What: Sony’s latest portable Minidisc player
Where: Stores everywhere
How Much: $129.99 MSRP, I paid $62.83 at Ubid.com
For years, Americans as a whole have been avoiding the minidisc. Minidiscs look something like one of those small 3″ CDs encased in a floppy disc shell. Revered by audiophiles as the only real way for the average person to listen to music digitally, the American hoi polloi have avoided them like the plague, and with good reason. For starters, there’s the whole format issue. Minidiscs came out not too long after CDs began to be the accepted music medium; this was also the same time that DAT and DCC came out, so it’s easy to see how the average person would stick with the more accepted CD. Also, since minidisc is a proprietary format, only Sony makes the players. This means that there is little (OK, no) competition to force prices down like there was for VHS or CD players. Lastly, minidiscs have also traditionally required realtime transfers. This means that copying 70 minutes of music to a minidisc required, well, 70 minutes. So even after Sony started lowering prices on MD equipment – which happened well after CD-R drives started invading American homes – people were loath to waste the time making MDs when even the slowest CD-R drive can do the same in about half the time.
Sony listened and the result is the NetMD, a minidisc player that comes with a USB cable and software that can copy audio CDs, MP3 and WMA files to the minidisc player. By default, minidiscs can hold around 80 minutes of music, but with the new compression schemes you can put 2 or even 5 hours of music on a single MD. Of course, you’ll pay for the extended playing time with lower sound quality, but hey – you knew that tradeoff was coming, yes?
Ubid.com recently had a sale on the NetMD players. The players list at most online stores for $129.99, but Ubid had them for $74.99. With a 20% off coupon I found, my final price came to $59.99 before shipping. Since I’ve had it up to “here” with portable CD players, I bit. Although Ubid site advised me that processing and shipping might take a total of 20 days, I found the NetMD at my door in about a week. Taking it upstairs, I found the enclosed directions easy to follow and setting up the player only took a few minutes.
One drawback of this player is that you must use the enclosed (crappy) Sony software. Like many MP3 “jukebox” programs out there, the software will scan your hard drive for music tracks then add it to its database. Which is fine if you have a couple of hundred mp3s, but this process took about an hour on my 9000+ MP3 system. The software seemed to lock up during this time, but I just left it alone and sure enough it was finally done. Another drawback of the software is that it poorly explains Sony’s music rights system. You cannot copy a track to the player more than three times – however this is easily circumvented by re-importing the track into the database. So the software provides no real rights protection but hassles the legitimate users of the software. Wonderful! Lastly, the software is very slow and prone to locking up on my system. If it locks up in the middle of a transfer, you have to kill the process in Task Manager and start over from the last good track BUT none of the remaining tracks will have song titles! Hmmmmph! I’d love it if some other software would handle the transfers, but I refuse to put the full version of RealPlayer on my machine, and I won’t bother installing MusicMatch until their site tells me for sure whether it supports the NetMD as a mobile player or not.
But the player works well. Rather than ramble on and on for paragraph after paragraph, I’ll just make a quick list of my likes and dislikes about this player:
WHAT I LIKE:
1) Removable media: unlike many MP3 players, you can easily swap out MDs if you’re away from your PC.
2) Long battery life: on par with MP3 players; much longer than a portable CD player.
3) Built-in recharger: if you put a NiMh battery in your player, using the enclosed AC adapter will recharge the battery.
4) Track grouping: You can use the MD player to put tracks into “groups” and can also add\remove tracks from them on the fly.
5) Ergonomic design: Unlike portable CD players, the NetMD fits in your hand perfectly.
6) Skip-free: Unlike any portable CD player I’ve owned in the past couple of years!
WHAT I DON’T LIKE:
1) Crappy software: At least with burning audio CDs you can choose which software to use.
2) Poorly designed buttons: the buttons are too small and the same button is used to skip forward or search the track; easy to skip ahead.
3) Defaults to elapsed time: while you can set the LCD to display track or disc time remaining, there’s no way to set this as default.
4) Stupid internal menus: it’s easy to accidentally enter the options menu, which defaults to “Edit Track Name” instead of something harmless.
5) No Mic-in: So you can’t smuggle this into a concert for digital bootlegs!
6) Cheap construction, like most Sony products of late. The battery cover has snapped off my NetMD at least a dozen times.
While the NetMD isn’t perfect, it’s a good solution to your portable music needs. Unlike most portable MP3 players, you can carry several MDs with you while vacationing and aren’t stuck with the same 60 songs; unlike CD players, it doesn’t skip or eat batteries. While Sony could greatly improve the software, the hardware (and the technology behind it) is A-OK.
MY RATING: B-
UPDATE: I don’t like this thing anymore. On paper it looks great and I’m not opposed to the format.. but the Sony software – that you are required to use – is simply garbage. Terrible. I dug out my NetMD after finding an updated version of the software in the newsgroups and nothing was better. Apparently Sony is phasing out the SonicStage software for something new – which I also tried. This “new” software has perhaps the worst GUI I’ve ever seen in any software ever. It has to have been written in Japan, it’s just plain obvious – I’ve forgotten exactly how it works, but you are presented with something like a 3-D box that you have to move around and click on a certain side if you want to perform a certain task. And the sides are labeled crazily – like “click on the side of the SonyCube with the bird if you want to transfer the music to your NetMD!” Awful. I can also see where it would make sense in Japan but it doesn’t work here! People can knock Microsoft all they want, but dammit if that company hasn’t spent millions in R&D dollars on GUI development and as a result it’s easy to do things in Windows. Just because you throw a Fisher-Price GUI on something doesn’t mean that it’s easy to use if it’s not intuitive! Even the worst Linux GUI tool I’ll use before this.
UPDATED RATING: D-