DOA (Dead On Arrival) which is a major nuisance to retailers and customers alike.

It still works, but after long hours of playing (like the 6-hour train trip to Groningen, which is what I bought it for) it may start skipping tracks. I understand there is a real (though small) harddisk in the case, and it sounds as if the heads are jumping about; a track stops playing midway to switch to another track, does a few bars of that and switches again, becoming completely out of sync with the display. Pretending to be metal, the player is plastic. The metallic layer is wearing off, as is the lettering on or near plugs and controls. The contact layer inside of the headphone jack is also wearing down, meaning that depending on the pressure against the plug, sound may become mono or stop altogether; the same kind of problem as when the headphone wires loosen or break off from the plug, a common ailment with older headphones so it was some time before I realized the problem was also caused by the player itself. But one day its battery will die for good and then it will, with its power adaptor which is supposed to always be plugged in during file transfers, become purely an archive disk.

The software is a laugh. One is supposed to insert the CD and just choose " Install", after which an attempt is made to install a full Java runtime on C:\, without checking whether any runtimes have been installed anywhere on the system yet. The way my computers work is that only the OS sits on C: and other software goes on different disks, to reduce the size of backups; my C-drive is not one big garbage bin that hardware manufacturers may dump bloatware onto! Therefore, I installed the software at work and tried to copy MP3 files to the player. It jumbles their filenames and connects these filenames to the real names in an internal database, so I can't see what tracks are sitting on the drive. Simply copying files with the Explorer means they can't be played. Somehow, this is supposed to protect copyrights. Yeah, right.

The answer is a utility called "Dhat". The MP3 database on the disk (which is apparently created by the software, so one has to sacrifice over 50 Mb on the C- drive and use this software just once before uninstalling) has to contain the tracks' names for the player to "see" them. The Dhat executable must be copied to the MP3 player's drive along with the desired MP3 tracks, and a double-click on the executable copies the tracks into the database. This simply didn't work, so I found another way: empty a drive on the computer, copy the MP3 drive's directory structure and files to that drive, put Dhat and the MP3 files on the computer drive, doubleclick Dhat and, once it's finished, copy both MP3 files and updated database file to the MP3 player. All MP3 files have to be copied back to the computer every time I want to add tracks, because Dhat throws everything away before it adds new data. It also throws away all genres, and can't add playlists. Since the database is just an SQL database, it should be possible to access it directly with any SQL front-end, but I haven't bothered to try. (The link where Dhat, the "DMM Haters Tool", ws available, is now dead anyway. The readme file says to run the executable on the USB drive, but I find it only works if run on a harddrive and the results copied to the USB drive.)

Whether this is a hardware or software matter, this player, though outfitted with Java-based software for multi-OS compatibility, won't work on the Mac. I plug it in, nothing happens. I plug it out, the Mac detects a USB device was plugged in. I restart the Mac, try endlessly and finally get the drive recognized, then copy files to it; it hangs and I have to reboot. If I leave it plugged in on either the Mac or the old AMD-K6 computers and shut down the OS, the shutdown process hangs and won't complete until I disconnect the player.

Fortunately this model isn't sold any more. By the time I bought it, it was being replaced by the HDD100. Which is probably just as bad.

Update: within two years of buying, the player is now either broken or dead. Normally, if the battery has lost too much power, plugging the player in to charge it will result in a lit, but blank screen until the battery has enough power to produce a display. The last time I tried to charge the battery, the screen remained blank for two hours while the player made spinning disk sounds. It's safe to say the files on the player are toast, and the player itself is no longer even suitable as an external mini-harddisk. Good riddance!

Victory MP-631
Comment: Seems very promising

Another odd one out, which, hopefully, will last longer than its predecessor. I'm being cautious because it's brand new and may deceive me yet, but this player has some big advantages over the previous one.

Firstly, it takes batteries: one AAA battery, meaning the player will never become useless just because the battery is dead. Secondly, it has a normal USB plug and an extension cord which also has normal USB plugs. The plug is under a cap which also has to be removed to get at the battery, the design is quite clever really. Thirdly, the "Hold" button which I rarely use but which caused big headaches on earlier players when it got pushed by accident and I had to press a succession of other buttons to make the player respond again, is not a button but a slide. (A websurf tells me it doubles as data protection switch.) Fourthly, there are few buttons, used in what I consider a well thought out way: the really important button (on/off/play/pause) is on the front and the rest is on the side. Fourthly, the shape is very sensible - a slim rectangle with rounded edges - and the outside is not lacquer which chips off or chrome which scratches or plastic pretending to be aluminium until the shine wears off, but a dull black rubber which looks sturdy, damage-resistant and even watertight, although I won't test that!! The buttons aren't marked with paint which wears off, but have their functions impressed in the surface, so a blind person could tell by feeling which button does what. As the buttons are so few and placed apart (one on the front, three on one side, one on another next to the Hold slide) they're not easily confused anyway. Hopefully this player will be as sturdy as it is brilliant, because its design deserves a prize!

