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Preview: mPod Audio Player(now mOcean Beta 1)

Mon Apr 17, 2006 - 12:48 PM EDT - By Xious Sonenberg


Editor's note: as of April 25, 2006, mPod has been renamed "mOcean" and the developer has released a new version. Some features have changed since this review was posted, and some new features added, including iTunes syncing and equalizer presets. Please visit MotionApp's site for more information.. Harv

Convenient methods of listening to music have evolved tremendously over the past thirty years. I remember buying my first transistor radio back in 1977 so I could listen to Wolfman Jack and the Mets games while I checked reel-to-reel computer tapes and tended to the sensitive machinery at work.

Though using that radio wasn’t allowed near the equipment, I could still listen to my favorite sounds in non-critical moments like at lunch and during breaks.

When SONY came out with Walkman portable cassette players, I was in heaven; buying a vast library of Rock and Metal tapes and carrying them in my car in a zippered vinyl pouch covered in Duran Duran and Led Zeppelin decals.

Though this was breakthrough technology for its time, it left much to be desired in terms of both ease of portability and audio quality. You really couldn’t carry more than few tapes on your person as you were walking through CP West, and forget taking a zippered bag of music on the subway. You might as well have taped a sign to your back that shouted “I’m a sucker, please lift my goods” In day-glo letters a foot high. While high quality cassettes made on a high quality home deck could (and still can) record and playback audio with very decent specs, commercial tapes were usually lower grade, you had to clean the heads and pinch rollers, deal with normal / chrome / metal bias switches, and of course tape is a analog medium - if you want to hear a certain song on a tape you have to tediously FF or RW to get to it.

Then in 1982, CDs came along and I sold all of my cassettes and re-bought my albums (at no small expense) on those new shiny discs for the higher def sound experience. What an improvement: no tape hiss, no tape-eating players and decks. But I soon learned that carrying extra sets of AA batteries for a Discman was a must and CDs weren’t something you could just stuff in your pocket either. They were a lot more fragile than the mfrs wanted us to think; one good scratch and there went half a day’s pay on a silver circle that was rendered useless except as a coaster for your coffee mug at the office.

I never quite figured out why 3” Mini-CDs never caught on, as they were, in my opinion not only very cool, but also extremely elegant and sensible. I guess nobody wanted to get yet another type of media, and have to re-buy their music collection all over again.

Then in the late 90s, something new caught my eye, as well as the attention of the rest of the planet: MPEG Layer 3 audio files (MP3s).

At first, MP3 was a file format used by the underground music file sharing warez- loving geeks of the world. You could “rip” a dozen full-length albums from audio CDs and fit them all on a single CD-R. Unfortunately, it took some time for MP3 to find it way to our pockets and car decks, and it was fairly poor sounding compared to CDs or, in many cases, FM radio, mainly due to the lousy compression ratios and algorithms at the time.

As MP3 developed a following by Joe Consumer, some companies started capitalizing in its popularity, making solid state (memory-based) players and CD-ROM based players such as the innovative Rio Volt by Sonic Blue. It looked like a regular Discman, but played both normal audio CDs and data discs burned with MP3 files, had incredible battery life, because it buffered a huge amount of data, so it only had to spin its motor up and down occasionally, a navigational pad, LCD screen, built-in equalizer, automatic resume (a vital feature when listening to long audio books or OTR shows) tons of other features, and even a wired remote control.

(Ed. note: I still own and use two Rio Volts bought five years ago - they still work perfectly - Harv).

I bought a Rio Volt as it seemed the more prudent concept. Although it was bulkier than the solid-state players, it used cheap 700mb CD-Rs instead of expensive internal memory to store audio.

This meant you could stick one mp3-filled CD-R in the player and carry a dozen or more full albums of music, or about 60 hours of spoken word or old time radio programs. I could burn a CD full of mp3s of my favorite OTR shows and enjoy them on long road trip, say, from L.A. to Seattle, without ever changing the disc as I listened to dozens of episodes of “The Shadow”, “The Jack Benny Show”, “X-Minus One” and many other classics, and a cheap cassette adapter fed this entertainment through my car stereo. It was a both a pleasant alternative to suffering with radio stations that played what THEY wanted me to hear, never mind the endless commercials, and a lot more convenient than carrying around boxes of cassettes or regular audio CDs that stored the equivalent content. Of course, mp3-filled CDs, unlike tape, offer totally random access. You want to hear track number 122? Just jump to it.

In contrast, solid-state players of the day only had about 16 to 128MB of internal storage, which could hold between 30 minutes and 3 hours of music. One that had 700mb of memory, the equivalent of a single CD-R, was ridiculously expensive back then.

