If you have ever watched a toddler play with an empty box you know how simple and satisfying a box can be. Put something in and it stays there. Move the box and the thing inside goes with it. Some things fit some things don’t. Toddlers are delighted to put something in and take it out over and over again. That is until they learn it’s more fun to pull CDs off the shelf.
I want my music player to be as simple as a box. A special box that when you put music in it you will hear the music. A CD player is pretty close. You push a button and a tray opens. Put a CD in it, push the tray closed and it plays. A car CD player is even better just stick a CD in the slot and it plays. Push a button to get it out.
But these days CDs are old news and CD players are single purpose (don’t put a Pop Tart brand toaster pastry in your CD player). MP3s are where its at. I want my MP3 player to work like a box. This box doesn’t hold physical things from the real world but virtual things, digital information in the form of music or anything else. In the digital world the closest thing to a box is a file system. They are ubiquitous. Every general purpose computer has one. Everyone that uses a computer has some mental model of how it works as evidenced by verbal exchanges such as “Where did you put that file? Look in the Budget folder”. They can hold any kind of information as long as it fits. When the file system is on removable media the contents can be moved around just like a thing in a box. Currently the best digital box is the USB flash drive (a.k.a thumb drive). They are small, durable, there are no cables to fumble with or misplace and every modern computer has a USB port.
Wouldn’t it be great if when you put music files (in the MP3 format for example) on a flash drive you could listen to them. At first glance the iPod brand Shuffle MP3 player would seem to fit my needs. It plugs directly into a SB port like a flash drive and can hold music as well as other files. But the Shuffle requires iTunes to put music on the device. That isn’t very box like. Imagine the toddler faced with a box that required a separate machine to put things in or get them out. Even worse the machine wouldn’t allow putting the same thing in more than five specific boxes. The child might just smash them both and move on.
I recently purchased a Creative Labs MuVo v100 MP3 player. It is just the box I was looking for. It works like a flash drive. It comes with but doesn’t require additional software. Just plug it into any computer with a USB port and copy MP3 files to it. The user interface is very easy to use. There is a play/pause/on/off button – hold for on/off. There are volume up and volume down buttons and a jog/push button for next/previous/fast forward/fast rewind and menu navigation. The screen is small but very readable. Now the instructions that came with the thing did say to install the software first before plugging in the MuVo. I ignored these instructions because I had high hopes for my new box and it didn’t disappoint. I still haven’t installed the software but I may just to see what it is like or read the manuals. So far I have had no problem figuring out the menus. I takes regular AAA batteries which is nice and has a cool way of snapping into the battery compartment. The only defect in the MuVo is that it plays WMA files with DRM (to play a file with DRM you must use the supplied software). But this is easy to work around by simply not buying music with DRM in it.
I got the MuVo mostly to play in the car. I just got a new car that has an Aux jack to plug into. The Aux jack in a car stereo is another great idea. No more cassette adapter or FM transmitter. The jog button is very easy to use in the car. I can change songs without taking my eyes off the road.
Note: It seems it is possible to get around the iTunes requirement. I have not tried this and it still requires another program. Perhaps someone has figured out how to replace the iPod firmware so another program isn’t needed. I may try this hack because my kids received iPods as gifts and the only computer I was willing to install iTunes on is old and now has power supply problems. Why my aversion to iTunes? There are a few reasons. One is that installing it on a Windows 2000 machine nearly destroyed the system permanently. The computer would not boot – not in safe mode not no how. I finally figured out what file needed to be deleted and removed it by booting from CD. Seems that it was trying to install some kind of file system filter driver. I don’t know what about my particular system configuration was causing the problem but I don’t see why a music program needs to muck with the file system. After this I no longer trusted iTunes.