When Gateway introduced its 4GB MP3 Photo Jukebox last October, it was among the few MP3 players to boast a full-color screen capable of displaying photos. Since then, portable audio giants such as Apple and iRiver, as well as a host of smaller companies, have unleashed a slew of photo-capable devices on the awaiting public. Thus, it's no surprise that Gateway jumped to get the updated MP3 Photo Jukebox on the market. Aside from its larger storage capacity and bolder color scheme, the 6GB version is very similar to the older 4GB model. Unfortunately, the Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox ($249) frequently stumbled with photo slide shows and didn't work well with the Yahoo Unlimited subscription-based music download service, although performance was markedly better with Napster To Go. The Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox, at 3.8 by 2.3 by 0.7 inches and 3.4 ounces, is considerably smaller than the iPod Photo, but it's a hair larger than the audio-only iPod Mini, which is 3.6 by 2.0 by 0.5 inches and 3.6 ounces. Although the 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox's plastic construction doesn't inspire the same confidence as the iPod Mini's aluminum chassis, the unit's light weight makes it unobtrusive. Aside from its color scheme, the player is virtually identical to the older Gateway 4GB MP3 Photo Jukebox. We prefer the older model's charcoal gray styling to the new unit's black and light silver design; the glossy black plastic that surrounds the new model's display and front-panel controls tends to draw in shadows and a distracting glare. That gripe aside, the 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox's versatile 1.6-inch, 128x128-pixel, 16-bit (65,536 colors), full-color transflective screen legibly displays menus in conditions ranging from darkness to sunlight, but during music playback, the display dims until you press a button to wake it up. Even in ideal lighting, don't expect to see many details in this unit's thumbnail-size digital images.
The Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox's intuitive button design and logical menu structure make the device wonderfully straightforward to use. The front panel's five-way keypad enables you to rapidly navigate menu levels and scroll long lists, but occasionally when we intended to enter one command, such as right, the sensitive keypad registered a different command, such as enter. Next track, previous track, play/pause, and menu--which consists of up, down, left, right, and enter--buttons round out the front panel. On the top panel, you'll find a headphone jack and the requisite hold switch. The panel on the right side hosts a volume up/down button.
The unit can be charged over a USB connection or via the included AC adapter. In informal testing, the AC adapter fully recharged a depleted battery in approximately 1 hour. From a fully charged battery, we got 8.6 hours of playback; you can expect shorter battery life if you view photos. The lithium-ion rechargeable battery is removable, and given the device's mediocre battery life, you might want to pick up an extra battery ($19.99, available from Gateway.com) before heading out on a long road trip. The unit comes with a soft fabric carrying pouch, and an armband is available for $19.99.The 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox is Gateway's answer to Apple's comparably priced 6GB iPod Mini. Although iPods are the only portable players that support music files purchased from the iTunes Music Store, the Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox's compatibility with DRM WMA files, including subscription-based downloads from services such as Napster To Go and Rhapsody to Go, certainly gives you lower-cost music-sourcing options. In addition to DRM WMA files, the unit is compatible with nonprotected WMAs, as well as MP3s. The player's 6GB capacity is enough to store more than 1,000 songs, plus 1GB worth of digital photos. Like the 4GB MP3 Photo Jukebox, the new model doesn't offer an especially broad assortment of features aside from music and photo playback. The iRiver H10 6GB, for instance, includes FM playback and voice recording, which you won't get here.
Photo slide-show options are limited. To create a photo slide show, you essentially use the player's controls to select a folder of images you've previously transferred to the player; all the images located in the folder are automatically added to the slide show. Images located in other folders can't be added to the slide show. You can preconfigure musical accompaniment for slide shows and set a few other options, such as the slide show's name and the time interval for which each photo is displayed. JPEG is the only displayable photo format; interlaced JPEGs aren't supported.
Like most other portable-audio players, the 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox can be used to store and transport data files. You'll need to travel with the Gateway's main USB cable, since the charger plugs into the cable rather than the device itself. Another USB cable that's included with the player enables transferring files directly from a compatible digital camera or a USB memory card reader.
Your computer must have Windows Media Player 10.0 installed in order for the Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox to play protected WMA files, for which it is out-of-the-box compatible. You can add nonprotected files by dragging and dropping in the Windows desktop environment. Applications such as Windows Media Player 10.0 and Napster provide automatic syncing capabilities for the device.
The installation CD-ROM includes a utility application that isn't required to use the player. The utility application includes basics such as firmware updates and device reformatting tools. A free, three-month trial subscription to Napster To Go comes with the player.In terms of sound quality, the Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox can hold its own, but you wouldn't know it from listening to the terrible-sounding earbuds that come with the unit. When we ditched the low-fi 'buds for a high-end set of Ultimate Ears super.fi 3 Studio headphones, tracks such as The Flaming Lips' "It's Summertime" sounded clear and multidimensional. Even with Gateway's comparatively anemic 'buds, the unit had ample volume on tap. Most of the 20-plus EQ presets didn't improve the sound, but a few, such as Bass Boost, came in handy with certain music.
On the whole, the Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox worked well with Napster To Go, but we ran into issues with the more recently released Yahoo Music Unlimited service. For instance, when we transferred subscription-downloaded tracks from the Yahoo Music Engine (the Yahoo Unlimited service's interface) to the 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox, the device sometimes couldn't recognize the files. Additionally, it didn't support playlists transferred from Music Unlimited, but it did work with Napster To Go playlists.
Browsing photos one at a time while simultaneously listening to music worked fine, but the unit's photo-slide-show performance tended to be more unstable. Every time we attempted to play one particular photo slide show, the Gateway would display the first few slides while playing the accompanying music (a subscription-downloaded WMA file), then freeze, forcing us to use the reset button. Photo slide shows that were configured to play other subscription-downloaded WMA files were less problematic, but there were still snags. For instance, on one occasion, the player froze when we tried to navigate from the slide show's list to the main pictures menu.
All in all, the Gateway 6GB MP3 Photo Jukebox is an otherwise solid product that suffers from a few frustrating limitations and performance issues.