Then in 2001, Apple changed the way the world listened to music. Their first gen tiny iPod, with an internal 5 GB hard disc meant you could carry entire libraries of sound on your belt. It had slick and straightforward click wheel and four buttons to control all of its functions, and a pretty, fresh and practical interface that thus far nobody else has matched, although many have tried.

These days handheld MP3 players are a dime a dozen, but the iPod remains the king of music gadgets and has held a firm grasp on market dominance. Apple seems to come out with a new model every few months, they sell like proverbial hotcakes, and have spawned an accessories market that rivals Treo’s.

You probably know that there are many programs to play MP3 and other audio files for your Treo – right out of the box, the 650 has its tiny version of RealPlayer in ROM, while the 700w packs Windows Media Player, but until now nobody has tried to emulate the iPod experience on the Treo.

This is about to change!

MotionApps, a company who makes a suite of programs for the 650, including applications such as mVoice: a portable sound recorder which can also record telephone calls, and mRing: an MP3 ring tone manager, is working on a new program that will change the way you and all of your iPod snobby friends respect the power and flexibility of your Treo.

It’s currently available for free as a 14-day Beta.

Dubbed mPod, this refreshing, contemporary MP3 player looks and feels just like an iPod, right down to the familiar ‘Chicago’ font that any Apple evangelist could tell you dates back to the early days of the first Macs when it was the default system font: the one used in the menu bar, and pretty much everywhere else too!

Though this clever app is still in Beta, it seems to play all of the MP3 files I’ve thrown at it without a hitch. It does not however, support any format other than MP3.. yet.

In a transatlantic call with Vegard Jensen, the head of MotionApps, I learned that they are furiously working on Version 1.0, shooting for a release of early May, 2006. This final-release version will hopefully support more file formats, such as OGG and Apple’s AAC.

They’re also working on adding more features to the 1.0 release, with plans to further enhance and improve it as time marches on– more on this later…

In test runs performed by certified space monkeys and one iPod user (yours truly), mPod really shines. Its interface looks just like an iPod’s, and feels remarkably similar.

The main difference of course is that there is no tactile feedback whatsoever. A real iPod has a “click wheel”, which you run your fingers across or tap to use. mPod simulates the iPods wheel on your Treo’s screen as a graphic with about the same functions as Apple’s real wheel. Unfortunately, you can’t use mPod’s screen wheel by feel, so you can’t control by touch with it clipped on your belt like a ‘pod.

mPod displays its wheel in both full screen and quarter screen sizes. Full screen mode is about the same size as an iPod’s physical wheel, while the smaller rendition gives you more of the nitty gritty information and looks cleaner. In a large, clear font, the track title and other ID3 tag info is displayed, superimposed atop the wheel, while in tiny mode it is all neatly tucked at the top with the other control buttons to the left. For some reason the center button does not seem to click in big wheel mode, but it works flawlessly in its quarter screen rendition.

You will probably find the larger wheel easier to use, however, especially while your Treo is mounted at arm’s length in a car cradle. The tiny wheel is useful when you hand-hold the Treo.

Either way, you can use your Treo’s 5-way navigator to operate some wheel functions like going back (up) in menu trees or skipping songs. On an iPod you click on the wheel to do the same: mPod’s wheel works like a regular ol’ iPod, but the developers were smart enough to let you use Treo’s hard buttons with tactile feedback so you can feel your way around your musical library as well.

mPod also has a plain interface: a simple menu driven system which functions much like many other Palm apps with basic, yet attractive and very straightforward controls. Two variants of this exist as well, one providing an on screen vertical bar to slide up and down in menus, the other relying solely on your 5-way pad to navigate. I don’t use either as the default; since I’m an iPod owner I prefer the slick iPod-esque emulated wheel appearance.

Lacking a hard drive, storage space on your Treo is limited to SD cards and your budget for them. SD cards’ prices are falling like hail in Missouri, with the new 4gb cards replacing the 2gb version's price tag. However, the 650 can only use up to 2gb cards unless you hack the new FAT32 drivers into your ROM.

Doing so will let you use the 4gb cards, and likely the forthcoming 8GB (and larger) sizes, though it is not something to tackle unless you’re technically- inclined. It would be nice if Palm would release an updated ROM with these drivers already incorporated, but such an event is unlikely to happen soon. And while the upcoming 700p’s existence is hardly a secret anymore, its final specs still are. Will it break into the 4gb and above SD card barrier? We don’t deal in rumors here, but we’ll hopefully know before the clock ticks into June.

Depending on model and generation, real iPods have either fixed, built in amounts of memory, or tiny hard drives. The former can never be increased, while the latter can, with some effort. Hard drives, in my opinion are folly in pocketable widgets that you stow and take with you everywhere. They are mechanical devices, prone to break downs, failures and other problems that make them totally impractical. Hard drives were simply never designed with jogging or an active lifestyle in mind, and iPods’ micro drives often need to be defragged or even reformatted just like their bigger cousins.

