Polaroid, best known for its contributions to photography and Outkast lyrics, presents the 20GB Juke Jam as one of its first forays into the MP3 scene. The $300 hard drive player looks like it could be the iPod's obese sibling, and its spacious LCD and joystick are almost as easy to use as the iPod's. Unfortunately, a few significant flaws prevent the Juke Jam from being a true top-shelf competitor. The Polaroid Juke Jam really shines with its well-designed interface. Its spacious 1.6-by-2.4-inch LCD serves up big, bold text and a pleasant blue backlight. Functions are clearly labeled, and properly tagged songs can be quickly sorted by artist, album, song title, genre, and playlist. A simple search tool is also available to filter songs alphabetically. During playback, the Juke Jam displays track length and remaining time as well as comprehensive ID3 tag information, including song, album, and artist. You can easily access handy information such as the name of the next song in the queue and a list of recently played files.
Nearly all the Polaroid's functions are a maximum of two screens away, meaning you can quickly change modes and adjust settings. Two buttons and a small joystick just under the display give access to all the Juke Jam's features. The player's glossy-white finish and lack of buttons on the side give it a slick, minimalist look.
The player's size, however, is clearly a problem. At 2.9 by 1.14 by 4.6 inches, its height and width are only marginally greater than those of the Apple iPod, but it's nearly twice as thick, making it a tight squeeze for any but the most spacious pockets (we suspect that the device's large 2.5-inch hard drive is the culprit). Weighing 8.8 ounces, the Juke Jam isn't the daintiest hard drive MP3 player either. A nice, sturdy carrying case with belt clip comes standard, but since it obviously can't physically shrink the device, it doesn't solve the size problem.
Although the player's joystick is handy for fast file navigation, it can easily catch on clothing or belts and change the currently playing track. Stashing the player in its carrying case protects the joystick, but closing the lid often clicks the player's pause button. Surprisingly, the player lacks a Hold button, which is a major annoyance for anyone who's constantly on the go. The Hold feature and the volume control must be accessed through the player's interface, which is unfortunate. You shouldn't have to navigate in order to activate Hold or tweak the volume.
The player comes with few accessories. There's neither a carrying strap for the case, nor a cable for line-in recording. Even the unit's included USB cable is unusually short, making it tricky to set the player on a desk while transferring files. Considering that the Juke Jam's price tag hovers around $300, we expected its box to come packed with accoutrements; a car kit would have been a welcome addition, considering that the player's size renders it more suitable for in-car use. Aside from MP3, WMA, and WAV playback, the Polaroid Juke Jam's well-rounded feature list offers several recording options. The player's line-in recording feature delivers high-quality results, encoding music from any external music source to MP3 at up to 128Kbps (other players can record at higher bit rates). Unfortunately, the quality drops significantly for FM-radio and voice-memo recording. The unit's internal mike creates quiet and muffled recordings (it can miss sounds just a few feet away). Even more troubling: Both functions suffer from serious noise interference if the backlight comes on during recording.
Although the Juke Jam includes an FM radio, its reception is noticeably weaker than that of other units we've tested. In our tests, even nearby stations suffered from significant static. On the flip side, finding stations with the unit's autosearch feature is quick and painless, and the player can save up to 10 station presets.
The player's music-transferring functionality is a mixed bag. You can transfer music via the classic drag-and-drop method, but if you want to integrate it into the Juke Jam's database system (which is required for ID3 tag support and searching), you must load tunes with the included AudioPhile application. The software is fairly straightforward, offering simple ID3 tag editing, playlist creation, and file management. Unfortunately, the software doesn't do directories; instead, it copies every file into a single folder, which you can sort by artist, album, or song. Another significant glitch: The software relabels certain improperly tagged files as unknown and deletes ID3 information and the original filenames as the file transfers to the player. Even worse, AudioPhile doesn't play the songs, so it's impossible to identify the unknown files for retagging.
Given its linear file storage, we're thankful that the Juke Jam offers an excellent on-the-fly playlist tool. Creating new playlists or editing existing ones is surprisingly simple, thanks to the player's onscreen keyboard and sophisticated sorting tools. Other notable features include a sleep timer, five preset EQ settings, several playback modes, and support for seven languages (English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean).
The Juke Jam needs a software driver to connect to a PC, so you can't use it to transport files between computers unless they all have the driver installed. With a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio, the Polaroid Juke Jam offers solid audio quality, with plenty of rich bass and clear detail. A 16MB antishock buffer helps keep the player from skipping, and we didn't experience any interruptions during testing. As with most players, the included earbud headphones couldn't do justice to the Juke Jam's sonic quality.
Considering the player's bulk, we were highly disappointed with its dismal battery life; usually, larger players have larger batteries that translate to longer play time. In our testing, the fully charged unit could barely last 5 hours. That's surprising--many hard drive players with significantly smaller batteries can keep playing well past 10 hours.
We were slightly appeased by the Polaroid's decent results in our transfer test. While the player didn't provide the fastest speed we've seen, it moved songs at an acceptable 2.5MB per second over its USB 2.0 connection.