At first glance, the Creative Labs Nomad seems no different than many other portable players on the market. It delivers an hour or so of crisp, clean digital sound much as most CDs or MDs do, but this digital audio player has no removable media. The static RAM memory holds MP3 audio files loaded in from a PC.
Product PointsApplications: Electronic newsgathering; portable music listening; recording lectures
Key Features: 2.25 oz; powered by two Ni-MH AAA batteries; 64 MB memory
Contact: Creative Labs at 408-546-6400
+ Compact size
+ MusicMatch software eliminates data entry tasks
– Recording capabilities limited
The Score: The Nomad player is a landmark product in the MP3 revolution.
The Nomad ($249.99) is the second-generation of its breed. It includes an FM radio receiver and voice recording capabilities. Despite similarities to other players, it is not just another device tossing one more format into the marketplace: It is a major step in the evolution from analog to digital.
In terms of features, the Nomad is smaller and lighter than conventional audio players. Weighing around 2.25 oz, the Nomad is about half the size of a pack of cigarettes. Anything more miniaturized would likely be better sold as a surgical implant. It is solid state and cannot skip. The unit is powered by a pair of Ni-MH AAA batteries. According to company claims, a 45-minute charge yields better than five hours of play.
Depending on compression rates, the 64 MB of memory can hold up to two hours of digital audio. By design, the Nomad’s capabilities as a recorder are severely limited. It can record up to four hours of speech-quality sound. To allay the RIAA’s fears regarding digital bootlegs, it cannot do much more than record lectures and the like. Although it is a reasonable replacement for microcassette recorders, it is not a full-fledged field recorder.
In the digital paradigm, the Nomad is really an extension of the PC’s audio capabilities. The Nomad comes with a docking station that links through the parallel port. Data is transferred to the player at a rate of about 800 kbps – an hour’s worth of programming downloads in a few minutes.
The docking station also serves as the charger for the portable’s batteries. For now, Mac users are pretty much left out of the game. But don’t despair. USB models that work across platforms will be available shortly.
Like any computer concept, hardware is only part of the picture. Software defines much of the end-user experience. The bundled software included with the Nomad goes beyond the basic need for a ripper to strip audio off CDs, a compression program to get them to pint-sized perfection and a file manager to create and load songs.
The player comes with two programs. Nomad Manager is a simple interface for dropping and dragging content to and from the player. The Creative Digital Audio Center is actually a branded version of the MusicMatch encoder/jukebox.
MusicMatch is a killer app – the heart and soul of the digital portable player concept. Ever hassle with alphabetizing your CD or record collection? That analog era drudgery becomes effortless.
MusicMatch is the control panel that turns a computer into a music-on-hard-drive system. The most typical use is transferring music stored on CD into this digital jukebox. Every CD has an identifying code. The program reads this and then looks online to a database of album information. The disc title and track names appear. Just check which songs you want and the software transfers them to the hard drive while compressing them to MP3. Tedious data entry is eliminated – no more typing in song titles. All the information is loaded automatically in searchable form. Once in the system, you can search by title, artist or genre. As you get ready for the day’s jog, pick exactly what you want to hear and in what order. Bingo. If you want to be a passive listener, simply switch to the radio.
Stripping sound from CDs is only one source for content. After all, the real excitement over these devices is how they work with downloaded music. Musicians posting their own material can use MusicMatch to attach descriptive information to their audio files. Even if you are not on a major label, your audience can have the same amenities.
The Nomad was designed before the Secure Digital Music Initiative’s (SDMI’s) portable device specs were announced. Still, the quality of the recording codec was chosen with SDMI in mind. The next version will be fully SDMI-compliant. For most end-users these additions will be invisible. All it will mean is that the unit will look for additional coding in soundfiles that indicate what use the artist and/or record label has approved for the material.
In some ways, the Nomad’s digital paradigm could change how we listen to album-oriented music. For producers who struggle to create a coherent theme, tone or concept across an entire disc, this is a nightmare. The artist’s work should be experienced as a whole – not appropriated out of context, cut-by-cut.
By the same token, hitmakers who load the bulk of their releases with filler are in for some changes, too. Will fans buy a bloated CD when they can get the singles cheaper by download? Either way, the Nomad is a landmark product and redefines what we mean by digital audio.
(At presstime, Creative Labs has announced the Nomad II MG and the Nomad II Jukebox. The MG will be very much the same physically, but will be able to play additional codecs, such as Windows Media Player. The Jukebox will opt for a laptop-style 6 GB hard drive to hold hundreds of CD’s worth of music. Most importantly, both will incorporate features that make them “SDMI-ready.” As the actual application of of the SDMI portable specs are developed, these players will be able to be upgraded to support secure downloads.-Eds.)