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5/21/2006
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Review: mobiBLU B153 Music Player

This all-purpose music player isn't for everyone. But if you crave monster battery life, or are frustrated by iTunes, or want extras like good voice recording and FM radio in your player, you'll love the B153. But if you want simplicity and elegance, look elsewhere.

It's not easy competing with Apple in the music player market, but the Korean company Hyun Won is giving it a shot. (Hyun Won are the same folks who came out last year with the tiny cube-shaped mobiBLU DAH-1500i. )

The company's new mobiBLU B153 is a mixed bag of innovation and clunkiness. It doesn't have a prayer against Apple in the vast consumer market, but just might thrill a significant number of people who want more features rather than elegant simplicity.

Roughly the size of a Zippo lighter (one Zippo thick on the top and a Zippo-and-a-half on the bottom), the 2.6 by 1.8 by 0.8 inches, 2.3-ounce B153 sports a minimalist, two-color (blue and yellow) 128- by 64-pixel OLED screen, a mini, 5-way joystick, and four buttons on top.

It comes in white and 512 MB (about $100) as well as two black versions: 1 GB (about $130) and 2GB version (no price yet). It plays MP3 and WMA files.

Most of the action is controlled with the joystick. While listening, moving it to the right advances to the next file, and to the left, to the previous. Up and down turns the volume up and down. That part is the only simple thing about its user interface.

Controls on top include play/pause, LDB (lyrics database), Rec (record), SRS (surround sound). One curious interface "feature": The labels on the buttons on top of the unit are oriented to be viewed from the back -- the opposite side from the screen.

Both joystick and buttons do different things depending on where you are in the hard-to-navigate menus. The display is capable of showing just three files at a time. In the "Display" settings area, you can pivot the display 180 degrees, then use it left-handed.

In the unit I tested, the file-display setting was set to "file name." So in hunting for a podcast to listen to, I could choose "__NEWS20060519.mp3" or "cps_2006e3.lotr.mp3" or any of 200 other such files. Pretty useless. Toggling the setting to ID3 tag solved that problem. ID3 tag display should be the default.

The player comes with a substantive manual -- the kind you might get with a high-quality digital camera -- although one that reveals the less-than-complete English skills of the translator from Korean.

A Gadget For Geeks

The mobiBLU B153 is a geeky gadget, and that's both good and bad. First the good: It connects to your desktop PC as a flash drive. You can drag and drop music and data files and folders directly, then they show up on your player in that same hierarchy.

You can't really use the B153 out of the box without "hacking" it, learning by trial and error and studying the manual to find out where things are located and how the thing works.

When you look at an Apple iPod Nano screen, you're confronted with a menu listing "Music," "Photos," "Extras," "Settings," and "Shuffle Songs." Those are options developed with consumers in mind. On the B153, by contrast, the main-screen options are a hierarchical series of nested directories starting with "Root," under which the user is presented with "Podcast Ready," "VOICE," "LINE IN," FMREC," followed by the file names of two useless sound files that "brand" the player.

The good news is that you can change these "menu options" by simply changing the file names. They're just folders.

The player is really more like a PC than a consumer electronics device, with very little work done on crafting a cohesive, simple user experience.

Another PC-like quality is that, like PC laptops (but unlike any Apple hardware), the nice industrial design of the B153 is made super ugly with a giant, semi-permanent sticker bragging about the battery life.

To be sure, the battery life is truly something to brag about: At 153 hours (which is what the name of the product refers to), the battery life is way more than any other player I'm aware of. For normal use, you don't have to even think about charging its large, built-in Li-on battery more than once a month.

It charges through the included USB 2.0 cable, but an AC charger is optional.

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