Toshiba's line up of hard disk-based Gigabeat players includes the 20GB F20 (AU$439), the 40GB F40 (AU$529), and the 60GB F60 (AU$599) that can store approximately 5,000, 10,000 and 15,000 songs, respectively.
When Toshiba announced its Gigabeat MP3 players last September, we were drawn to the high-resolution 2.2-inch colour LCD and the unique plus-shaped navigation. The F60 comes in a grey coloured shell that is quite blocky in appearance compared to the smooth contours of the 60GB iPod, however, an attractive brushed aluminium faceplate surrounds the Gigabeat's display and "PlusTouch" navigator, giving it some degree of sophistication.
In terms of customising the display, Toshiba gives users far more options than Apple. For starters, we love the fact that the orientation of the screen can be rotated, which we find actually makes the player feel somewhat like a portable games console to use. The font size can be adjusted to suit your liking, and a variety of objects, such as a graphic equaliser, disco lights or a pounding speaker, can be switched on to display next to track information. A range of bright and colourful wallpaper can also be applied to the background of the screen.
Down the right side of the player are blue backlit buttons for power, menu and volume, conveniently located for thumb presses if you happen to be right-handed. We love the function key housed here as well, which can be set to skip forward an album, bookmark a song, mute volume, display album art or swap the equaliser preset.
The crisp LCD (320 x 240 pixels) can also display photos transferred to the F60 with Toshiba's Gigabeat Room software. The photo viewer automatically puts the screen's orientation into landscape mode so photos show up across the full width. The PlusTouch control navigates through the 4x3 layout of thumbnails, while pressing the sensor in the middle of the cross selects the image to display.
Supported audio formats are MP3, WMA and WAV. A range of 32 equaliser presets and SRS WOW effects cater for everything from classical and jazz through to hip-hop and dance.
To charge the Gigabeat, simply slot it into the supplied cradle, which also features connections for stereo line output, a USB 2.0 port for PCs, and a additional USB port for backing up photos from digital cameras or files from memory keys directly to the F60's hard drive -- although this is the slower USB 1.1 standard. Photos transferred using this method, however, cannot be displayed on the Gigabeat. They first need to be put into Gigabeat Room.
Gigabeat Room is certainly not the easiest software we've come across, but it has a handy feature called CD RipRec that lets you copy a CD directly to the player by pushing a button when the F60 is in the cradle. We hope that Toshiba revises the version we tested (2.0.2) as the interface is far from intuitive.
The plus-sign navigation sensor is somewhat similar to the vertical scroll bar of Creative's 20GB Zen Touch and 5GB Micro -- but on two axes instead of one. It has 5 sensors (up, down, left, right and centre) that you can press to perform different functions. As there are no labels, symbols corresponding to the action of each sensor is constantly displayed on the screen, and changes depending on where you are in the F60's menu.
We find that the lack of tactile buttons that actually make a click sound when pressed hinders navigation, as you need to physically look at the player to figure out what direction you're pressing and make sure it actually felt your touch. The user manual states that up-down / left-right scrolling is possible, but we found it takes a lot of effort for very little return when trying to make your way through a list of hundreds of songs. Alternatively, you can just hold the direction you want and the F60 will steadily traverse the list.
Toshiba includes an application called Gigabeat Room to transfer songs to the F60. In a nutshell, it is very awkward to use, especially if you've been using iTunes for a while. We suggest, as does Toshiba, that you read the 52-page user manual before attempting to use it. To its credit, ripping WMAs directly to the player from CD is handy for those low on disk space. Thankfully, you can side-step the software and manage your music in Windows Media Player, but photos still need to be loaded using Gigabeat Room.
While Toshiba may not excel at creating easy-to-use software, it certainly has the know-how when it comes to batteries. During a rundown test of the Gigabeat F60's battery, it fell short just 20 minutes of Toshiba's 16 hour claimed life. While that is quite impressive for a hard disk-based MP3 player, Toshiba is currently developing fuel cells for MP3 players where just 10 millilitres of alcohol will provide enough power for 60 hours of playback.
Toshiba bundles a decent set of silver-and-grey earbuds with the Gigabeat that have an inline remote control -- so no fussing around in your bag or pocket is needed to change songs or volume.
Although there is a lot to like about the Toshiba Gigabeat F60, we'd have a hard time recommending it to beginners, due to the clunky software and awkward navigation. However, if you can live with the no-click navigation and are willing to use Windows Media Player to synchronise, the customisation options and the quality of the screen beat the iPod -- and most other HDD-based players we've seen -- hands down.