June 14, 2006 11:37 AM PDT

Wi-Fi music player cuts out the PC

There are numerous music subscription services on the market, such as those from Virgin, Yahoo and MTV, that let you download all the music you want to your home computer, then transfer it to your portable player. But what if you can't wait that long?

What if you need to grab some new tunes between classes or on the way to a meeting? For you impatient and forward-looking types, there's the MusicGremlin, which uses a direct wireless link to a music store to cut out the middleman--your PC--from the music-gathering equation.

We've seen a few Wi-Fi-enabled music players before--remember SoniqCast and Tao?--but never one that works with a music subscription service. (However, Zing, another Wi-Fi portable, is in the works.)

MusicGremlin

A $14.99 monthly fee lets you grab all the music you want--or, at least, all that will fit on the 8GB MusicGremlin device--from the MusicGremlin Direct online store. Clever community features let you browse other Gremlin owners' downloads and swap songs with friends.

There are some healthy restrictions in place, though, such as weak battery life, small storage capacity, and the fact that you can trade songs only with friends who have subscriptions.

We like the product and applaud the innovation, but we doubt that this first-generation offering provides enough value to attract a large number of users.

Design
About the same size as the first-generation Apple Computer iPod, the MusicGremlin measures 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.8 inches and offers a 2-inch, 220-by-176-pixel color screen. The front and back are glossy black, while the contoured sides and the selection pad have a matte finish and a rubbery feel. It's deceptively lightweight, and the unit feels remarkably like a thick piece of foam.

Hardly a sleek and sexy player, its looks are just a bit goofy. But we grew to like them, particularly because of the simple array of buttons.

The rubbery center selection pad lets you move between menus and choose songs and options, while the on/off/hold switch is on the left side. The volume, play/pause, and forward/reverse controls are on the right. We desperately wanted to relocate them to the front, so that we could use the player with just a thumb. Still, we appreciated the dedicated volume and player controls. The headphone jack is on the top, while the bottom has line-in, mini-USB, reset and power ports.

The player uses a side-scrolling interface, like the iPod's, where you move through menus to the right. Some options, such as those for downloading or sending a song, appear in small pop-up windows that can, at first, be confusing to select. Icons along the bottom let you know the battery level, how many songs are in your download queue, and if you're connected to a Wi-Fi or ad-hoc network.

Click here to Play

Video: Tiny MP3 player with a big sound
Taking the MusicGremlin for a spin

While the menus are simple and utilitarian, the playback screen has a little more character, with album art, and red and blue highlights.

A small light on the upper left of the player also shows your connection status, glowing green for Wi-Fi and blue for ad-hoc. Both the display and Wi-Fi connection lights are easy to see during the day. When the green connection light is on, you get a certain satisfaction knowing that others can "see" you and that you're downloading songs.

The MusicGremlin has a small internal speaker that plays music faintly when headphones aren't connected. We're told that a sleep timer will be added in the next few months, so that you can fall asleep to your MusicGremlin.

The MusicGremlin comes with a pair of matching black stereo headphones (with a tangle-prone rubbery texture) but no belt clip or case. It's too bad, because the glossy finish is a fingerprint magnet.

Features
The MusicGremlin comes in one storage size: 8GB, which holds about 2,000 MP3, WMA, or WMA DRM tracks.

It's PlaysForSure-certified, so you can transfer subscription or purchased tracks from most other online stores--just not wirelessly. You can use the player without a subscription to the company's MusicGremlin Direct service ($14.99 per month, on the pricey side of portable subscriptions), but in that case, you might as well take the same $299 and buy a 30GB video iPod, because you'd be missing out on what makes the Gremlin unique.

With a subscription and an 802.11 wireless connection, you can go shopping right from your player and download all the new tunes you want. Downloads are 128Kbps WMA DRM tracks. With or without a subscription, you can purchase tracks at 99 cents each. Purchased tracks can then be transferred to your Windows XP PC, saved and used on other devices.

