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MemUp Koolsteel MP3/WMA/OGG player

What I like about it, what I dislike, why I chose it.

Note that this device ceased to function in February 2007, 16 months after it was purchased.

Traduction franšaise


MemUp Koolsteel The MemUp Koolsteel is primarily a solid-state digital audio playback device with a few gimmicks. It is able to play back MP3, WMA and OGG format audio files and can record MP3 files with bitrates from 64Kbps to 160Kbps from an internal (mono) microphone, from its line input in the form of a socket for a 3.5mm stereo jack or from the built-in FM receiver. It exists in two versions: 256MB and 512MB.

The reason I bought this device was in order to accomodate a growing habit of mine to rip titles from my Audio CDs, encode them to OGG files, dump them onto various 64MB CompactFlash cards I have and switch cards to listen to different "compilations" according to taste and mood.

While it's useful being able to store an hour's worth of music onto a device about the size of one of those small, dark chocolates you get at a restaurant with your espresso after your meal, there's the slight impediment of needing to cart your computer around with it to play back the music on the damn thing. The purpose of looking for a device like the Koolsteel was to be able to remove the need for the computer − for playback at least, it's still needed to upload music to the Koolsteel and to charge it.

Four demands of mine had to be satisfied before I would consider purchasing a device:

  1. Size: Granted, it's not hard finding something smaller than a home PC, or even a laptop PC, to play back music, but I wanted something that was light enough to go unnoticed and small enough to fit in a pocket.
  2. Autonomy: Not having to make a pit-stop every hour to recharge the thing or change the batteries would be nice. I expected to get a good 8 or 10 hours out of it before having to find power somewhere and I wanted it to be able to suck up at least 4 hours of music (see? I'm not that demanding!).
  3. Price: With the fall in the price of modern technology (and the fact that I'm not exactly leading an opulent lifestyle) I'd fixed myself a hard ceiling of €100 (that's about $120 for you USians).
  4. Compatibility: This was perhaps the most important factor. I wanted something that would be able to play back music encoded in the entirely Free ogg/vorbis format, and I wanted it to be able to connect to my PCs without the need for stupid Windows hardware drivers.

The Koolsteel satisfies all four demands. It's largest dimension is about 7cm (that's about 2¾ inches) − you can get an idea of its overall size from the picture above. It fits in the palm of your hand or in a pocket with no problem. Maybe it would have been more practical had the device been perhaps a little flatter and wider (less intrusive in the pocket) but you can't have everything, and I suppose I'm really looking actively for defects in the design here. However, the overall "chunkiness" of the proportions means the Koolsteel only gets 4½ out of 5 here.

SIZE AND SHAPE

The manufacturer claims that this device will run for 30 hours on a full charge, which takes 2-3 hours. A 760mAh lithium polymer battery is sealed inside the unit, thus removing the need to change batteries but also leaving you in the lurch if it does go flat and you're nowhere near a computer's USB port. OGG files of a reasonable quality run at a little under a megabyte per minute. The 256MB version that I purchased therefore has room for about 4.5 hours of music in its guts, or up to 6-7 hours if I encode the files at a lower quality. This is perfect for my needs, even if others might want more capacity. I would therefore give the Koolsteel full marks if it weren't for the fact that the only way I've found so far to see how much space you have left is to connect it to a computer. So, once again, 4½ out of 5.

CAPACITY AND BATTERY LIFE

The list price for this device was €102.38, but I also received a voucher for €15.00 on future purchases (which I intend to make), thus bringing the effective price down to €87.38 which, when added to the €4.90 extra I paid for "Chronopost" delivery, brings the total cost of the device up to €92.28. You can find cheaper devices, but you can be fairly sure that they won't play back ogg/vorbis files and that they'll require stupid drivers to work. I even saw one for sale that required Windows XP… Given the specific nature of my requirements, I'm satisfied with the value for money of the Koolsteel.

