The basic look of the S30 is similar to the F and X series of gigabeat players. The hallmark plus-sign navigation button lives on, although it is now operated mechanically, rather than being touch sensitive. Above the cross-shaped nav button are two rectangular keys -- the one with the arrow navigates to the previous menu layer, and one with the Windows symbol accesses the root menu. Above these two buttons is the lovely-looking 2.4-inch QVGA LCD screen. The right side of the player houses small circular buttons that play, pause and skip files. Next to these are a volume rocker and the power button.
Comparisons to the iPod are inevitable, so let's not mess around. Here's how the two players stack up physically: Apple's latest 30GB model measures 103.5mm by 61.8mm by 11mm and weighs in at 136 grams, whereas the S30 is 99.8mm by 59.9mm 14.7mm and 137 grams. A close contest, but the S30 has the edge, and a bigger, rotatable display to boot.
Toshiba's gigabeat series has benefited from a Microsoft touch: the frustrating software from previous players has been ditched in favour of the much simpler Windows Portable Media Center operating system, and Windows Media Player 10 replaces the troublesome "Room" music transfer application. The S30 is also compatible with the -- connecting the player allows you to listen to music via the games console, and song information is displayed automatically.
The S30 is optimised for use with the Media Center edition of Windows XP, and will not work at all on pre-XP versions of the operating system. The hope seems to be that users will want to integrate their home Media Center set-up with a portable device, and, finding that the gigabeat models use the same OS, will be enticed by the ease of synching everything up. It's a canny strategy, especially the idea of recording TV content using a Media Center PC and playing it back on the gigabeat.
The S30 also moonlights as a USB storage device. Photos taken on a digital camera can be transferred to the player without the need for a PC -- a very handy feature for travellers. The downside to this is that not all cameras are compatible.
Although our reviews of the and last year's were mostly positive, we used up a lot of words complaining about Toshiba's proprietary music transfer software, as well as the player's counter-intuitive interface. We were therefore very enthused to see whether the switch to Portable Media Center and Windows Media Player would allow the gigabeat players to shine.
The main thing that struck us about the S30 was how easy it was to use. The Media Center root menu was simple and logically laid-out, and we never had to rummage around through multilayered menus in order to figure how to change a setting. While we don't normally advocate ignoring the user manual, we never had to consult instructions during the whole time we tested the S30. It was a completely different experience to using previous gigabeat models, which had us throwing hissy-fits over the software.