Pebble micro MP3 player
Does it rock?
First UK Review Pebbles - you can skim them across waves, 'decorate' the front of your house with them, even make phone calls with them. And now you can play songs on them too. Well, sort of. UK-based digital music player retailer Advanced MP3 Players (AMP) has come across a small, pebble-shaped device and it's chosen to market the South Korea-sourced product under its own name. Given the player's size and shape, what else could AMP call it?
The Pebble is one of those players that make a virtue out its size - or lack of it. But wear it around your neck or your belt - a neat, adjustable lanyard and a belt-clip come bundled - the Pebble isn't meant to go unnoticed. It's bright, chrome-like face and the blue light that blinks its way around and around the circular control cluster during playback are very eye-catching.
The device's oval-shaped face is a mere 4.5 x 3cm. The control is reminiscent of the iPod Shuffle's: a central play/pause key surrounded by a four-way circular button that raises or lowers the volume, or skips tracks forward or backward depending on where you press it. Press anything and the tiny OLED screen glows through the chrome to reveal playback times and mode, song title and other encoding rate, EQ selection, battery status and so on.
The lanyard anchor loop's at the top, just in front of the 3.5mm earphone socket which doubles up as the player's USB port. Below it is a hole which too has a dual role: microphone and recessed reset button. Each side has a button too, again with twin functions - press quickly for one, or press and hold for the second. On the left-hand side the functions are track navigation and hold; on the right, they are Rec and Menu. Since the latter's more likely to be used than the record facility, I'd say it should have the short press for activation not the long one, but that's a minor gripe.
The Rec button actually has a third function: press it while there's a song on and the player changes its repeat-play setting. To do recording, you first have to turn your music off. Whatever you're using the player for the controls are small enough to be discreet, big enough to be easy to use.
The Pebble employs a decidedly old-fashioned icon-based menu system. The tiny display permits only one icon at a time, so you don't know what you can change until you go and look for it - unless you want to carry the manual's menu map around, of course. Oddly, there's enough room for full-length menu titles, but the player adopts abbreviations.
One other grumble: if you wear the player around your neck, the controls and screen are both upside down when you lift the device up, so you have to twist it round. It would have been better to put the lanyard loop on the bottom, stopwatch style. Speaking of which, the Pebble has a stopwatch mode just in case you find yourself adjudicating athletics meetings while you're out and about.
The Pebble's bundled with a USB-to-3.5mm-jack cable to connect it to a host computer and both transfer tracks and recharge the built-in battery. The player's a USB Mass Storage device, so it should operate with any operating system. It ships with an application called Music Friend, but since this just calls up Windows to transfer tracks, it's as easy to do it manually, especially since Music Friend is so weak. There's a music player, but you can't select a track and press play - hitting the play button just invokes the Open... dialog. And there's an unnecessary photo tweaking tool - redundant for a player that can't display photos.
But I shouldn't let poor software drag down the hardware. As I say, the Pebble mounts on your desktop ready for tracks to be dragged and dropped over. I tried it on a Mac but even with the Mac OS' metadata files removed, I still kept getting 'MP3 ERR' appearing on the display. Some songs did play, though they were all encoded as 128KBps MP3s in iTunes from CD. I re-ripped a couple of CDs in Windows' version of iTunes and these played just fine. The gadget can handle MP3 and WMA files - but not, it seems, DRM-protected WMA tracks.
Playback can be augmented with the usual set of EQ pre-sets, some of which exposed the "limitations of the source tape" as CD booklets used to say. There are two entries in the list of EQ pre-sets for user-defined equalisations made using a three on-screen sliders.
The Pebble sounds pretty good without such augmentations, though I got some clicks and crackles as one track ended and the next began. They're not on the tracks themselves and while you'd not notice them in a noisy environment - listing on the bus or the train, for example - the Pebble still loses marks for it. The earphones are cheap but inoffensive - they're not great but they do the business. And the player can't half rack up the decibels - this is louder than many a music device I've tried.
In addition to the aforementioned stopwatch, the Pebble comes loaded with an FM radio. I found reception to be poor at first, but switching mode to the radio changes the contents of the Set[tings] menu and I found the radio defaults to US/Korean FM frequency handling - switching to European made a big difference: still slightly hissy perhaps, but that's often the case with tiny tuners and switching to mono helps. The Pebble makes a neat little radio, and it's almost worth the entry price just for that. It's just a shame you have to go through all this mode switching to swap from your own songs to a radio station's.
The Pebble's manual claims a 12-hour continuous playback time, but I got rather less than that in my tests - about ten hours - though I almost certainly activated the display more often than the device's manufacturer did. It's still a decent battery life for a device of this size, and it'll last many a jogging session, and trip between home and office.
Advanced MP3 Players' Pebble isn't the best Flash-based MP3 player I've seen - some sound issues, a decidedly old-hat menu system, some lame song-transfer software and the Korean animation-like pair of eyes that blink out at you when the thing starts up all see to that.
However, the playback quality is decent, the radio's good, and there's no doubt the fashion accessory-friendly styling and its bling factor helps the Pebble shine among the crowd of iPod wannabes. ®