VALUE FOR MONEY

As already stated, this device will play back MP3, WMA and OGG files. MP3 and WMA do not interest me in the least since they are both proprietary formats that are plagued with royalty and patent issues when it comes to creating such files. OGG is entirely Free for any software vendor to implement and for the end-user. Furthermore, at equivalent sound qualities, OGG files are smaller than MP3 files, or at equivalent file size, OGG files provide better audio upon playback. I have no idea how WMA files compare to OGG or MP3 because up until now I have never had anything able to play them back (I do not use Windows or Windows Media Player). The Koolsteel deals equally well with fixed and variable bitrate data, and even deals with bitrates outside the advertised 64Kbps to 600Kbps range − some of the files I uploaded to it were speech (a Dutch language course if you really must know) that I downmixed to mono and resampled at 22.05KHz before encoding them at low quality and ending up with files containing data at roughly 30Kbps.

AUDIO FILE COMPATIBILITY

From the hardware point of view, the Koolsteel conforms to usb-storage standards and therefore behaves exactly like an external hard disk (so-called "pen" drive) once plugged into a computer's USB port. It is compatible with both USB 1.1 and the newer, faster USB 2.0. This compliance with known standards enables the device to function on any computer with a USB subsystem without the need for any drivers other than what's already provided by the host machine's operating system. That is what Plug'n'Play is about, not installing proprietary drivers that sometimes don't get along with undisclosed specifications of the operating system and that require you to reboot 6 times before plugging the device in and hoping all went well (so-called "Plug'n'Pray").

HARDWARE COMPATIBILITY

The playback audio quality is something that depends on many factors, not least of which are the quality of the audio encoding and the headphones you're using to listen to the music. However, by using good headphones and a file you know to be encoded with good quality, you can get an idea of the quality of the device's decoding algorithms and output amplifier. On the whole, the Koolsteel fares rather well in this domain. The output is perfectly acceptable, except in some rare circumstances where you can hear some distortion very briefly (distortion that is not heard when playing back the same file on the PC using ogg123 for example). The equalizer works reasonably well too, but the other post-processing algorithms such as the SRS Tru-Bass or the WOW really aren't worth bothering with.

Lovers of live music will be disappointed with the Koolsteel because it fades one track out before fading into the next. There is therefore no continuity and your live albums will have annoying breaks between tracks.

The headphones supplied with the Koolsteel are those annoying little things that you're supposed to wedge in your ears and hope they don't fall out when you start sweating. Their audio quality is surprisingly good, but they are a little large for my ears and even become quite painful after prolonged use. In fact, I went out and bought something more comfortable a few days afterwards. Only 3 points here.

AUDIO QUALITY AND HEADPHONES

The usability of the Koolsteel is an area where MemUp has plenty of room for improvement. I'm not completely stoopid when it comes to operating technical gadgets and yet I needed the operating manual to find out how to use this thing. It is not intuitive by any stretch of the imagination. No printed operating manual is provided, you have to look for it on the CD-ROM provided with the Koolsteel. Once you have found it, bear in mind that languages never have been the forte of the French (MemUp is a French company) and that the translation into English of the user manual is, errm… such that I decided to use the French manual. The 2-color OLED display on the Koolsteel is sufficiently clear, albeit too small, but that's something MemUp can't do much about short of making the Koolsteel wider and flatter as I suggested earlier… It is also totally unreadable if there is too much ambient light (simply being outdoors is enough for this). The standard repeat and track shuffle functions are present but playlists are handled in a half-baked fashion. You can't upload .m3u or .pls files specifying which files to play and in which order, you can only use the provided interface to mark tracks or folders of tracks for playback, and the playlist gets screwed up if you delete files from the memory (even if the deleted files weren't in the playlist) or upload others. Only 2 points here.

