Every once in a while, when he’s not busy giving us plagues or earthquakes, the Lord does us a good turn by giving us groovy tech like the MP3 music format. Now we can have digital-clear audio on just about anything that can hold an electrical charge. Innogear has helped the world along by releasing an MP3 player that plugs into the expansion slot of the Handspring Visor. It’s a handy tool that can hold two separate 64MB flash RAM cards, comes with simple software and sounds pretty good. However, both the hardware and software interfaces are still a little clunky, and the built-in photo viewer and e-book reader aren’t very useful either. Nonetheless, for Handspring owners who want to groove to some tunes on the plane or in a taxi, the Minijam will work just fine.
The installation for the Minijam is simple and intuitive. Just install the CD, plug the 64MB RAM card into one of the two slots — the other has to be bought separately — and slide the Minijam into your Handspring. Once the software has been installed to your desktop and transferred to your Handspring’s OS, moving MP3s back and forth is a simple matter of just clicking “add” or “subtract” in the Fileloader interface. The transfer rates through the USB cradle were excellent, and the pack-in ram card comes equipped with an eclectic mix of songs ready to go. It also comes with a spiffy new pair of ear buds and a padded carrying case.
While moving MP3s back and forth from the palm to the desktop is fairly simple, the actual software and hardware interface still need some work. The Minijam itself, which comes in both “Ice” and “Graphite,” has seven buttons on the top. The “previous,” “play” and “next” buttons can also be used to pause and stop the music, and there are two tiny buttons for adjusting the volume — if you can spot them. There are two equally small buttons that can be used to cycle through the Minijam’s sound presets, which simply change the levels of bass and treble. Finally, a headphone jack and an AC adapter input round out what is a nice-looking but not remarkably attractive piece of hardware.
The software input features, among other things, a standard interface with three different “skins,” a play list editor, the file manager and a sound setup program that lets users select various bass and treble presets or simply create their own. Two of the various skins had buttons on them that were so small they demanded a stylus if we wanted to switch tracks or suddenly mute the sound. But the ability to import new skins in the future should resolve this problem.
But more important than the interface is the actual sound of the Minijam. And considering that this is the first MP3 player for the Handspring, it sounds pretty good. We tried it out with everything from “Dream On” by Aerosmith and “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim to a spoken-word piece with John Cleese and the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane.” There is a surprising amount of volume from the little unit, but adjusting the bass and treble doesn’t really bring much of a dynamic range. For dedicated audiophiles, a pricier and more flexible MP3 player is in order, but for regular Handspring owners who just want to groove to some private tunes while at their desks, it will work just fine.
However, there are two important drawbacks Visor owners should consider. The unit only comes with one 64MB flash card. So, depending on the recording quality of the MP3s, that card could hold anywhere from 30 to 70 minutes’ worth of music. Buying an additional 64MB card for the other slot in the Minijam obviously doubles the playtime but adds considerably to the cost, as those little buggers aren’t cheap. And moving between the cards can only be done from the software interface, not from the unit itself.
Also, despite the Innogear’s warnings that the Minijam is a drain on the battery, we could practically hear our AAAs scream in agony inside their little plastic cribs. The manual says we could expect five to six hours of playback while not using the Handspring, but our experience was closer to four to five, even with fresh batteries. Naturally, playing a game of chess while listening to the music will drain the batteries even more quickly. The music software, however, does turn off the Handspring’s Visor automatically if untouched for a minute or two, which is certainly a welcome feature.
Less welcome features include the Minijam’s photo/slide shower viewer and e-book reader. The Handspring’s limited, monochromatic resolution is simply not the best vehicle for the a photo viewer, and the e-book reader has always struck us as compromise no matter what PDA we’re using it on. It’s nice of Innogear to include such functions, but after a brief investigation, we didn’t really touch them again.
Both MP3 players and personal digital assistants are going through a massive puberty right now, with growth spurts coming every six months. So it should not be surprising that early versions of both PDAs and these sorts of players still have some design and storage issues to work out. But early adopters of new technology have always been willing to pay a high price — both in cash and convenience — for the new gadgets.