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Dell followed Apple's example when entering the portable audio hardware market: Keep it simple and intuitive. The 20GB Dell Digital Jukebox DJ's strength is that it makes music playback simple and straightforward. We were impressed by its solid design, clean sound, and outstanding battery life, but it's the affordable price of this hard drive-based player that's the really big news: $299 for this 20GB model, or $249 for the 15GB version. The first thing we noticed about the DJ is how solid the unit feels to the touch. At 7.7 ounces, it's heavier than the iPod, but in combination with the device's compact frame (0.9 by 4.2 by 2.6 inches), the extra weight lends it a dense, solid feel that inspires confidence. The casing consists mainly of metal that's cool to the touch, with a barrel-style roller control in the approximate spot where Apple placed its much-lauded scrollwheel.
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|The DJ's carrying case obscures its display and controls, but the in-line remote helps remedy that.||The buttons on the remote mirror the playback controls on the main unit.|
Dell's roller control doesn't permit you to scroll through long song lists with the speed of the iPod, but it's functional and--like the rest of the controls--indicative of the solid build quality of this device. It's ensconced in an outward bulge in the casing, which prevents accidental song selection. Depressing it selects whatever's highlighted on the blue-backlit LCD (very similar to the one found on the Creative Zen NX). The roller control is flanked by five additional large buttons on the player's face, all of which are backlit and well spaced for large-fingered users. Four rubber protrusions on the underside of the device stop it from sliding on flat surfaces.
One of the DJ's biggest strengths is its ease of use, which renders the manual useless for all but the greenest of newbies. In conjunction with dedicated Menu and Back buttons, the extremely intuitive menu system--very similar to the iPod's--makes navigation effortless. If needless complexity irritates you, you'll enjoy this player's clean interface design.
Dell bundles an in-line remote control, which lacks a display but allows you to skip between songs and adjust the volume while the device is stowed away or riding on your hip with the included carrying case. The remote clips to bag straps or clothing, and it has a Hold switch for temporarily disabling its buttons (a sturdy, round slider on the main unit does the same for controls located there). You also get a USB 1.1/2.0 cord and an AC power adapter for charging the internal battery. The DJ plays MP3 and WMA music, which you can browse by album, artist, genre, track, or playlist. You can also add any track or group of tracks to a separate on-the-fly playlist, without a computer. While connected, the DJ shows up as a removable drive in Windows, but that's good only for transferring data files to the device. For music, you have to use the included . We wish you could load the device via Explorer, but at least the Musicmatch compatibility means you can transfer secure WMAs purchased from the Dell Music Store (a rebranded version of Musicmatch's service). To prevent piracy, songs cannot be uploaded from the DJ onto another computer.
An internal microphone on the side of the device records voice memos. In record mode, the display shows level meters that fluctuate with volume, but since there's no way to control the mike sensitivity, they're more for cosmetic purposes than for preventing recordings from being too soft or loud. Like MP3s or WMAs, voice recordings cannot be uploaded to a computer.
For adjusting sound, the DJ packs eight EQ presets, as well as a slick four-band graphical equalizer for customizing equalization. We like that the player has a healthy selection of Shuffle and Repeat modes but were annoyed by its inability to play albums in order, even with Shuffle deactivated. If you want your albums to play in the proper order, you'll either have to create individual playlists for them or add numbered prefixes to the tracks' titles. We found the player's sound to be clean and strong, an appraisal borne out by the specs: a 94dB signal-to-noise ratio and less than 0.1 percent Total Harmonic Distortion. The bundled headphones are passable, but we heard clearer highs and lows using our test 'phones.
The area in which the DJ truly rocks is battery life: an astounding 19.5 hours--significantly more than the 16 hours that Dell claims. Charging the unit fully with the AC adapter takes about 6 hours. You can also charge the unit using the USB 1.1/2.0 connection, but that takes longer, and it doesn't work if the battery has run down to less than 25 percent. But the one thing we don't like about the battery is that it's not removable. That leaves us keeping our fingers crossed and hoping the DJ won't suffer the same sort of power problems after long-term use that plagued early versions of the iPod and the Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen.
File transfers were 0.86MB per second over USB 1.1 and, as one would expect, a speedier 2.4MB per second over USB 2.0. This means you can fill the player's 20GB capacity (about 370 hours of music at 128Kps) in almost 7 hours over USB 1.1, or in about 2.3 hours if your computer has USB 2.0.