Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dell DJ 20 Gigabyte MP3 Player

The Dell DJ 20 gigabyte MP3 player is a worthy alternative to consider if you’re looking for a high-capacity MP3 player with a good user interface and good battery life. The only real negative to the device is the included music management software.

I’ve been hemming and hawing over a new MP3 player for about the last six months. Did I want to get an iPod or did I want something similar? I’ll have to admit, seeing the iPods everywhere on my commute in and out of Boston everyday made me want them, but at the same time the price tag for the 20 gigabyte iPod was seemed a bit high and there were so many other options available.

It was all a bit overwhelming when I was comparing everything.

Well it took me getting Dell’s Pocket Digital Jukebox (DJ) for my partner. After I set it up for him, getting to use it here and there and seeing how much he was enjoying it, I decided that while an iPod would have been cool, if Dell’s regular DJ was anywhere close to the Pocket DJ, I would be more than happy with it.

Thus only a few weeks after I purchased the Pocket DJ, I once again exercised my Dell credit account and purchased the 20 gigabyte Dell Digital Jukebox (DJ) MP3 player on sale for $225. Along with that I purchased the extra replacement service and an armband holder for the player – all told it came to about $265, almost $40 cheaper than the 20 gigabyte iPod alone.

Dell DJ Basics

Compared to the Pocket DJ which was about 2 inches wide and about 3 inches high, the Dell DJ is slightly larger, thicker and heavier. It measures in at 2.5 inches wide and 4 inches high. The thickness of the DJ comes in at about three quarters of an inch and it weighs almost 7 ounces. It’s definitely heftier than the Pocket DJ or an iPod mini and slightly larger than a standard 20 gigabyte iPod – but not so much that it’s not easy to carry or to keep in your pocket.

The DJ has a good sized display screen that is 1.92 inches wide and offers 160x104 resolution. The screen is backlit by a blue light when you’re using it to navigate or change your settings – otherwise the backlight is turned off to conserve battery life. The screen is easy to read in most light situations, though in direct sunlight you’ll find yourself probably tipping it a bit to get the best view.

Along the top of the Dell DJ is the headphone jack, the power button, the volume control buttons and a lock switch that lets you lock all the buttons on the Pocket DJ to prevent any accidental button pushes. On the bottom of the Dell DJ is the USB connection port where you connect your DJ to your computer or the AC charger.

The main method of navigation for the Dell DJ is with what Dell call’s a “roller barrel.” The roller barrel allows you to scroll and select in the various menus on the Pocket DJ at the same time. When you’re using the roller barrel, you can scroll up or down with the roller barrel and when you want to select something, you press that same barrel and it clicks on your choice.

There are five other major control buttons on the Dell DJ. There are three long slender buttons beneath the roller barrel that allow you to play/pause (center button), rewind/skip back and fast forward/skip ahead (left and right buttons). To the left and right of the roller barrel is small circular button. The one of the right is a home button that brings you back to the main menu whenever you push it and the one on the left is a back button that brings you back to the previous menu you were in when you push it.

The navigation is simple enough that you could control the DJ without having to see it. I find myself reaching into my pocket and changing the volume or forwarding to other songs. For this basic kind of navigation, I don’t need to see it – but if you’re planning on changing playlists or settings, you’re going to need to see the navigation screen to get through the menus.

What you get with your Dell DJ

When you open up the box for the Dell DJ, you get the DJ itself, the USB connection cord, the AC adapter for charging (which plugs into the USB cord and charges through it – which is slightly bothersome), and ear buds for listening.

The ear buds are nothing special, but they do fit fairly comfortably in the ear and produce decent quality sound. The only problem I’ve found with them is that the left ear bud tends to get loose – but I’ve never found a pair of ear buds that fit really well so I’m used to this. While I’m sure that audiophiles will want to replace them, for everyday use I see no problem with these ear buds. The sound quality is more than enough for what I use the DJ for and that’s listening to music while I’m commuting or for when I’m working out.

One obvious item lacking from the box is an in-depth manual. There’s only a quick-start guide with the DJ, for any other information you will have to go to Dell’s website for the online manual for the Dell DJ.

The DJ’s Technical Details

The 20 gigabyte hard drive in the Dell DJ can hold somewhere around 9000 songs, depending on the size of the music files you’re putting on the DJ (longer songs and/or higher quality audio files will take up more space and decrease the amount of music it can hold). I’d think an average is somewhere around four or five thousand songs for most users because the audio formats they have probably vary, as does the audio quality in each song.

The DJ is a hard-drive based player, so the warnings you hear for other hard-drive based MP3 players all apply here. Don’t drop it or shake it really hard, otherwise the hard drive could potentially malfunction and then you’re left with a really expensive paperweight.

There’s a lithium-polymer battery pack in the DJ that can be recharged. According to Dell, each charge can theoretically last for 12 hours of playback, but real world playback seems to be on the order somewhere around 10 or so hours (not that I’ve listened to it for 10 hours straight, but I can go for a little over a week of commuting without charging it and it’s about 45 minutes of listening in the morning and then again in the afternoon). Battery life is affected by how often you are using the navigation features and how often the backlight is on – the more you are fiddling around, the less battery life there is. The best way to conserve battery life is to turn it on and let it play and not fool around with anything. Charging to full-strength takes about 3 hours to accomplish.

You connect your DJ to your PC (the DJ is only PC compatible) with a USB 2.0 connection. When you’re transferring music files or data files, the transfer speeds average somewhere between 6 and 8 megabytes per second. The Dell DJ can hold both audio files and data files – so you can use it to store files from your computer.

The software with the DJ includes Music Match Jukebox 9.0 and Dell DJ Explorer. There is also an installation program that installs the DJ’s drivers on your system.

Does it work?

