HolidayBuyer's Guide

Wi-Fi music player cuts out the PC

MusicGremlin lets people download songs via wireless--meaning they don't need to be at home or near a computer.

There are numerous music subscription services on the market, such as those from Virgin, Yahoo and MTV, that let you download all the music you want to your home computer, then transfer it to your portable player. But what if you can't wait that long?

What if you need to grab some new tunes between classes or on the way to a meeting? For you impatient and forward-looking types, there's the MusicGremlin, which uses a direct wireless link to a music store to cut out the middleman--your PC--from the music-gathering equation.

We've seen a few Wi-Fi-enabled music players before--remember SoniqCast and Tao?--but never one that works with a music subscription service. (However, Zing, another Wi-Fi portable, is in the works.)

MusicGremlin

A $14.99 monthly fee lets you grab all the music you want--or, at least, all that will fit on the 8GB MusicGremlin device--from the MusicGremlin Direct online store. Clever community features let you browse other Gremlin owners' downloads and swap songs with friends.

There are some healthy restrictions in place, though, such as weak battery life, small storage capacity, and the fact that you can trade songs only with friends who have subscriptions.

We like the product and applaud the innovation, but we doubt that this first-generation offering provides enough value to attract a large number of users.

Design
About the same size as the first-generation Apple Computer iPod, the MusicGremlin measures 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.8 inches and offers a 2-inch, 220-by-176-pixel color screen. The front and back are glossy black, while the contoured sides and the selection pad have a matte finish and a rubbery feel. It's deceptively lightweight, and the unit feels remarkably like a thick piece of foam.

Hardly a sleek and sexy player, its looks are just a bit goofy. But we grew to like them, particularly because of the simple array of buttons.

The rubbery center selection pad lets you move between menus and choose songs and options, while the on/off/hold switch is on the left side. The volume, play/pause, and forward/reverse controls are on the right. We desperately wanted to relocate them to the front, so that we could use the player with just a thumb. Still, we appreciated the dedicated volume and player controls. The headphone jack is on the top, while the bottom has line-in, mini-USB, reset and power ports.

The player uses a side-scrolling interface, like the iPod's, where you move through menus to the right. Some options, such as those for downloading or sending a song, appear in small pop-up windows that can, at first, be confusing to select. Icons along the bottom let you know the battery level, how many songs are in your download queue, and if you're connected to a Wi-Fi or ad-hoc network.

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Video: Tiny MP3 player with a big sound
Taking the MusicGremlin for a spin

While the menus are simple and utilitarian, the playback screen has a little more character, with album art, and red and blue highlights.

A small light on the upper left of the player also shows your connection status, glowing green for Wi-Fi and blue for ad-hoc. Both the display and Wi-Fi connection lights are easy to see during the day. When the green connection light is on, you get a certain satisfaction knowing that others can "see" you and that you're downloading songs.

The MusicGremlin has a small internal speaker that plays music faintly when headphones aren't connected. We're told that a sleep timer will be added in the next few months, so that you can fall asleep to your MusicGremlin.

The MusicGremlin comes with a pair of matching black stereo headphones (with a tangle-prone rubbery texture) but no belt clip or case. It's too bad, because the glossy finish is a fingerprint magnet.

Features
The MusicGremlin comes in one storage size: 8GB, which holds about 2,000 MP3, WMA, or WMA DRM tracks.

It's PlaysForSure-certified, so you can transfer subscription or purchased tracks from most other online stores--just not wirelessly. You can use the player without a subscription to the company's MusicGremlin Direct service ($14.99 per month, on the pricey side of portable subscriptions), but in that case, you might as well take the same $299 and buy a 30GB video iPod, because you'd be missing out on what makes the Gremlin unique.

With a subscription and an 802.11 wireless connection, you can go shopping right from your player and download all the new tunes you want. Downloads are 128Kbps WMA DRM tracks. With or without a subscription, you can purchase tracks at 99 cents each. Purchased tracks can then be transferred to your Windows XP PC, saved and used on other devices.

The 2-million-track music library directory is actually saved and invisibly updated to the Gremlin, so you don't waste time or Wi-Fi battery life downloading track information whenever you browse the catalog.

We found the catalog consistent with that of other online stores. It's strong in rock and pop, and it's likely to have every popular artist you want, if not every song. Since you have the database right on the device, you'll notice tons of artists and albums you've never heard of. You browse by spelling out the artist or song you're looking for, then clicking the select button to jump into the directory when you're close to the right place. It seems cumbersome at first, but after a few tries, you'll be scrolling quickly.

