Portable media players are a rare sight on the train or bus (perhaps on account of being one of the most stealable gadgets modern man can carry). Yet they remain of interest to frequent fliers, young children on long car journeys and oil rig workers. Traditionally Archos has led the field, but young hoodlums like PQI and iubi are creeping up to attract buyers in what remains a fairly niche market.
With the iubi Blue, reviewed here, iubi has integrated Bluetooth support for wireless headphones (but not for file transfer). iubi clearly considers this feature fairly significant -- its Bluetooth capability has inspired the product's name. But is this mere novelty, or do the iubi Blue's impressive communication credentials set a new bar for future portable media players?
Neither gorgeous to behold nor strikingly ugly, the iubi Blue is functional in appearance. The player's glossy black plastic fascia is liable to pick up greasy fingerprints, much like the Sony PlayStation Portable, but overall the chassis feels rugged. The Blue is potentially pocket-sized, but don't expect to jam it into your skinny jeans -- it's almost precisely the size of a Penguin paperback edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, that is 131 by 80 by 19mm.
The controls on the Blue feel sturdy and give confident feedback to the touch. There is a problem with the placement of some of the buttons (more on that later) but this could be fixed with a simple software patch.
The screen is coated in a reflective surface that picks up some ambient light and reflects it back. We would have preferred to see an anti-reflective surface on the player, but glossy screens are all the rage these days. Get used to your own reflection staring back at you on the Blue's screen in brightly lit rooms.
Dreaded removable plastic covers make an appearance on the side of the player, concealing among other things the USB ports. These plastic covers will inevitably be lost within five seconds of removal -- a hideous oversight given that most manufacturers have abandoned the silly practice of using removable caps on ports.
The things to look out for when buying a portable media player are numerous, and it's easy to end up with a device that compromises on major features. The first thing to check is whether the player natively supports a wide range of video codecs. This is often tricky to determine. Many players claim to support a range of formats, but neglect to mention that you'll need to manually re-encode these formats before the player will display them. The Blue has native support for MPEG-1/2/4, DivX, XviD (although see Performance below), WMV 7/8/9, AVI, H.264, MOV and Real video codecs. This is a strong line-up.
Video playback is specced to run at 30 frames per second at 720x480 pixels -- this equates to 8MB per second. Sound is 12mW per channel and can be 'enhanced' using 'Wolfson 3D sound' -- it's a matter of taste, but few 3D sound simulators have impressed us.
Like many of the PQI mPack players, the Blue will record directly from an external video and audio input using an internal MPEG-4 encoder. It's possible to make recordings from a DVD player, TV or VCR straight into MPEG-4 (640x480-pixel, 30fps). The 30GB internal drive will give you around 75 hours of recording time.
The Blue uses USB OTG (On-the-go), a standard that lets you transfer data from devices like digital cameras without the need for an intermediary computer. For example, digital camera owners can transfer photos to the Blue with a USB lead alone.
Bluetooth range on the iubi Blue is around 10m -- well beyond the distance at which you can no longer see what's on the screen. There are no Bluetooth headphones bundled with the player, but this is probably a wise decision, given that most owners will probably want to choose their own. iubi does bundle a generic pair of wired headphones, however.
The navigation interface on the Blue is frustrating at first. Our biggest annoyance was the location of the contextual menu key, which for some reason has been placed in the middle of the directional pad. This is where the select key should have been. As a result, you'll find yourself bringing up unwanted contextual menus all over the place instead of selecting the track you want to play. Given that ten minutes of user testing would have highlighted this issue, it's a shame it was neglected -- it's like giving someone a mouse and not telling them the left and right buttons have been reversed.
The iubi Blue's screen is bright and punchy. It struggles to accurately represent some of the finer detail in scenes, however. Although video quality depends to some degree on the way your movies have been encoded, there is room for improvement here.
For clarity and contrast, the Blue does a competent if unremarkable job, and Bluetooth support will be attractive to wireless fiends. The player's native support for every video format going looks appealing, but the Blue failed to play our library of Xvids. We couldn't get to the bottom of why this was, as the codec is prominently listed on the Blue's box, but perhaps a firmware update will remedy the problem.
The iubi Blue may be no Superman, but at least it's got ambition. Bluetooth functionality is useful, but it's not quite enough to make this player essential.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide