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Sunday, September 29, 2002

Technology

MuVo: Big sound, big limitations
Gizmos

By Matthew Fordahl
Associated Press

In the high-tech universe, less is often more. Smaller and cheaper chips power endless combinations, turning handhelds into cell phones, phones into Internet browsers and digital cameras into camcorders.

Creative Technology Ltd.'s new Novad MuVo is both an MP3 music player and a digital storage device. It packs a lot into a plastic shell roughly the size and weight of a Bic lighter.

But as often happens when the features of two devices are merged into a single gadget, the MuVo lost a lot in the process.

For anyone who wants an MP3 player and storage that can be attached to a key chain, it's a better deal -- technologically if not financially -- to buy them separately.

The 64-megabyte MuVo now available online and in stores costs $130. A 128-MB version, available later this month, costs $170. By comparison, a 64-megabyte standalone storage device runs about $70. Competitive solid-state music players with far more features start at about $99.

As a storage device, the MuVo works very well. Its memory module unsnaps from a plastic sleeve that holds the battery and inserts into a Universal Serial Bus port on any computer running Windows 98 or later.

All files -- be they MP3 songs, PowerPoint presentations or Word documents -- transfer fast enough, though at USB 1.1 speeds. Filling up all 128 megabytes on the high-end model takes only a few minutes.

The gadget appears on the computer as another disk drive, and files can be moved onto it simply by dragging. It works without any special software in Windows 2000 and XP. New drivers must be installed in Windows 98.

What makes MuVo unique is its ability to play MP3 and Window Media music files. It's as simple as downloading the songs like any other file to the memory module, snapping the unit back together and plugging in a set of headphones.

The sound quality is very good. Creative, after all, is well known for its Sound Blaster audio cards and Nomad Jukebox players.

Data files reduce the number of songs you can transfer. With no data files, the 128 megabyte version held about 25 average-length songs encoded at 128 to 160 kilobits per second.

The MuVo is advertised to last for 12 hours on its single AAA battery. In my test, it lasted a little less than 11 hours. But the long battery life, which is roughly twice as much as the competition, does come at a big price.

The MuVo preserves juice because it lacks a display, which is standard equipment on all rival digital music players.

A lot is lost. There's no display of the current song or the lineup. There's no indication of how long a tune is playing. There are no equalizer settings. And there's no way to tell, except a few minutes before the music dies, when the battery will finally poop out.

Instead of a liquid crystal display, the MuVo has a single light emitting diode. It flashes green when repeat mode is selected. It flashes red a few minutes before the battery gives up the ghost.

It's not very intuitive, and very difficult to see in the bright sun.

Once during my tests, the LED went from solid green to solid red during a drive. The music stopped, and only removing and reinserting the battery brought the gizmo back to life.

There's also no way to randomize the song order.

Songs transferred to the player first, play first. A button repeats tracks or sections of tracks -- something somehow indicated by the flashes of the LED.

After a couple years of being spoiled by the high-quality of players like Apple Computer's iPod, SonicBlue's Rio and Creative's Nomad JukeBox, the MuVo's buttons felt cheap.

In fact, they're the same type used on players given away for free to subscribers of Audible Inc., which sells audio books in a digital format for audio players. (Audible books don't work with MuVo.)

MuVo users who run into trouble won't find much help on Creative's Web site, which seems only to offer sales pitches and specifications.On the Net:www.nomadworld.com/products/muvo/

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