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.
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.
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.