Digital Innovations made some waves when they introduced the Neuros, a portable digital audio player that features a swappable 128MB or 20GB storage “backpack.” The Neuros supports features that can be found on some competing players such as playlist creation on the device itself, an integrated FM Tuner and the ability to record to MP3 format from the FM tuner or the microphone/line-in. What makes the Neuros stand out from other portable music players is the fact that it can broadcast music to any FM tuner that is within range.
The design of the Neuros is different than most digital music players and is quite innovative. Instead of going the onboard storage route, Neuros decided to make the unit with an interchangeable “backpack” storage pack. Currently available in 128MB or 20GB versions, the idea behind the backpack is to be able to swap or increase your storage capacity without having to purchase a new player. The player plugs into the storage backpack. Add to that the built-in FM transmitter and you have a device that is quite different than anything else on the market.
The backpack for the 20GB unit is bulky. Weighing in at 9.4oz and measuring 5.3″ tall, 3.1″ wide and 1.3″ deep, the Neuros is one the largest portable MP3 player we have come across. You’ll need a rather large pocket to carry it around. The design of the unit is nothing too impressive, and looks somewhat like a brick. The buttons are placed so that they are easy to use with one hand and feel sturdy.
The Neuros digial music player attached to the 20GB backpack.
The Neuros supports various features that other portable mp3 players support and some that are unique or uncommon:
MyFi “My Frequency”: The Neuros supports broadcasting the files in its onboard storage over a FM frequency to a FM tuner that is within range. In our testing, the max range we were able to successfully send the broadcast at was approximately 15 feet.
The Neuros can autoscan for the best frequency, or one can be manually set. The autoscan worked well and it was usually able to find a suitable station within a few seconds. One quirky thing about the Neuros is that the headphones are used as antenna for the tuner and help during the autoscan to locate a suitable frequency; however the earphones must be unplugged to start the broadcast. The streams are a bit on the quiet side, especially when compared to a normal FM station, but clarity was acceptable, considering the audio being streamed via an FM frequency.
Broadcasting to a car stereo while driving can be done, but we didn’t experience good results with it. If any type of signal from a radio station comes in, it will disrupt the Neuros broadcast. Driving in a highly-populated area with a lot of FM stations will make finding a good station with no interference very hard. This causes frequent changes of the FM frequency the Neuros is streaming to and is quite inconvenient. We tried it several times but always ended up hearing interference.
HiSi “Hear it, Save it”: Have you ever listened to the radio and wondered what the name of the song was that you were listening to? HiSi is Neuros’s answer to this dilemma.
While using the built-in FM tuner, if you hear a song that you’d like to know the artist and title of, clicking the orange HiSi button on the Neuros will initiate a process that will take a 30-second sample of the song and save it to the hard drive. This sample, referred to as “digital fingerprints” by Digital Innovations, can then be used to identify the song and artist online. Once the Neuros is connected to a PC, using the Synchronization feature of the Sync Manager software that comes with the Neuros will connect to the Internet and attempt to identify the song.
HiSi is an interesting concept that is a new twist on what many software players like MusicMatch already incorporate for automatically getting Metadata for MP3s that don’t have ID3 tag information. Retrieving ID3 tag information and automatically updating your MP3s with this information is an extremely useful tool. However, HiSi is more of a niche feature that some users will love and others will never use. We averaged about two out of five successful retrievals of correct song information of popular songs, indicating there is still some work needed to make HiSi useful.
FM Tuner: While many devices do have FM tuners built in, the Neuros allows you to record from the FM radio (or the line-in) to MP3, and to WAV if you update the firmware. Unfortunately, even though there is a firmware update to support Ogg Vorbis playback on the Neuros, recording to Ogg Vorbis is currently not available. You can choose various levels of quality, ranging from 64 Kbps to 160 Kbps in the MP3 format. When synching the Neuros to the computer, your recordings will automatically be uploaded to your PC’s hard drive allowing you to play them back through a software media player. The reception of the FM tuner is nothing too great however, and a strong signal is required to make a quality recording or have an enjoyable listening experience.
Library: Navigating the songs on the Neuros is fairly easy via the Song, Artist, Album, Genres, Recordings or Playlists views. Custom playlists can be easily created. There is also a mirror listing of your PC’s audio library that is stored on the Neuros. Tracks can be selected to be added at the next synchronization.
Typical features found in most other portable players are also found on the Neuros such as an equalizer, shuffle mode and repeat mode.
The Neuros synchronization software.
Setup and Testing
It is recommended to charge the battery as soon as unpacking the Neuros for the first time, although this is not necessary to start transferring songs immediately since songs can be transferred while the battery is charging.
It will take approximately 8 hours to completely charge the battery. In our tests a full-charge provided about 10 hours of playback. The Neuros recharges the battery whenever the AC adapter or car adapter is plugged in and does not seem to suffer from the “memory effect”, enabling charging of the battery without any ill effects of charging a battery that wasn’t fully drained.
Unfortunately the Neuros only supports Windows based platforms: Windows 98SE, ME, Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Since the source code of the proprietary Sync Manager software used to transfer and update the Neuros is available for download, maybe one day the Neuros will also be supported on Linux and Apple hardware.
The Sync Manager software is a mixed experience. Highlights include an excellent auto-download of firmware and software updates. Lows include some user unfriendliness when attempting to sync songs manually. Accidental overwrites of songs on your Neuros’s can happen easily, and since the Neuros only supports USB 1.1, transferring songs can be an extremely slow process. A transfer of 4GB of music took us more than 3 hours to complete. An attempt to fill all 20GB of space on the Neuros was never attempted due to the amount of time it would take, which would probably be around 15 hours.
We did experience several occurrences the Neuros hanging after syncing with the PC, requiring a reboot of the device (holding down the Up and Play buttons at the same time) or unplugging the main unit from the backpack. Such hangs did cause loss of tracks on the device, which was extremely disappointing considering the time it takes to transfer songs.
The Neuros also suffers from lag when doing certain functions. The momentary lockups of the Neuros makes using the features other then the most basic seem arduous after doing them a few times, especially when a recording is being saved. The user interface of the Neuros will be unusable until the write of the recording is completed instead of allowing navigation of the menu while the write is happening.
A comparison of the Neuros with a 20GB backpack (left) and 128MB backpack (right).
While features like the built in ability to broadcast via FM, HiSi (a FM song identification feature), recording and storing FM broadcasts make the Neuros an interesting product, it has some serious shortcomings keeping it off our list of favorites.
The size makes it cumbersome to carry around. You cannot just drop it in your shirt or pants pocket, but would need to put it in some type of bag. The design leaves the Neuros looking like a black and gray brick. The use of USB1.1 for a 20GB hard drive based MP3 player is extremely slow and makes transferring anything more then a couple dozen songs an overnight chore. The Sync Manager software is not the best synchronization software we have seen, but ease of updating the frequent firmware and software is a nice touch, plus the source for the Sync Manager is available online, making future feature updates a sure thing.