As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently visiting Japan, and one of my favorite things to do when I’m here is to make the rounds of the electronics stores. This time I found some cheap little MP3 players on the clearance rack. I had been thinking about buying something similar to use while doing errands (when my full-sized iPod is a little too big or heavy) so I decided to buy one. How does it stack up against the iPod? (More after the jump.)
I first saw some models that came with no internal memory, instead making use of SD cards for storage. The cheapest was 1980 yen (about $17), and it looked like it should cost about that much, if you know what I mean. The next one looked a lot nicer — a bit like a shorter and fatter iPod shuffle and cost 2980 yen (about $25). I have some SD cards laying around, so I considered these. But then I saw the V@mp C@ndi (possibly the most annoyingly named MP3 player ever). It was much smaller than the others, had 512MB of internal memory, and an internal litium-ion battery (the others used normal batteries). It even mentioned Mac compatibility on the box, which was kind of nice. It was going for 3980 yen (around $35) so I bought it. It originally came in several different colors, but all they had was red and white, so naturally I got a white one.
As you can see from the pictures, the unit is very simple. It has a mini-USB (1.1) port on one end, which is used to connect it to the computer and simultaneously charge the internal battery. On the other end is the headphone jack and a little metal ring that can be used with the included neck strap. The controls for the player are on the sides. One side has Back, Forward, and Play/Pause buttons, while the other has Volume Up, Volume Down, and Repeat buttons. The LED will flash in various ways depending on the play mode you are using.
It weighs practically nothing at 17 grams. In fact, if you use earphones with a short cord (ones for use with an in-line remote control), the player is light enough that you can just have it dangle from the cord. It doesn’t seem terribly cheap like some of the other ones I saw, but it doesn’t exactly exude a sense of quality either. The case is basically just a plastic shell that appears to be snapped together. It’s supposed to get “up to 5 hours” of battery life and takes 2 hours to charge. I’m not sure how that translates into real usage time, as I’ve only used it for a few minutes at a time so far. I haven’t really given it much of a workout, but it seems to sound pretty decent.
It acts as a USB mass-storage device, so it shows up on your computer like a removeable disk, allowing you to use it to store files as well as music. You drag song files into it using the Finder. They can be organized in folders, but aside from using the folders to group the songs for playback, the player pretty much ignores them. (In other words, you can’t skip ahead to the next album/folder while playing music.) It only plays MP3 and WMA files, so AAC files are out. And of course, iTMS songs cannot be played without first burning them to a CD and reimporting them as MP3. I knew this when I bought the player, but I had planned to use it to listen to mostly old-time radio shows and not music, so I figured MP3 support would be fine.
The player has most of the basic features you would want from a digital audio player, but there are some problems with it from a usability standpoint. Take a look at these controls.
There’s no way to tell one button from another by touch, and you can’t even tell which end of the player is supposed to be up without examining it closely. This is important because you need to know which “skip track” button will go forward and which will go back. Still, the unit is so light that you don’t need to have it in a pocket. You’ll probably have it dangling from something (it’s not much bigger than the old iPod remote controls), so it’ll be there in front of you and you won’t need to control it by touch alone. There’s also no hold button to prevent the unit from accidentally turning on, but it does require that you hold the play button for a couple of seconds to activate it and then press it again to start playing, so accidental activation is probably not going to be a huge problem.
The bigger problem for me is how the player acts when you turn it off. The player will remember which song you were playing, but not the position in the song where it was stopped. This probably isn’t a huge problem if you’re using it for short songs, but the radio shows I listen to are about 30 minutes long. If you stop the player, it’ll go back to the start of the show. And even putting player on pause for more than 30 seconds or so will cause it to power down, sending you back to the beginning of the show. Not so good.
I’m going to reserve final judgement until after I use it for a little while in the environment I bought it for (outside while shopping or running errands), but I think I might have been better off with an iPod shuffle. Although the 512MB shuffle is a bit bigger and twice as expensive as this player was, it gets better battery life and gives you full iTunes/iTMS support, which is a big plus. And (I assume) it will keep your place when you pause it, as well. Still, $70 for the shuffle seems more like a major purchase, while $35 is cheap enough for this player to be more of a toy or a souvenir of my trip, so I’m not that upset about it. I’m sure I’ll find some sort of use for it.
After using the player for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that the random mode is not very useful. Unless I’m mistaken, it doesn’t keep track of what it has played, since I kept hearing the same songs several times (and this was without turning the player off).
On the other hand, I’ve been able to control the player by touch fairly well. You just have to feel for the lanyard ring to help you “navigate.” Battery life is reasonable at around 4 hours or more. And I’d say that the sound quality is quite good. Overall, I still wish I had gotten a shuffle instead, but it’s still a reasonably good second (or third, or fourth…) MP3 player if you want something very small and light.