Enter Download Manager (one of nine items on the main menu), and you can monitor the status of your downloads. You can even move a song to the front of the queue, a good feature if the song you want to listen to now is at the back end of 59 titles.

Sadly, the Gremlin doesn't offer enough to justify the $299 price. Considering that you'll need the $14.99-per-month (that's $179.88 per year) subscription to get the most out of it, we think the player should cost a lot less. Perhaps there should be a steep discount if you sign up for a year of service--similar to promotions offered by cell phone service providers--or maybe even a discount on tracks that you want to purchase as a subscriber.

Making friends
The MusicGremlin uses its wireless abilities in another interesting way: By letting you go online to see what other connected users have on their players. You can see the most recently added 100 songs from each connected Gremlin's library. If you have a subscription, you can then click to download any songs you want for your own, provided that they came from the subscription service.

Without a Wi-Fi connection, two Gremlin owners can form ad-hoc networks to trade songs locally. You can send a song to a specified user, who can then accept or reject it.

Privacy buffs should know that you can turn the community features off or share information with only trusted users.

Obviously, the more users out there, the better. We consistently viewed up to 20 people online at all times during the beta testing period. There is potential to flesh out a more interactive social networking experience.

Another useful way to discover new music is by subscribing to Gremlists, which are free to subscribers. These are preprogrammed lists of 10 songs in various genres, such as hits, rap and classic rock. The lists change every week, so if you subscribe to some, you'll always have fresh content on your player.

The MusicGremlin doesn't come with any software, so Windows XP users can manage their songs with Windows Explorer, or an all-in-one player such as Windows Media Player 10 (it doesn't work with Macs). If you're transferring purchased songs to your PC, you'll need WMP 10, which also passes along the license information. WMP 11 is in beta and isn't yet officially supported, though we had success syncing the MusicGremlin with the Urge music subscription service.

The Gremlin also includes an FM radio, which doesn't yet have the ability to remember presets. But the developers can push software upgrades to the player directly, and we expect this feature to be added soon.

Performance
There's no doubt that having instant access to just about any song is a blast. No sooner do you think, "Gee, I haven't heard Roxy Music's 'Avalon' in ages," than you can download it, if you have access to a Wi-Fi connection.

That's a big "if," as open connections can be hard to find (though we'll all see more Wi-Fi soon enough), and the benefit of this player is that you can download while you're away from home. The MusicGremlin also works with WEP-secured 802.11 connections and was easy to set up in our tests, although it didn't always find the network right away. Sometimes it took two or three tries.

We didn't find anything wrong with the sound quality. It has nice output levels and 100 volume increments, as well as good, clean punchy sound. But be warned that there is no equalizer, nor is there a repeat function or an indication of whether you're in shuffle mode. We imagine the MusicGremlin team will add these in time.

The FM radio works only when the headphones are connected and gets unusually poor reception. Every swing of the cord seems to cause static. When we tried it indoors, we could tune in only a few stations.

The player downloads songs at a decent, but hardly fast, rate. We timed a 10-song album at 22 minutes, 44 seconds. We like that you can begin playing a song before it's fully downloaded, though.

One small annoyance is that subscribers need to select one song at a time, though you can buy an entire album at once. This looks like a roadblock to prevent people from downloading a lot of songs at once, and it's irritatingly unnecessary.

The sharing features are fun but don't go far enough in providing value. You can share only subscription songs and only with other subscribers, so nonsubscribers and purchased tracks are off-limits. Users would be better served if they could transfer any song, whether purchased or subscription, and if subscription songs could be transferred a set number of times to nonsubscribers.

We wish the player supported messaging, so users could include notes with their songs. We also wish it could handle photos and video. Grabbing photos from Wi-Fi-enabled cameras would be a perfect fit. But these features could be added if the Gremlin ever takes off--mixing social networking with a portable music device seems like a no-brainer.

Battery life is also a problem, as the Gremlin got only a bit more than 10 hours of standard MP3 playback in our testing, and considerably less when Wi-Fi is on. Downloading online takes a real toll on the battery. The device will drain in about 2 hours of constant downloading. With average use, you'll get about three days between charges.

The Gremlin has all the markings of a first-generation product, meaning lots of small annoyances that could easily be corrected. The Wi-Fi connection shuts down automatically to save power, but the device itself doesn't power down. Forget to shut it off, and you'll drain your battery. You're limited to viewing 100 songs from other users' libraries, and you don't get a follow-up message when sharing a song to say if the track was accepted or rejected.

Troy Dreier checked out this device for CNET Reviews.

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