With so many high-quality, hard drive-based MP3 players on the market, it's surprising to find a device as unsatisfying as Frontier Labs' L1 ($300). Not that this 20GB player doesn't have some things in its favor--a large display and swift file transfers are among the highlights--but the overall user experience will dissatisfy most consumers. On the plus side, the Frontier Labs L1 features a large (2.5 inches diagonally), 160x160-pixel, blue-backlit display that's easy to read in both brighter and darker environments. At 3.86 by 2.56 by 0.87 inches and weighing 6.7 ounces, the player is comparable in size (if not performance) to the iRiver iHP-140. But the L1's plain black casing with silver trim is hardly attractive.
Three controls decorate the face of the L1: the play/pause/power key, the Menu button, and the four-way navigation joystick. The latter could be a bit tighter--it's easy to accidentally nudge it up or down before pushing in to make a selection, so we often found ourselves choosing the wrong menu item. It also takes a few tries to realize that you need to press the menu button repeatedly, instead of just once, to drill back down to the main menu. The manual, by the way, offers no explanation on how to wade through the menu options.
Our last design quibble is that the headphone jack supports the miniplug instead of the standard 3.5mm connection. Thankfully, Frontier Labs includes an adapter, so you can still swap out the earbuds for a better headset. The L1 comes with most of the features you'd expect from a 20GB player, including USB 2.0 connectivity and FM and line-in recording. You can record from the FM radio or an external source as 64Kbps, 96Kbps, 128Kbps, and 192Kbps MP3 files.
The CD Sync function, however, doesn't work as you'd expect. Most players with this feature automatically begin recording when music begins playing from the external CD player. With the L1, you set the device to wait between one and five seconds before it receives a signal. To record, first you press Start Record on the L1, then press Play on the external CD player. But if you set CD Sync for, say, two seconds and the L1 doesn't receive a signal in that time, the recording feature automatically stops. Again, nothing in the manual explains this process.
For music playback, the Frontier Labs L1 features six predefined EQ modes (Normal, Classic, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Bass Boost) and one user-defined setting, curiously listed as Genre. Frontier Labs also includes Audiophile, a file manager-type app that mainly handles file transfers. You can use the app to create playlists too, by clicking the My Collections tab, then adding tracks from the player.
One unique feature on the L1 is the ability to import and export vCard data, such as contacts and calendar entries, from Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. We don't know how many people will want to use the L1 as an organizer, but it's nice to have the information available in a pinch. The Frontier Labs L1 is proof that not all MP3 players sound alike. Its output is muffled even at middle volume levels with the included earbuds. When we cranked it up just a bit, we frequently experienced noticeable distortion. We had similar results when we used a pair of full-size Koss UR-40 headphones. Adjusting the EQ mode only made matters worse. Frontier Labs claims a signal-to-noise ratio of 90dB and a distortion rate of 0.05 percent, but to these ears, the L1 is one of the poorer-sounding units we've tested. If you can stand it, the headphone output of 50mW will bring the audio to sufficiently loud levels even with full-size headphones.
FM reception was also less than adequate. Pressing and holding the navigation button to the left or right activates the Auto Search feature, but the L1 frequently scanned the entire spectrum without finding a single station, or else it would stop at a false frequency (an even-numbered channel). In addition, stations that deliver strong signals and were easily recognized by other players came through with lots of static.
At least you won't have to wait long while moving your music collection to the device. File transfers over a USB 2.0 connection came in at a zippy 7.7MB per second using the drag-and-drop method in Windows Explorer. That rate dropped to a still-excellent 6.07MB per second using the Audiophile software. The L1's battery life is also a plus, as we reached 9.2 hours of continuous playback in our CNET Labs tests, compared with the rated 8 hours.
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