Until now it hasn’t been possible to get the best of both worlds. With your Treo you can carry a pretty hefty audio library on SD cards. A piece of plastic with no moving parts, an SD card is the size of a postage stamp, so small you can even put them on your keychain. In a box as small as one that holds a bottle of 100 aspirin, you could fit about 100 SD cards.

Consider that one MP3 song, depending on its bit rate, is about 5MB (roughly 1mb per minute of audio), so you could fit about 400 tracks on one 2gb card. This is the same capacity as an iPod Nano, and it is infinitely expandable as you can always buy more cards to take along with you on your daily grind, and swap them in and out as needed. In reality, you can carry as much music as you want to buy cards to hold, on a media format that is neither prone to failure, nor unreasonably bulky.

Of course it would be sheer insanity to buy ten iPod Nanos, but it would be a snap to carry around 10 SD cards with your Treo 650 to swap out as your ears please with mPod providing an iPod style interface..

But at this time, with the Beta version, the only major flaw with mPod is that it lacks an equalizer or tone controls of any kind. iPods have fixed EQ settings for different music genres. This, in my opinion is hardly ideal, though acceptable for casual use. Someone else has created those fixed equalization settings based on what THEY think different genres of music need. As an audiophile, I much prefer a full graphic equalizer so I can fine-tune how my music sounds to my own personal tastes.

What is a graphic equalizer?

In contrast to simple Treble and Bass (basic tone controls as found on most car stereos), a graphic equalizer typically splits the full audible frequency range, usually 20Hz (very low bass) to 20Khz (supersonic highs), into five, ten or even more segments, which you shape with the equalizer’s sliders. Thus, the name graphic equalizers, since the positions of the sliders form a line or a curve and you can simply look at them and see which frequency ranges are boosted or attenuated (lowered). There are equalizers which use knobs instead of sliders, but they're not "graphic" as it's nearly impossible to look at a dozen knobs and see a shaped line or curve.

Graphic equalizers let you fine tune and adjust up and down the dominance of different, discrete frequency ranges of sound, so you can pump up the low end for your thrash metal or bring up mid-range for your Rock & Roll, turn down the highs if your audio is too screechy, twiddle the mid-ranges to get rid of honky or nasal tonalities, and so on. The more sliders a graphic EQ has, the finer control you have over the sound. A well-implemented graphic equalizer can perform real magic with poorly-recorded material too, such as removing mid-bass rumble, or emphasizing vocals.

The graphic EQs in iTunes, WinAmp, and WMP look like this:

Unfortunately, the current Beta release of mPod has no equalizer or tone controls at all., which is a shame in an otherwise beautiful program. I urge you to write to Mr. Jensen if you want to see mPod include tone controls or an equalizer. As I write this, MotionApps presently does not plan to include one.

This is like a cardinal sin to any audiophile, music perfectionist or musician. If you heard how music sounds flat, with no equalization vs. with proper EQ, you would instantly hear the difference and know why this omission is just plain dumb. Audio played “flat” simply sounds flat. With mPod lacking an EQ, the only way to un-flatten your music is to pipe it through your car or home stereo and fiddle with the Treble and Bass settings there. Better than nothing, but still not as satisfying as a full graphic equalizer.

As a matter of fact, a guitarist friend refuses to listen to his iPod over his car stereo, as it does not provide enough fine-tuning for his personal taste.

Even listening with high quality headphones will only provide straight, flat sound. The only Palm mp3 player with a true multi-band graphic EQ that I know of is the wildly popular Pocket Tunes, (One of PT's equalizers is pictured here).. and MotionApps will be hard pressed to get anyone to switch to mPod, no matter how slick its interface, if it lacks tone controls.

The developers do, however, plan on working in a way to sync mPod to iTunes, which would be a blessing for anyone that already has an iPod or is a Mac or iTunes user, as this would let you use mPod to copy your existing play lists directly to your Treo and buy songs from the iTunes store for use on your spiffy ‘lil Smartphone. Hopefully this capability will also be in mPod’s post-Beta release version. By the way, this Beta will only run for 14 days and there’s no way to buy it and unlock it for permanent use yet. That’ll come shortly when it’s released in its post-Beta, V1.0 form.

Apple seems, so far, to be rather uninterested in mPod’s use of their distinctive user interface style. According to Mr. Jensen, he doesn’t see any potential legal issues with the design of mPod’s GUI or the name of his product. Apple is usually hard nosed about this kind of thing, and I am surprised that there are no patents covering their wheel interface. Steve Jobs seems to be letting this slip by for now.

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