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Toshiba Gigabeat MEG-F review: Toshiba Gigabeat MEG-F

Included with the Gigabeat is Toshiba's Gigabeat Room (or Gigaroom, for short) music-management software, with an icon-heavy interface that takes some getting used to. Unfortunately, the lightweight Gigaroom handles only ripped CDs. You have to use other software to transfer licensed tracks.

Toshiba brings three innovations to the Gigabeat F series: CD RipRec, battery disabling, and compatibility with Napster To Go and other similar subscription services.

CD RipRec, accessed via the Gigaroom program or the CD RipRec button on the cradle, allows you to rip CDs directly to the player without first storing them on your PC. You need to have the Gigabeat connected to a PC, of course. But considering the myriad of software issues facing all Windows-based players, this CD RipRec feature is fast--figure around a couple of minutes for a standard CD--and convenient.

As noted, on the bottom of the Gigabeat is a notched battery-on/off switch. Switching it off cuts even the slow power trickle that stores your settings--you have to set up the player from scratch when you switch the battery back on. But keeping the battery off means you can pick up the Gigabeat and start playing even if it's been sitting around for months without being connected to a power source. We've seen this feature in another Japanese MP3 player, namely Sony's HD series.

Interms of ease of use, Napster To Go compatibility isn't all it's cracked up to be. Neither Gigaroom nor Windows Media Player (WMP) 10.0 can be used to transfer your leased Napster tracks, requiring you to use at least two separate pieces of software. Adding to the software confusion, Gigaroom transfers only ripped tracks, not licensed content. Napster To Go users will have to use three different software programs to initially load all their files to the player.

Toshiba's bundled Gigabeat Room software is a real lemon, thanks to a paucity of features and a confusing icon-driven interface. Unfortunately, you need it for transferring digital photos and for USB 2.0-speed transfers.

Viewing photos is almost standard on HDD-based players now. Where the Gigabeat excels is its large, bright 2.2-inch LCD screen. That extra 0.2 inch of screen real estate makes a significant difference when comparing the Gigabeat's LCD to the iPod's. And the Gigabeat screen has deeper blacks, higher contrast, and more saturated colors than the iPod's. But while the iPod shrinks your pictures down to 720x576 pixels regardless of their original size, the Gigabeat isn't compatible with files larger than 4,000 total pixels--not a high pixel count at all.

While you can transfer photos to the Gigabeat directly from most digital cameras, you won't be able to view them; in order to use the Gigabeat as a photo browser (and a decent one at that), you must transfer photos with the bundled Gigabeat Room software. Oddly enough, you cannot copy photos using WMP 10.0.

Once you overcome the transfer and interface issues, the Toshiba Gigabeat F series is a media pleasure. Unlike the iPod, with its long bootup time, the Gigabeat starts up almost instantaneously and immediately begins playback from where it left off the last time you listened. Photos look bright, crisp, and saturated and are easily browsed once you have them on the player. You can also listen to tracks while you browse photos. Of course, the Gigabeat includes a slide-show mode.

The Gigabeat has an amazing 32 preset EQ settings, such as SRS and the usual genre choices, as well as separate bass and treble controls and six play modes, including Random All, which occasionally repeats tracks. There's also the seldom-used Intro mode, which will play either the first 10 or 60 seconds of each track. Not included is a version of the iPod's Sound Check option, which evens out the ever-shifting individual track-to-track volume modulation. As a result, some newer songs blare, requiring periodic volume adjustment. Pleasantly, the Gigabeat seems to be endowed with segue intelligence not found in the iPod. Sets of Elton John, the Beach Boys, Barenaked Ladies, the Beatles, Led Zep, Pearl Jam, and Coldplay on the one hand and Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Chet Baker on the other convinced us.

Sound quality is generally excellent (signal-to-noise ratio of 95dB), especially with the EQ flat. The various EQ settings significant affect the sound, introducing an almost metallic and overprocessed quality, and are generally acceptable for techno and hip-hop but unnecessary for jazz, acoustic, and orchestral pieces. Good bass and clean highs are the norm.

CNET Labs was able to get 19 hours of battery life per charge, 3 hours longer than Toshiba's rated battery life. That's impressive, though our tests were not official due to the fact we had to approximate our typical volume setting. Nevertheless, in typcial usage, the Gigbeat's battery life is competitive, if not outstanding. You'll likely get much less if you view photos and keep the LCD backlight on for extended periods.

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