The 2-million-track music library directory is actually saved and invisibly updated to the Gremlin, so you don't waste time or Wi-Fi battery life downloading track information whenever you browse the catalog.

We found the catalog consistent with that of other online stores. It's strong in rock and pop, and it's likely to have every popular artist you want, if not every song. Since you have the database right on the device, you'll notice tons of artists and albums you've never heard of. You browse by spelling out the artist or song you're looking for, then clicking the select button to jump into the directory when you're close to the right place. It seems cumbersome at first, but after a few tries, you'll be scrolling quickly.

Enter Download Manager (one of nine items on the main menu), and you can monitor the status of your downloads. You can even move a song to the front of the queue, a good feature if the song you want to listen to now is at the back end of 59 titles.

See more CNET content tagged:
music subscription service, music player, song, Wi-Fi, menu

7 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
why ding a product for not doing something thats illegal?
It is anoying to read that it is a failing of the product that it would not allow you to do something that no other service would or could allow you to do. All subcription and legally downloaded music is DRMed so that you cant do what the author of this review seems to think is a must have feature. Obviously he hasnt used any other music service since *none* would allow what he is asking for.
Posted by hank777 (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
not all music is DRM'd
The number two legal music download site, emusic.com, does not use DRM.

I also buy music from Indy labels like Discipline Global Mobile and Megatunes, and they don't have DRM.

Heck, I bought an album from Megatunes last night in Lossless format, and then told a friend of mine to use my password and go download a copy for herself. Not only is it legal, Megatunes -encourages- you to share music with your friends.

Perhaps you need to support different record labels if you believe being locked into DRM is all there is.
Posted by snarlydwarf (3 comments )
Link Flag
I don't get it?
It uses WiFi to download? Does that mean it connects via random unsuspecting users' unsecure WiFi connections wherever you may be? What if you live in the middle of nowhere and there are no WiFi connection nearby?
Posted by MauiBoy2 (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
what about in the middle of the desert?
What if you're in the middle of the desert, and there's no hot spot, no power, no pc, no water, nothing but you and your music player. Well then, it doesn't matter cause you're probably gonna die soon anyway.
Wait! what about cell phone coverage! That's it! I can download and listen to tunes through my phone, practically anywhere. Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that? At lest I can listen to Arctic Monkeys while I slowly dehydrate.
Posted by DJ-JD (7 comments )
Link Flag
swell
It sounds like a neat product that will fill a niche for some people. Everyone has different buying and listening habits so no one service ever seems to get it right.
Posted by chuchucuhi (233 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Don't Knock It .. Till you've tried it ..
I'm an Apple Ipod fan and I love my Ipod.

But this company could be on to something here. This is what
you call true innovation. This is a company thats taking an
existing idea like IPOD and making it better. Or atleast testing
the limits..
Unlike other companies like Sony, Creative & Samsung etc..
which just copies the IPOD poorly and sticking it with features
from the past like an FM Radio, Microphone,.. which really are
quite useless at the end of the day cause it is a music player not
a swiss army knife. This is what an actual competitor should be
doing.. thinking beyond IPOD..

But I'm already certain the next IPOD update will go beyond
this.. but its nice to see a company compete by innovating then
seeing a company compete by duplicating.. Thats why this
product has truly garnered respect..
Posted by ServedUp (413 comments )
Link Flag
only USB connection to PC
According to the the MusicGremlin site, "Software lets users back-up individually purchased songs and albums onto their PC via USB"
What? It has built in Wi-Fi, but can't use it to connect to my PC? I know that this device is intended to be used with the subscription service, but what if the service doesn't have an album that you have on your PC? Also, I expect that it could be faster to download songs from the PC than from their online service. Just imagine relaxing in your backyard with with instant access to songs from both your complete 200GB PC collection and the music service.
Posted by sjacobsjpn (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.