By Sam Jaffe I'm not a brand-conscious kinda guy. If Pepsi is cheaper than Coke, I drink Pepsi. So even though Intel is known for silicon chips rather than consumer electronics, I was willing to take the company's new Pocket Concert MP3 player for a spin. To my marketing-savvy friends, such a product is downright heresy. "Would you want to buy a ham sandwich made by Sony?" asked one of them.
No, I wouldn't, but that's because I keep kosher. If Intel wants to make a consumer-electronics gadget, I'll be glad to consider it along with a Panasonic, Sanyo, or SonicBlue device (Sony doesn't yet make a pure MP3 player). Nevertheless, my expectations were pretty low. After all, why would a computer-chip manufacturer succeed in a notoriously fickle market, one where ease of use and hipness count far more than technical specs and raw power?
When I opened the box, my doubts weighed even heavier. The Intel player has all the fashion sense of a 1970's transistor radio. It's a 4-inch by 2-inch gray metal box with a tiny screen and a few silver buttons. When my 14-year-old sister-in-law saw it, her first remark was, "It's so big!" Although I would never call four inches "big," I understood that she was comparing it to the Compaq iPaq MP3 player, the most popular model at her high school. From a practical point of view, though, the iPaq is only about an inch shorter -- and holds half as much music as Intel's player.
TAKES A BEATING. Beyond design -- which is, after all, a matter of taste -- the real litmus tests for listening devices are durability and ease of use. In both areas, the Pocket Concert hit the high notes. I accidentally dropped the test unit very hard on the floor twice, and neither blow affected the sound quality. The impacts did leave a couple of dings on the shiny metal surface. But considering the thing isn't much to look at in the first place, that didn't bother me. (It probably will bother the Intel public-relations department, which sent me the model to test. Just send the bill to my editor, folks.)
Ease of use is where Intel's player really shines. In fact, I found it the best in that regard of the dozen or so MP3 players I've laid hands on. An included FM radio is an unexpected plus, as is its universal audio jack that accommodates any headphone.
And while Intel kept the number of buttons to an absolute minimum, the device's operation doesn't suffer. For instance, I was initially confounded by the absence of a Stop button. The only way to kill the music was to hit Pause. After thinking about it a bit, I realized that, since an MP3 player stores data on flash memory, it has no moving parts. That means "stopping" the music is the same as "pausing" it.
LONG-PLAYING. Battery life has been tremendous, too. Two rechargeable AAA batteries have kept the player going through more than seven hours of use, and the company promises that the Pocket Concert can go for as long as 10 hours without needing a charge.
The software that came with the Pocket Concert is just as easy to use as the player itself. Some MP3 player manufacturers feel the need to design their own software, or at least put a branded shell on top of popular download programs. Intel chose the easiest path by simply including MusicMatch Jukebox on the installation disk. Although every MP3 junkie has his or her own favorite piece of software, I found MusicMatch to be simple, fast, and, most important, it didn't cause my creaky Windows system to crash.
If only every MP3 player was so worry-free. By contrast, one of the worst units I've ever used has fifteen buttons, most of them unlabeled. It has a proprietary headphone jack, which doubles as its USB connection to the computer. That means you can use only the awkward earphones that come with the player if you want full functionality. After wearing them for an hour, my ears were in pain because they just didn't fit. In addition, there was so much sound leakage that my wife yelled at me for waking up the baby -- even though I was on a different floor.
STICK TO SHOES. Also, this other player refused to shut down by itself when not in use. Since I could never remember which of the 15 buttons was On/Off, I kept having to replace batteries. Finally, this player would work only with its own bug-riddled software, which frequently crashed my computer. The company name on this horrible MP3 player? None other than Nike. Although electronics are a new product for the shoemaker, I expected a whole lot more from what's supposed to be one of the world's smartest consumer-products company.
The most important feature of Intel's MP3 player, though, is its memory. Before testing this product, the most capacity I could find in a flash-memory MP3 player was 64 megabytes. Intel doubles that with a full 128 megabytes, meaning four solid hours of music without the aid of external memory chips (which are extremely expensive). Meanwhile, the $299 price tag rivals some low-end players.
The only way to top the Pocket Concert in the memory department is to buy a Nomad Jukebox, which is essentially an external hard drive optimized for playing MP3 files. While it stores 6 gigabytes of data -- about 100 hours of music -- it's far bulkier and, because it doesn't use flash memory, is endangered by rough handling.
ENDLESS TUNES. And yet, despite how much I liked the Pocket Concert, I wouldn't buy it for myself. Why spend $300 on an MP3 player when, for about the same price, I could buy a CD player designed for MP3 CDs? I can burn a CD with 20 hours worth of MP3-encoded music. Sure, a CD player is three times the size of Intel's device and has delicate moving parts, making it much less durable. But you can't beat the music-per-dollar differential.
Until MP3 players have enough memory to outlast an MP3 CD, I would recommend a long, hard look. Better yet, wait for prices to come down. In short, kudos for a very nice product, Intel, but I'll wait a couple of years until it's even better -- and far cheaper. Jaffe listens to music at his home in Philadelphia and wants the reader, the recording industry, and the FBI to know that no copyrighted music was downloaded illegally in the course of doing research for this article. Honest.