I bought a Creative Nomad II MP3 player this past weekend, and have spent the better part of three days getting to know it well. So far, I like it a lot (although that may be the well-known Jason Plus New Toy Effect), but of course, there are things that I don’t like or would change if I had the power. Here’s a brief review of both classes of observations.

Things I Like

First, the size. At 2.6” by 3.7” by 0.8”, it’s small, light, and fits into any pocket or bag without you noticing it’s really there. And since it comes with a little clip-on remote, you don’t even need to fish it out when someone starts talking to you or when you get where you’re going.

Next, the sound. It’s crisp and clean, and there are six or seven DSP options to chose from. High and low ranges are very well-represented — I’ve listened to a lot of my jazz collection on the Nomad II, and the shrill trumpet blasts and deep bass thumps sound great.

Next, the display. It’s a very readible backlit LCD which is fully graphical. This means that the menu has little icons next to all the choices, and features are represented by logical little graphics along the top of the display; it also means that it’s probably trivial for Creative engineers to add future display features and whatnot.

Next, the software. Creative uses their own software to get songs onto the Nomad II, and it works very well. (Some other MP3 players require RealJukebox or MusicMatch to function, and my track record with both of these products is a little sketchy at best.) A nice surprise, too, was a WinAmp plug-in that installed with the Nomad II Manager software on my machine — it allows me to manage the player from completely within WinAmp. (There are some minor problems with the plug-in, though, like the fact that it was slightly off on calculating how much music I could fit onto the SmartMedia card.)

Next, the USB interface. No passthrough parallel port docks (which are never truly passthrough), no slow serial connections; instead, there’s a simple, standard USB cable which connects directly between the Nomad II and my computer. Creative’s software immediately recognizes that I’m plugged in and runs the manager application (you can disable this if you want), and I’m off and running.

Next, the power requirements. Seeing as there are no moving parts, the Nomad II can run on one AA battery for 8-10 hours, which is great.

Lastly, the reprogrammibility. The Nomad II firmware was written in order to be both flashable and expandable; this means that Creative is able to fix problems with units already in the public, and is able to add new features as they deem necessary. One problem that’s already been fixed: Windows 2000 and Mac support. One feature that’s already been added: support for files in the Windows Media format.

Things I Don’t Like

OK, enough with the glow-fest. There are some things that I don’t like about the Nomad II, as well.

First, no multitasking abilities. When the Nomad II is doing something (say, playing music), you can’t do anything else with it, like look at the time, choose the next song to play, or look at the list of other songs. The damn thing’s a computer, and it should be able to let me browse my MP3 directory while I’m listening to one of them.

Next, the menu navigation. For example: on the front of the Nomad II is a circular “button” that’s actually four buttons (see the picture of the player on the main Creative site). In looking at the circle, it looks like it should behave as an up button, a down button, a left button, and a right button when you’re in menus. And, in fact, 75% of it does — left moves left, right moves right, and down moves down. But up (which is also the play button) chooses the currently-flashing menu choice instead of moving up — a bad break in expected functionality. Other examples of this aren’t hard to find; in some menus, the volume buttons serve increment/decrement functions, and the record button serves as a “set” button. Strange.

Next, no use of external or USB power. When you’re hooked up to your computer via the USB cable, power stays on to the Nomad II, draining your battery. Why didn’t Creative choose to either allow an external power source, or better yet, take power from the USB bus (500 milliamps per port on most controllers) while the Nomad is plugged in?

Next, it doesn’t remember where you left off in your playlist. I have 15 songs on my Nomad II right now; every time I power it off, I start back at song number one when I turn it on. (I may be spoiled in this respect, though, seeing as my portable CD player has this feature.)

Next, the volume limit is too low. In NYC, we have to deal with some loud environmental noise (trucks driving by on the street, subways speeding through stations, gypsy cabs honking at everything with a pulse); the Nomad can be swamped at (albeit rare) times. In addition, the volume selection goes from 0 to 25; why did they choose a scale that ends at 25? Seems weird.

Lastly, the use of SmartMedia. CompactFlash is cheaper, available in larger sizes (192 Mb vs. 64 Mb), and is what many digital cameras are using. In addition, companies are doing remarkably cool things with CF (like building USB controllers into the media itself), making the whole transferring-music thing much easier. But try as I did, I was completely unable to find a decent MP3 player that uses CF, so I ended up deciding to suck it up and buy a SmartMedia-based player.


Based on your glowing review, I purchased a Nomad II of my very own. Overall, I’m very impressed — quite a nice little MP3 player!

Fortunately (for me) my digital camera uses SmartMedia, so I didn’t have the problems you had with the media format. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that they are using the industry-standard SSFDC (Solid State Floppy Disk Card) format, which means that I can plug the SmartMedia card into the same USB SanDisk SmartMedia reader I use for my camera. I just wish you didn’t have to open the battery cover to get at the memory card.

A minor problem for Mac users: make sure your files have the .MP3 extension defined. Your Nomad will ignore them if they don’t.

Just as the PC software integrates with WinAmp, the Macintosh software integrates with SoundJam MP. It’s a very easy-to-use interface.

The headphones bundled with the Nomad are the cause of the low volume. I plugged in the pair of headphones that came with my Sony Discman (the kind that rest in, rather than on top of, your ears) and the sound is much improved. I actually find it uncomfortable to listen to it at full volume.

First, no multitasking abilities. When the Nomad II is doing something (say, playing music), you can’t do anything else with it, like look at the time, choose the next song to play, or look at the list of other songs.

Actually, you can. Sort of. Press the Menu key while a song is playing, and you can browse the playlist. Unfortunately, the scrollable playlist displays the filename, rather than the song title contained in the ID3 tag of the MP3 file.

• Posted by: Dan Budiac on Aug 16, 2000, 12:11 AM

Re the headphones: I told Dan in a private email that that’s not the problem, at least for me; I also use in-the-ear headphone buds, and I truly think that it’s just the amount of ambient noise in my daily NYC life that’s the problem. I just wish that the Nomad II overcame that.

Re the multitasking: I hadn’t found that feature yet, but why does the song that you’re listening to pause while you’re looking at the menu? Sort of defeats the purpose…

And I found one more thing I don’t like — on the SmartMedia card, the songs are uniquely identified by the 8.3 filename, not the long filename. Why do I care? Because two songs that I wanted to put on the same card have the same 8.3 filename, and thus, they can’t coexist on a single card. Bleah.

• Posted by: Jason Levine on Aug 16, 2000, 12:55 PM

I truly think that it’s just the amount of ambient noise in my daily NYC life that’s the problem.

This may be extreme overkill (and possibly dangerous) for an mp3 player, but you may want to check out etymotics headphones. They are an audiophile in the ear headphone with 23db of isolation from the outside envrionment. (isolation == bad if you require hearing for things like traffic avoidance)

The major drawbacks, as I see them are:

1) price: these things are ~$250

2) they’re like ear plugs, they are in your ear.

One of my coworkers has a pair (not connected to an mp3 player), and he really seems to like them. We have to wave wildly at him to get his attention, so they must cut out a lot of noise. You can find them, along with other expensive audiophile headphone toys at http://www.headphone.com


• Posted by: eric soroos on Aug 17, 2000, 1:53 AM
Please note that comments automatically close after 60 days; the comment spammers love to use the older, rarely-viewed pages to work their magic. If comments are closed and you want to let me know something, feel free to use the contact page!