Toshiba's enigmatic Gigabeat MEG-F20K
There's a reason why the is not only the world's best-selling digital music player but also a bona fide cultural phenomenon: it works. But the reason the iPod will remain king of the MP3 player hill is the overall lackluster competition. Exhibit A: the new Toshiba Gigabeat F series, available in four capacities: the black, aqua blue, or silver 10GB MEG-F10 ($279); the silver or black 20GB MEG-F20 ($329); the brushed-aluminum, champagne-colored 40GB MEG-F40 ($399); and the 60GB brushed-aluminum MEG-F60 ($449), the only model that ships with an in-line remote control. Packed with creative technology, the silver 20GB version we tested nevertheless suffered from a plethora of overly complicated and frustrating setup and operational flaws, exemplified by the inclusion of not one but two manuals: one for the software and one for the player itself. Many of the Gigabeat's problems could be solved with a serious reworking of the firmware and software, but the remaining flaws will keep the Gigabeat F series from even pretending to reach the iPod's throne. Sleek and graceful at first glance, with just a jumbo screen and the white Plus Touch control cross on its face, the 20GB Toshiba Gigabeat F series, at 4.2 by 2.5 by 0.6 inches and 5.7 ounces, is nearly the same size and weight as the 20GB iPod; all models are the same size, with the exception of the 60GB version, which is 0.75 inch thick. However, the Gigabeat's 2.2-inch, 320x240-pixel color LCD is noticeably larger than the iPod's. In addition, the graphics-intensive interface is noticeably more colorful and alive.
Arrayed along the right spine, the Gigabeat also has cool blue backlit power and menu buttons, redundant volume controls, and a mysterious Action button; volume and other functions can also be adjusted using the primary cross control--more on those later. On top are power and headphone jacks and a hold button to lock all the controls. On the bottom are the cradle and USB connectors, along with a unique battery-on/off switch.
Toshiba does not include a belt clip or a case. Generic music skins--even an iPod case--won't work because they'll cover these side controls. Since the Gigabeat is the same size as the 20GB iPod and since the cross control is located in precisely the same relative position as the Click Wheel on the varying iPods, you could get away with using certain iPod cases and still have access to the most basic controls.
Each additional control button and connector adds a layer of operational complexity, something Apple understands but Toshiba doesn't. For instance, we had major difficulties just trying to show off some of our stored pictures. We pushed the menu button expecting to navigate through submenus to get to our pictures. Instead, just one menu appeared, listing the interface, the play mode, and the EQ options. Not until we consulted the manual did we discover that all the other menus were accessed by pressing the power button. Our shocked reaction was, "Huh?"
The primary power-button menu presents, among other things, choices for artist, album, genre, and playlist. There is no separate choice for tracks or songs. To find your stored tracks, you have to select the Folders option, which presents multiple folders whose contents vary depending on the source of the tracks. These subfolders are filled either with artist-specific folders or individual track names, all in no discernable sequence. In other words, locating any given track by name is like trying to find a lost sock in your laundry.
Your first instinct when using the cross-shaped control array is to slide your fingers up and down the bars. Bad instinct. Each tip of the cross, as well as the intersection, is actually a button. You can display a function map on the screen for a reminder of which tip accomplishes which action. Unfortunately, the intersection of the bars is not the Select button--pressing the right tip activates or confirms a selected feature. The intersection is also the play/pause control, but the area for this important function is so limited that we often needed multiple taps before enough pressure was applied to toggle between the two.
Like the iPod's, the Gigabeat's large and bright 2.2-inch color screen adds a high level of readability to the track information, even when the backlight is off. You can choose between eight different wallpaper designs--uselessly labeled Setup1 through Setup5 for the presets and User1 through User3 for the user-defined designs. The 10 screen themes define how information is displayed on the screen: for instance, with large or small text and with portrait or left- or right-handed landscape orientation. The play mode, the battery meter, and the time are also displayed.
The Gigabeat's cradle is both a boon and a bane. On its front are buttons for direct syncing and CD ripping. But the cradle includes USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 connectors as well as an AC input. Not all PCs or laptops can power an accessory through a USB connection, however. Our Gateway M210 laptop doesn't, so the cradle had to be connected to a power source in order for it to work. When using Windows Media 10.0, you also need to use the cradle's USB 1.1 connection rather than a direct Gigabeat-to-PC USB 2.0 connection.