The original MobiBlu Cube (DAH-1500i) was as technically impressive as it was just plain adorable, packing music, recording, and radio features into an itsy-bitsy block-shaped player. Now its successor has arrived, and it also has both the "wow" and the "aww" factors covered. The dimensions haven't changed, but the now color-screened MobiBlu has impressively added photo and video playback. It joins the ranks of the MPIO One and the Cowon iAudio U3 as a supercompact multimedia flash player with a thumbnail-size screen. Unfortunately, the Cube2 is saddled with a menu navigation system that's clunky in the extreme.
The durable and pocketable (though somewhat odd to hold) Cube2 measures 1 inch on each side and comes in four colors (blue, silver, black, and pink) and capacities of 1GB ($99.99) and 2GB ($119.99). The 65,000-color OLED measures about 0.6 inches diagonally, and though tiny, it's bright and colorful, and it has awesome viewing angles. The Cube2, with its rounded corners and sunken lanyard loop is definitely more elegant than the original, which had sharp corners. The controls have been modified only slightly for this release; Hold and Menu buttons are on the left side, and playback controls are on the right. All buttons are rubbery and tactile. The top holds the combined audio and power jack. Like the previous version, the Cube2 charges when connected to a USB port; it doesn't come with a wall charger, although you can buy one separately. Take good care of the uncommon USB cable.
Before you begin using the Cube2, you'll want to spend a few minutes with the manual, since the controls aren't always obvious. Power the Cube2 up by pressing and holding the center playback button, then call up the main menu by pressing and holding the Menu button. This brings you to a colorful graphical menu of the main areas. Once you're in an area--such as music playback--you can tap the Menu button to view subfolders, such as those for your various artists, in an Explorer-style hierarchical folder system (no iPod-like browsing by song title or album). This dual menu structure is bound to confuse, and it's one of the player's main weaknesses. For example, when you enter the Record area, you can't see recordings you've already made; you can only make new ones. To see existing recordings, open the Music area, click for the Explorer-style menu, navigate up to the Record folder, then down to the FM or Voice folder. It's a hassle, with far more steps than it should have, though you'll get used to it. What you probably won't get used to is the four-line LCD (with only three lines used for content). It makes sifting through tracks or options a pain--but what can you expect with a half-inch screen?
Jam-packed with features
The Cube2's feature set is impressive even for a larger player. You can load songs (MP3, OGG, WMA, and WMA DRM,), pictures (JPEG and images converted using the included software), and videos (WMV, MPG, and ASF, which all need to be converted to MSV with the included software). The player supports PlaysForSure content, including subscription content, although the box doesn't carry the logo. The Cube2 has an FM radio with 20 presets, a recorder that works with voice or radio (you can schedule radio recordings or make them on the fly), and even comes preloaded with MyPodder podcast software.
Loading the player isn't too hard--just remember to indicate in the player settings if you want MSC mode (a.k.a. UMS for removable disc use) or MTP mode (for Windows Media transfers). It works with Windows Media Player 10 (but not the version 11 beta), and while we couldn't get it to show up in the Library tab's left-hand tree navigation, it worked fine in the Sync tab.
You can adjust the sound with the equalizer, which has seven presets and is completely user customizable. Nice; the Apple iPod still lacks equalizer customization. The Cube2 also features the nice SRS and TruBass effects. In its default EQ settings, sound is good, lacking only slightly in treble. Apply EQs if you desire a punchier sound. You can also repeat songs or turn on A-B looping to hear a section of a song.
The settings menu includes some nice options for control freaks. For example, you can put the player into graphic EQ mode, which offers two snazzy options for viewing onscreen graphics that pulsate to the beat. You can also pivot the screen 180 degrees, make recordings at up to 128Kbps MP3, and adjust play speed. However, there is no on-the-go playlist feature, and you can't listen to music while you're viewing photos.
To view images or videos, you'll need to use the included conversion software, MJPEG Converter. It works tolerably well, although the controls are confusing. For example, if you're converting one image, the software can put it in the right Cube2 folder automatically, but if you're converting a folder full of images, you'll need to drag them over yourself. Converting videos didn't always work for us. WMV files converted fine, but MPEG files didn't. MobiBlu support supplied us with a multicodec pack, which they say will soon be available on the site and on future bundled CDs, which helped us convert some MPEGs, but not others.
The Cube2's screen is square, so it crops off the sides of images, and even crops a little off the top and bottom. You can scroll around to view the missing sections, but that gets to be a hassle. Viewing pictures or videos on the Cube2 is a fun novelty (the Cube2 looks like a miniature TV), but probably not something you'll want to do often. Otherwise, the Cube2's playback and radio screens are attractive and packed with info-- as we said, the navigating the player is the tricky part.
As an FM radio, the Cube2 is fairly staticky, but listenable. It has 20 channel presets, which you can load by hand or have the player set automatically. You can also record from the radio or create timed recordings. The voice recorder makes incredibly muffled recordings, so it's for emergency use only. We couldn't tell where the microphone was located, but talking into any part of the Cube2 produced a muffled sound.
You'll need to turn to the manual often, so it's too bad that it's so poor. It reads like a bad translation and offers arrow diagrams that curl confusingly around the page. It also skimps on important topics, going into few details on things like setting an FM recording. Podcast instructions are on a PDF file on the Cube2 itself.
The package comes with headphones, an unusual USB cable (it plugs in via the headphone jack, like the new iPod Shuffle), and a protective rubber case. As with the original Cube, the headphones force you to wear the player around your neck, suspended like a necklace pendant. It's irritating for those of us who would rather carry the player in a pocket, though you can of course use your own set.
The Cube2 is rated for 10 hours of music playback and 5 hours of video. We tested it with the backlighting on, so we could tell it was working, and got less than 6 hours of music. Using its standard testing methodology, CNET Labs got only 7 hours. Battery life, unlike with the MobiBlu B153, isn't the device's forte.
The Cube2 is a small player that gets big marks for style and offers a surprisingly rich set of features. While it's not the easiest device to master, it's a good thing in a very small package.