Fifthly and most importantly: this player doesn't need special scrambling bloatware to upload and play music files. I can put any files on the stick that I want, and it will play any MP3 and WAA files. (No OGG, but I can live with that.) It comes with a driver on CDROM although Windows ME and XP recognize it natively, and an earphone best ditched and replaced by something both more isolating and better for the ears, but where any type of player is concerned, the earphones are added as a courtesy, they are not what the customer is really paying for. As a sixth and seventh advantage, this player remembers what song was last played and starts again where it left off (which the HDD060 refused to do) and its many settings which I'm still exploring include when or how long the display should light up (important to conserve battery power). My priority was loading some music and playing it, so the manual has been sitting in a corner, but much information is squeezed into that tiny display, including the various options, the track number and time and the Artist/Album/Title that keeps scrolling past as a song is being played. This tiny box may have as much in the way of options as the HDD060 or any bulkier, more "player-shaped" player out there. An eighth advantage for those who need it is that this player, like the average walkman or minidisc player but quite unlike an MP3 player, can record sound. As an amusing extra, the display greets me with "Victory" and a V-sign on startup (although I'm not sure either could be trademarked, as the display suggests) and a plane dragging the word "BYE" on shutdown.

A possible ninth advantage is its relatively low price, but here I would be cautious because in the consumer industry you always get what you paid for, or less. So, here are the possible disadvantages which may account for the price: firstly, the display is so small that only one title at a time can be shown, and real scrolling is impossible. If I'm looking for a title, I have to keep pushing the "forward" button past all the titles that came before it. (Update: I have since discovered the Browse function by RTFMing.) Secondly, whereas the HDD060 was said to be able to import playlists, this player plays separate sound files, and nothing else. Especially when you can't really scroll (not even to pick an album) playlists would have been a handy way of choosing a collection of songs. Thirdly, but I think most players have this problem (the HDD060 did): it doesn't check MP3 tags but plays first the directories and then the files in alphabetical order. I don't mind album "Abacab" being played before album "Best of Genesis", but I do mind the last song of the album being played first just because it starts with an A. Most MP3 files ripped on Windows start with their track number, but I've ripped many CDs on the Mac, and iTunes does look at the MP3 tag and so doesn't add these numbers. Result: I have to rename the files on the player to sort them out, and the player seems to have catalogued them on uploading, because this works for some albums, but not for others, and some titles have illogically rearranged themselves. A lesson for the future: rename, then upload. (Later experiment proves that the tracks are played in the order in which they were first uploaded, and to get them in the right order if their name doesn't start with a number, should be uploaded one by one in the desired playing order. Phew.)

The player comes with one MP3 file in the root directory (for testing purposes, I suppose), and the directory MICIN.DIR for recorded sounds. My music files have gone into a folder "mm", but I could have put them anywhere as the player tackles any file ending on WAA/MP3, including the ".songtitle.mp3" resource files that the Mac always adds. As this implies, MacOSX 10.3 recognizes the player without drivers, and a fully updated MacOSX 10.1 or MacOS9 should do the same. The test file is exotic (Indian?) music, and as my collection contains more exotic music with ditto songnames (Indian, French) I can testify that the display handles most accented letters well and will display the rarest cases ("Krsna" with dots under four letters) as blocks, without crashing.

Victory sells this model in four "sizes", from 1GB to 4GB. I chose the biggest one, of course. After all the crud electronics I've wasted money on, this finally seems a very good buy! Touch wood...

Shortly after writing this, the first design flaw became apparent. The rubbery coating is already wearing off in places, but I can live with that. What's harder to live with is that I pulled the player out of my pocket after hours of playing and the cap was gone. This was just after changing trains, so say goodbye to that mass-produced but not-available-separately protective cap. As well as protecting the USB plug it kept the battery lid secure, so that's likely to be the next thing that goes missing. Lesson for next time: secure cap with elastic band.

About a year later, another problem rises, one that is common to walkmans and MP3 players: the inside of the headphone jack wears down, so the plug no longer fits tightly and the music suddenly changes from stereo to mono. This can also happen when one of the headphone wires breaks, but if the fault is with the player, proper stereo sound can be restored by pushing against the side of the plug. It's fortunate that even if this player becomes useless for listening to music, it will still make a nice external harddrive. (Update 2014: ehm, no. 4Gigs is peanuts these days.)

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