You can’t blame consumer electronics companies for wanting to carve out a slice of Apple’s pie, but any product that takes a serious run at the iPod had better do everything it does – and do a better job at it. It has to look cool, store gobs of tunes and be fun and stupidly simple to use. Toshiba’s Gigabeat scores on volume, but its ergonomics fall way short.
Design and Features
The Toshiba Gigabeat is available in four versions, each differentiated by color and storage. The 10-gigabyte version ($279) comes in silver, aqua blue or black acrylic. The MEG-F20 ($329), which we tested, doubles capacity to 20 gigs, and comes in silver or black brushed aluminum finishes. The high capacity versions, which come in a different variant of brushed aluminum, pack 40GB ($399) and 60GB ($449), respectively.
The 40GB and 60GB versions should store all the music you ever hope to own in the efficient Windows Media format. It is also compatible with Windows PlaysForSure titles and Napster To Go playback, although in our early tests that compatibility was still working its way through. The Gigabeat also downloads and plays WAV and MP3 files and is a JPEG/BMP photo viewer to boot.
The Gigabeat design is distinctive with a 2.2-inch 240 x 320-pixel color screen and a cross-shaped navigating tool, called PlusTouch, beneath. PlusTouch handles most of the navigation functions of the device and shoots you through a library of artists and albums. The 20-GB Gigabeat weighs 5.75 ounces, a few ounces more than iPod.
Toshiba touts Gigabeat’s CD Rip Rec, which rips music from a CD to the device directly in 5 minutes (for a 60-minute CD). That process has to be done using Toshiba’s software, Gigabeat Room, a separate holding tank of media from Windows Media 10.
Image courtesy of Toshiba
Setup and Use
You know you’re in trouble when the owner’s manual comes in two parts: one for hardware and another for software. The Gigabeat manuals have all the baggage of a complicated consumer electronics product complete with disclaimers, warnings and footnotes. They’re not an easy read, and some pages have more notes than instructions.
One of the options during setup is to have the Gigabeat software find all your music and picture files automatically. The software pulled picture files from all over my PC–even though I thought it was only pulling data from the ‘My Pictures’ folder. The flood of images included sample JPEGs provided with imaging software and cover art. When I tried to sync, Gigabeat threw up a too-much-information flag and promptly froze. I had to let the battery run out and then recharge it to fix the situation. When I regrouped and dragged and dropped selected images to the device, I couldn’t find a way to add music to a slideshow which to me defeats the purpose of having music and photos on the same device.
The music side seems like a work in progress. There are two music library options: Gigabeat Room, which converts music into a .SAT file for playback on the Gigabeat player. The device is also Windows Media-compatible and will play files from Napster To Go and PlaysForSure sites. Having two media libraries is confusing. My purchased Napster files played fine on the Gigabeat in their own separate folder, but I wasn’t able to combine them with the Gigabeat Room files. You apparently can’t create a playlist combining files from the two libraries.
The one-button CD rip function–available in Gigabeat Room only–converts and transfers tracks from a CD to the Gigabeat directly, without going through a PC library. The company claims a total transfer time of 5 minutes, although I found that to be a modest claim with the time measuring closer to 3 minutes for most CDs. When I compared conversion and rip times between the one-button Gigabeat Room operation and the two-step process in Windows Media, I found the times to be fairly close–except for the delay in having to punch through the Gigabeat menu to switch the device from Gigabeat Room mode to Windows Media mode, which is a pain. Also, when you take the one-button route, files don’t store on the PC so I don’t get the advantage.
Image courtesy Toshiba
I spent a few days before a trip to Korea with the Gigabeat, hoping that it would be an entertaining companion on the 12-plus-hour trip. I ended up being both frustrated and disappointed by the experience.
The PlusTouch control was difficult to use, sometimes shooting me through lists too quickly and then requiring me to tap with my fingernail one menu option at a time to get where I wanted to go. Overall it’s unintuitive to operate. The Gigabeat has just a few buttons, but it does have a toggle switch for volume. That made it all the more frustrating when I was trying to change tracks with PlusTouch and a volume bar appeared on the display. If I can control volume from a hard button, that function shouldn’t be duplicated on the already-taxed PlusTouch sensor.
Using the PlusTouch was a frustration, whether I was trying to scroll through pictures or change tunes. When I tried to Bookmark a list of songs (you can store 50 to make an on-the-fly playlist), each time I picked a song, the device took me back to the beginning of the list of artists. So if I chose Indigo Girls, I wound up back at Air and had to scroll my way down. Given the difficulty of navigating with PlusTouch, it was an annoyance.
Image Courtesy of Toshiba
I also found that songs I had downloaded from Napster wouldn’t transfer successfully to the Bookmark list without a refresh (which I only discovered when trying to play them back somewhere over the Pacific). I don’t know if the Gigabeat or DRM was to blame but the difficulty in operating the Gigabeat made it more aggravating.
Gigabeat comes with standard earbuds–the type I always dump in favor of noise-cancelling headphones on a plane or headphones for regular use. In my office I could achieve volume levels louder than I deem comfortable or safe for my ears, although there was distortion. Overall the sound quality was average. I found the various sound modes available in the equalizer section to be curiously similar and not worth the trouble of navigating through the touch sensor.
Finally, Toshiba claims a battery life of 16 hours. My Gigabeat conked out about 2 hours short of LA on a 12-or-so hour trip from Seoul. And that’s without using the LCD for viewing photos.
I really wanted to like the Gigabeat. Healthy competition in a popular product category means the consumer wins out with lots of great choices. But the Gigabeat doesn’t give Apple a run for its money with this generation of product. It has an impressive display and generous storage going for it, but it needs work from there. Toshiba should go back to the lab and use the same kind of approach it has used with making quality DVD players that are simple to use. I have bought and recommended Toshiba DVD players on their terrific menu systems and easy operation alone. Someday I hope to do the same with Gigabeat.
– Largest display in its class
– Attractive looks
– Plenty of storage sizes and colors to choose from
– Poor navigation
– Poor music organization
– Prone to lock-ups
– Bad battery life
– No slideshow featuring music option