New toy

I’ve always liked personal music devices, since the days that they were cassette players the size (and weight) of house bricks. Over the years, I’ve moved through various cassette players, had a brief fling with a CD player (too damn big, and this was before anti-skip features were common), then on to mini-disc, and then a Sony NetMD. I quite liked the Net MD, and was quite impressed with Sony’s announcement of the new HiMD format, which uses 1GB disks in the same form factor. I even went so far as to pre-order a HiMD player. But I got tired of waiting for the actual release, so I had another look at the market.

I decided to look at hard disk players, as if I was going to move on from MD, I wanted something with a lot more capacity to make it worth while. I also wanted something no bigger than my MD player, which just fits in a top pocket. Finally, it had to work as a removable drive under Windows XP. Anything using proprietary drivers, or requiring the use of particular software, or non-standard file formats was out. No iPods here, thanks. Oh yes, and I didn’t want to spend significantly more than I’d been planning to on the HiMD player.

After a little digging, searching and web browsing, I eventually decided on the Archos GMini 220, which met all my criteria. There was even the option of a remote control, which most players didn’t seem to have. I didn’t spend too much time on it, and ended up ordering from BlokesStuff, together with the optional remote control.

A week later, it arrived. In the flesh[1], it really is small. Almost exactly the same size as my NetMD, in fact. The LCD display is large and clear, and very easy to navigate. As with most portable devices, the supplied headphones are, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Poorly made, not a good fit for my ears, and generally icky. No problem there, I was planning to use my Sony ones anyway. One other oddity – the supplied USB lead (of which more later) was a bit short, which might make connecting it up tricky for some people.

No drivers are needed for Windows to recognise the GMini as a disk drive, but if you want the supplied MusicMatch Jukebox to talk to the player, you will need to install it from the CD rather than download the current version. Nothing to stop you upgrading after that, of course.

At first, I plugged the GMini into my powered USB2 hub. Bad idea. The GMini kept disconnecting, and Windows didn’t like it at all. Moved it to a direct USB2 port, and all was well. Apart from the power saving settings, which aren’t bright enough not to turn the device off when it’s got mains power…

Transferring MP3 files (created from some of my CDs, using MusicMatch) was simply a matter of dragging and dropping in Windows Explorer, and was a quick as I could reasonably ask for (much, much quicker than transferring files to the NetMD).

Using the GMini is simple. Playlists can be created by selecting either whole albums or individual tracks on the device itself, or by making lists with MusicMatch and transferring them to the player.[2]

The sound quality through my chosen headphones is just fine. However, when the remote is plugged in, it seems to pick up electronic noise from the player, so odd noises can be heard between tracks. This isn’t all that bad, at least for me, as I only really use the GMini outside where there’s a fair amount of traffic noise anyway. The remote control incorporates an FM radio, but I haven’t bothered to try this out, as I’d rather listen to my own choice of music. If they had managed to include a DAB radio that would have let me listen to 6Music, it might have been a different story.

The GMini comes with a plug-in for MusicMatch that is supposed to let you update its “ArcLibrary”. This lets you browse music by Track, Artist, Album and Genre, using the ID3 tag information from the MP3 files. At first, I couldn’t get this to work at all until a little googling told me that the problem was that the file on the GMini was set to read-only, which caused the update to fail without giving any errors. Since then, I’ve found this feature to be a bit flaky. Even though Windows has happily identified the GMini as a drive, and I’ve copied files across, MusicMatch will more often than not fail to identify it. This isn’t a problem for me, as I prefer to browse through the files on the GMini in the more conventional way anyway.

It also has a Compact Flash card reader, which can be used for loading digital camera images on to the hard drive. You can look at these in greyscales on the display. I don’t have a use for this feature, but somebody might like it.

The only other feature that might put some people off is its lack of support for the secure WMA files used by various legal download services. Not an issue for me, as what I wanted was something I could listen to the contents of my own CDs on. If it’s an issue for you, you don’t want a GMini.

I’ve had it a couple of weeks now, and overall I’m happy with it. It does what it says on the tin, sounds more than good enough, and I love the convenience of having so much music in one small box.

[1] Well, plastic. You know what I mean
[2] After a small search and replace to get the file path in the correct format for the GMini

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