MusicGremlin includes gremlins I didn't pay for.

June 18, 2006

Last week I wrote about the new MusicGremlin portable media player. An interesting concept, the musicgremlin is the first portable media player to incorporate music sharing via WiFi and the concept of community sharing. Both are compelling ideas to me, but I have some fundamental issues with the implementation. Net-net, musicgremlin in my opinion has a long way to go before it’s ready for prime time.

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Out of the Box Experience
The “MG” (as it’s called in the UI) has a premium enough cardstock box with matte finish. The front flap has the only other messaging on the box- “the record store in your pocket”. In an attempt to achieve Apple-like simplicity though, other essential details are missing- storage size (8GB), formats supported (WMA, MP3) essential features (Local and Network music playback, FM radio), battery life (reportedly could be better).

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The unit is displayed right on top and protected with a spongy foam insert. A “get activated now” card is placed on the top, another smart touch. Pull the gremlin out of its nest and a bright orange backing can be seen, another premium touch. There is no electrostatic or adhesive protector over the screen or the face which I would like to have seen. Underneath is the getting started guide and three items: An AC charger, a USB 2.0 (mini) cable, and headphones. All three are in plastic baggies, the AC adapter bad was open-ended. This was not a great experience- it felt like the item packaging was an afterthought. A pang of buyer’s remorse set in.

The headphones look and feel cheap- plastic and too big to fit in my ears. What bugs me the most is that the left and right earbuds have different length of cable and are unlabeled. This doesn’t generally bother me since I use my Shure e-series or Sony studio headphones when listening.

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Despite its chubby girth, the device fits nicely in my hand, but not nearly as well as my current two favorite devices – the Toshiba Gigabeat-S (HD) and iRiver Clix (Flash) (disclaimer- I worked on the Clix). The left-hand side control is a slider with neutral central position- up for lock, down for on/off. The right hand side has +/- at the top for volume, Play/Pause, and Prev/Next from top to bottom.

The front D-pad is fine as well with good, tactile response. During boot up, the d-pad lights up very brightly but not at all as far as I can tell during use.

Ed. Note: I was intending to do a full review of the device, but have decided to wait and focus my time on providing MusicGremlin with a comprehensive list of all the bugs I encountered and in most cases was able to easily reproduce.

Pros

  • Nice concept
  • Simple browsing of other’s libraries
  • Can only download/play back subscription music on others’ devices
  • Supports PIN Locking of device

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Unstable firmware
  • No Windows Vista support (yet)
  • No Photo support
  • Easily scratched
  • No case for device
  • Cheap headphones
  • Poor audio quality w/ pops

Sample of Bugs/Issues Found during a 20 minute eval:

Bootup/Shutdown/Charging

  1. Screen shows unpolished “Please wait” and firmware version over refined logo.
  2. Audible “pop” on startup & shutdown. A big no-no.
  3. Returning from standby, saw pixelated, multicolor “static” across entire screen on multiple occasions
  4. Turn off device while connected to power for charge and it blanks the UI, then entire screen is blank (white and lit)

On-Device Navigation

  1. Music experience always prompts the user to search and peck in letters. Even if you’re searching artists and there are only two in the list.
  2. No menu option for “Now Playing” to take you back to album art and seek view, but volume and seek take you temporarily to the view?
  3. Alpha entry & search navigation isn’t consistent. For example, Up/Down scroll for network security key goes backwards through alphabet as if centered on “blank” between “Z” and “0” vs. defaulting to “A” when searching music.

Sync Experience

  1. The device reports itself as “MTP Device” when syncing with Windows Vista. It should state the name, and present the Device Icon and Device Logo in WMP11. Right now WMP can’t even see it.
  2. MTP-class devices shouldn’t prompt the user for drivers. Something is wrong here. After forcing a device reboot, it installed. Other devices sync no problem w/ Vista using MTP.
  3. Device never reports status of sync relationship other than USB icon. The icon reports actual USB connect state instead of communications state with the PC. It should tell the user if it’s connected, busy, or if there’s a problem.

Get New Music

  1. If I choose Get New Music, why am I prompted for “New Search” when there are no saved searches?
  2. Search on Genres returns Artists. I want to browse by Genres>Albums. This makes the feature unusable.
  3. Gremlists NEVER worked. Every song is unavailable, even when other tracks could be downloaded
  4. Downloading no longer works at all. Even after factory reset. No downloads are queued up.
  5. Display of queued tracks to download isn’t centered on icon when double digit value exists (e.g. 10 downloads)

Community

  1. Device stopped playing back tracks downloaded from any users. DRM-12 error when I went into the Download Manager which told me to contact MG technical support.
  2. A number of users in the community could not be browsed. After factory reset, no users could be downloaded from.
  3. Device is now in a state where I cannot download any music from any users. Nothing gets added to the Download Manager even after rebooting or factory reset.

FM Radio

  1. You have to push up/down to tune.
  2. No visual notification of presets found during seek.

Mailbox

  1. It looks like on 06/08/06 the device was either flashed or tested and “Error getting root license” was found. Why would a new user need to see this?

Settings

  1. If the device is registered, it should tell you. Right now if I go to the website it says the device is registered and will not give me a key. The MG unit prompts me for a regkey.
  2. If you restore the device to factory defaults, this should wipe out your list of downloads in the download manager and your WiFi security keys.
  3. There is No way to de-activate the device (e.g. if you wanted to resell it on ebay in the future.)

Conclusions

If you’re going to give your product a name that refers to a mythical creature that destoys machines and is the subject of one of the scariest episodes of The Twilight Zone ever and two campy 80’s movies, you better make darned sure you’ve worked your own Gremlins out of the system. This was honestly one of the worst device experiences I’ve ever had. The fact that Walt Mossberg’s column seems to like it so much tells me either someone over at the WSJ isn’t really spending much time living with the device or perhaps I just have a bad unit. Either way, it’s time to put this one back in the oven and let it bake a bit longer. Here’s to hoping there’s a firmware update because right now, the device isn’t working for me as-advertised and is about to get returned. I’m waiting to hear back from technical support.

Update #1: Well, it looks like MusicGremlin got my bug list because they sent me out a new device and a separate box to ship the “defective” unit in. They did look at my connection and it does appear something was awry. I still think many of the user experience points stand but will report back tomorrow on my experience with the new unit. Big points to MG’s customer service though.

2 responses to MusicGremlin includes gremlins I didn't pay for.

  1. 

    Actually, after reading Mossberg’s column a second time, I think the thing he liked most about it is the same thing that you say interested you: the CONCEPT of obtaining and sharing music content wirelessly. As he goes through the actual implementation of the concept, he finds almost as many rough edges or bugs as you did, and in almost every case, got the same answer when he asked: We know, and we’re working on it. I’ll be interested to hear if MG tech support says anything more specific or detailed to you.

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