July 31, 2003

Neuros HD: I dig that crazy beat

- by Lee Schlesinger -
The $399 Neuros HD 20GB is that rare product that actually exceeds expectations.

As a music player, it's hard to beat. The Neuros HD 20GB comes with a 20GB hard drive; my 1,300-odd (in some cases, very odd) MP3 songs barely fill a quarter of the space. (The company also sells a 128MB solid state MP3 player.) Playback quality through the bundled earbuds is excellent. Neuros also includes an FM tuner that uses the earpiece cord as an antenna.

Other accessories include a wall charger for the built-in lithium-ion battery and a car adapter that lets you take the Neuros on a road trip without having to worry about losing power.

The Neuros lacks a cassette adapter for playing its audio through a car cassette player. Instead it offers MiFi, which broadcasts the music over a short distance to an unused frequency on the FM radio spectrum -- much more convenient. Unfortunately I couldn't get MiFi to work, so I was stuck with listening through the earbuds, unable to share my music with my family (for which they blessed the vendor) until I realized that you use either the earpieces or MiFi, but not both at the same time.

I had other troubles getting things to work. The Neuros HD comes bundled with synchronization software for Windows PCs, but it requires the Microsoft .Net Framework be installed. If .Net isn't there already, Neuros will install it -- except on my computer. Every time I tried, either from the installation mini-CD or via a download from Microsoft's site, the installation process hung. I finally got it to complete successfully by disabling several IIS component services -- something I probably should have done long ago for the sake of my system's security.

Luckily, Neuros also works with Linux synchronization software, though it's not as slick as the Windows version. Positron runs in a console window and lets you perform all the major functions of adding, deleting, and synchronizing songs. It's extremely well documented, and offers support for Ogg Vorbis files, once you've downloaded and installed pyogg and pyvorbis.

The Neuros Sync Manager application for Windows, despite its graphical interface, leaves something to be desired. It lets you play tracks, but any changes you make to ID3 tags within the interface aren't saved back to the files themselves. And while the program is designed to automatically check for software and firmware updates, the latter feature always seemed to think I wasn't connected to the Internet.

Neuros offers a cool feature called HiSi, short for "Hear it! Save it!" I could do without the cutesy name, which is easily confused with MiFi, but the feature is nice. When you hear a given song on an FM station but don't know who sings it, you press a button on the unit, which then records a 30-second sample of the song. When you get back to your computer and synchronize, you can right-click on the sample and have the software identify it across the Internet. Unfortunately HiSi only works with the Windows verion of Neuros Sync Manager.

Battery life was acceptable, not exceptional, as you might expect of a device that has to actually move the platter and heads of a hard disk drive. The vendor claims 10 hours of continuous playback, but I'd feel lucky if I got half that. FM reception was pretty good when the earbud wire was fully extended. The front of the player sports five preset buttons for your favorite stations on the left, and a lock button on the right that disables all the other buttons, which makes it practical to carry the player in your pocket without having it switch songs midstream.

Neuros HD came out in March, and is well poised to compete with other hard drive-based MP3 players like the Archos Jukebox, RCA Lyra, and Apple iPod. It's more expensive, but it offers more too. And for Linux users, it's definitely the best game in town.

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