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. So How Does It Sound?
Overall sound quality is very good, especially in the mid and high ranges. Bass was problematic, sounding boomy and flat at the same time. It's likely that the bass problems are earbud related, so sound might be awesome if you replace the earbuds.
Equalizer settings present pre-fab options: Normal, Rock, Jazz, Classic, Pop, Live, Dance and SRS, but you can tweak these using more familiar frequency slider bars in the setup menus.
Unlike iTunes, which is a huge application that has to be updated frequently, installs a bunch of files all over your system and updates your registry, the B153's podcasting software is already installed -- on the B153 itself. Open the gadget as a drive on your PC, double click on PodcastReady.exe, and it launches an application called myPodder. Nothing is installed on your PC. I wish iTunes did that.
myPodder launches your Web browser and, after shutting itself down, takes you to the PodcastReady service.
When you select a Podcast offered by PodcastReady, you're taken to a page that lists all recent episodes on the right, with options to "Send to a Friend" and "Retrieve Episode." On the left, you can choose to Subscribe to the podcast, with a couple of rational options.
Once you've selected your podcasts or changed your settings online, you're ready to sync with your device using the myPodder application – which is now closed. You have to go find it again, then click a button to sync. I could not find an option to leave myPodder open while launching the PodcastReady service.
Call It The Un-Nano
The Gold Standard in this category, of course, is the Apple iPod Nano. And the mobiBLU B153 has quite a few features that the Nano does not have.
Like many digital video recorders, you can actually speed up or slow down the audio, which makes a lot of sense for podcasts. Unfortunately, it has just one notch up for faster, and three notches down for slower. I'd love to be able to speed it up or down in much smaller increments. Still, it's a nice feature.
The B153 acts as a voice-recorder, and can also record from another music player or stereo system. The voice recorder has a neato timed-record function, so you can tell it in advance when to "roll tape," and then leave it to record. It's perfect for ditching class without missing the lecture.
Recording audio requires the included connector, which has a standard audio-out jack on one end, and the small end of a USB mini-B 5-pin connector on the other. Plug one end into your stereo, and the other into the MobiBlu, change the mode to "Line In," then press the Record button. The RIAA must hate this device.
The FM radio worked and sounded great, although picked up only very powerful nearby signals. The player supports up to 20 station presets. And you can record from the radio!
The B153 isn't for everybody. 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.