USER INTERFACE

The Koolsteel comes with the following accessories:

The line input cable is totally useless. For one thing, it's too short. Secondly, most audio appliances have 2 RCA sockets for their output, not 3.5mm sockets, so basically the cable has the wrong plug on one end. Other than that, the gold-plated contacts are a nice touch… The carrying strap is evidently designed for the user to wear around the neck. Handy if you don't have any pockets, but it's the devil's own job attaching the thing to the Koolsteel and removing it. It needs to be done with the headphones and the line input disconnected, and the plastic-covered wire that it's made of is a little stiff, which doesn't help pushing it through the small loop on one end in order to fix it to the Koolsteel. The CD-ROM contains the software needed to upgrade the Koolsteel's internal firmware if necessary, drivers for Windows 98 (which doesn't know how to handle usb-storage otherwise), product fiches for just about everything ever sold by MemUp (just in case you were thinking of buying the entire product range) and a mini website that serves as an instruction manual. All of this in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

So, the intent was there, but it certainly didn't exactly work with the line input cable or the strap. 3 out of 5 here.

ACCESSORIES

The FM receiver will pick up transmissions anywhere from 76MHz to 108MHz. It will discriminate automatically between stereo and mono transmissions and it can memorise 20 preset stations. It is also possible to record a radio transmission directly to MP3 at a bitrate from 64Kbps to 160Kbps. Radio reception here is not particularly good (and there isn't anything worth listening to anyway) but the few tests I ran were convincing enough. The FM receiver does work fairly well even though it lacks a little sensitivity. 4 out of 5.

FM RECEIVER

The Koolsteel is also capable of recording audio from the radio, from its built-in (mono) microphone or from its line input. The selection of the input to use is automatic − if you're listening to the radio then that's what it'll record, if not and if something is plugged into its line input then that will be recorded, or if nothing is plugged in then it'll record from the microphone. The only format available for recording is MP3 (OGG would have been nice) and the bitrate can be set to one of 5 settings from 64Kbps (pretty awful) to 160Kbps (not bad at all).

The quality of the microphone is rather low, with a surprisingly high amount of background noise for a device with no electric motors to inject spikes into the power supply and with no moving parts of any kind to produce vibrations. Using the provided headset it is impossible to distinguish between a live radio broadcast and a recorded program as long as the encoding quality is set high enough (128Kbps or higher). The audio quality of recordings from the line input is good provided you set the gain correctly (there is no pesky automatic level control to distort the envelope beyond recognition). If the gain is too high, which will result in a distorted (because clipped) sound, the Koolsteel WILL CRASH. This is evidently why a "Reset" button is provided. If you use the "Reset" button you may lose the recording you were making but your settings will be preserved.

In short, the Koolsteel can be used as a dictaphone or something discreet (even sneaky?) to record the conversation taking place in a room. It can also be used to make perfectly acceptable recordings of radio broadcasts. It is not, however, practical for recording using the line input. Don't bother. 3 out of 5 for this feature.

RECORDING

As stated several times already, the Koolsteel connects to a USB port. This connection allows the exchange of data between the Koolsteel and the computer and it also provides the Koolsteel with power in order to recharge the built-in rechargeable battery which, according to the manufacturer's claims, can power the device for up to 30 hours.

If you slide the back panel of the Koolsteel laterally, it exposes a retractable USB plug, which latches into place when the panel is fully deployed. The Koolsteel can then be plugged as is, directly into the USB port if the port is accessible, or you can insert the provided, 1m-long USB extension cable.

I find the idea of the retractable USB plug and plugging the whole thing into the USB port (just like a pen drive in fact) quite ingenious, and the light weight of the device means very little stress on the retractable "tongue" part. The provided cable means maximum practicality. Full marks for this.

CONNECTING HARDWARE

There are a few other gadgets embedded in the Koolsteel's firmware, none of which I can see myself ever using so I won't "mark" these features:


If we now add up the points, the Koolsteel has earned 44 out of a potential 55. This is an overall score of 4 out of 5.

OVERALL SCORE

Here's the page for the Koolsteel on the manufacturer's website:
http://www.memup.com/prod/notice/en/en_koolsteel/index.html

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