It took me slightly longer to get the Dell DJ up and running than it took me with the Pocket DJ version. It wasn’t that the set up was any more complicated, but I discovered that the DJ doesn’t like to be connected to your computer via an USB hub.

Discounting the trouble with the USB connection, the time it took me from starting with the DJ (minus the initial charge time) to listening to music was probably about 20 minutes.

The setup on my computer was straightforward after the charging was complete. Before you connect the Dell DJ, you install the drivers off of the CD and then when you connect the DJ via USB, your computer should automatically recognize it. You can also install the Music Match Jukebox software and the DJ Explorer software when you are installing the drivers.

The DJ Explorer software lets you quickly get your music onto your player – just drag and drop. I did this for several albums and the transfers were all quite fast – I got over about 150 songs in less than a few minutes.

My only real issue with the entire installation was my USB connection to my computer. I originally had connected the DJ via a USB 2.0 hub. At first it worked, but then the DJ wouldn’t maintain the connection with my computer. After a bit of fiddling around and after checking out the problem on the Dell help forums, I discovered that the included USB cord is picky. It wants to be connected directly to the USB port on your computer – otherwise it may or may not work. Once I changed the connection from the hub to directly from the computer, I had no problems with my connection and transferring files.

Using It

When it came to listening to music on the DJ, I disconnected the USB cord, turned it on and started to scroll through the tracks available. I found one I wanted, pressed the play button and off I went.

The volume comes preset at about the middle of the volume range on the DJ and it was comfortable to listen to in a fairly quiet room. I slowly cranked it up and found, like the Pocket DJ, the Dell DJ can really pump out the sound at a good volume. At the highest volume setting – it was too loud for me, which is rare with most MP3 players I’ve tried. I turn them all the way up and while I don’t have trouble hearing them, it isn’t loud enough for me. But with the DJ, I have it set about three quarters of the way up the scale I’m playing it – and it’s more than enough to keep out the commuting noise.

The navigation menus are the same as the Pocket DJ so I had a bit of jump on navigation knowledge so I changed the play over to random and changed the equalizer setting. Within the menu structure you can change the player’s settings including equalizer mode, playback type (random, etc) and you can change playlists or find and listen to specific artists, albums or music types (if you’re music is correctly cataloged).

The Dell DJ’s Software

Why does Dell want to use Music Match? It’s not the worst software out there, but I can’t find much good to say about it. The only plus is that you don’t need to install it to use the Dell DJ, you can use the DJ Explorer program to manage your music on the player in its place.

Music Match Jukebox is hard to use and a clunky way to manage and build your digital music collection. I would suggest that unless you already have an older version of the software installed and like to use it, that you are probably better off using what you already have on your computer (such as Windows Media Player) or consider getting yourself another program (Winamp is great – and cheap).

The Dell DJ doesn’t require Music Match Jukebox to manage its files – but you do need to use the other software in order to manage and correctly load MP3 files onto your Pocket DJ. Unless you install a firmware upgrade, the Dell DJ will not play music files that are not loaded through the DJ Explorer software. Information on the firmware upgrade is available in the forums on Dell’s website.

Dell DJ Explorer is just a worked up version of the typical Windows Explorer program. You can navigate through the files on your machine and drag and drop them onto the DJ to load the music. You can select individual files, multiple files or entire folders and the software will organize the music correctly on the DJ.

When you click on the DJ device in DJ Explorer – you see a rudimentary music management screen that gives you a run down of the songs, the albums and the artists you have on the DJ. It’s not the easiest way to manage your files – but for me, it is easier (and less frustrating) than using the Music Match software and is a quick and easy way to start filling up your Pocket DJ with music.

If you check out the Dell help forums on the DJ, there are links to several shareware and freeware programs that are available to either add onto or replace the DJ Explorer program. They offer more robust music management features.

Really using it…

My main use for the Dell DJ is when I am commuting back and forth between Boston. About 45 minutes of my daily commute (each way) is sitting on a subway and walking to my office building. Over the years I’ve had various music players that have worked with varying degrees of success. My main requirement is that its easy to carry and that it’s tough enough to stand up to being in my pocket or shoved in my carry bag when I’m not using it.

I also wanted something to take to the gym with me – and there the smaller it was, the better it was so I didn’t have to worry about it. I especially wanted something I could put on an armband so it would be out of the way when I was using it.

For both situations, the Dell DJ has worked out as good, if not better than I expected. For commuting it’s been easy to carry and pack and I’ve been able to listen to a week of music on a single charge. The volume on the DJ is loud enough to drown out the noise from the train and other commuters. I can keep the DJ in my pocket and easily forward through tracks I don’t want to hear or change the volume without having to take it out of my pocket.

My biggest complaint about using it is that the ear buds are less secure than some others that I’ve had, especially in my left ear. I guess my left ear just isn’t as ear bud friendly or something – but I find that I have to readjust the ear buds every now and then to make sure they don’t fall out of my ear.

When it comes to the gym and jogging, the arm-band holder I got for the player has been great. While the DJ is slightly heavier than my partner’s Pocket DJ, I haven’t found much difference when it comes to wearing it. The DJ is nowhere near heavy enough to bother you while you’re wearing it on the armband and while it doesn’t need to be as loud as it is on the train, the sound is more than enough to get absorbed in and not be bothered by other noises in the gym.

I’ve found that the metal case on the DJ is prone to scratching. That’s not to say that it won’t stand up to normal wear and tear, but I think it’s quite likely that without protection, the case will show that wear and tear. Knowing this already with the Pocket DJ, I made sure that as part of the arm-band holder, I got a small case for the DJ.

The main reason for the case is to prevent scratching, but it also gives the DJ some extra cushioning if you drop it or bang it. Considering you want to protect that little hard drive inside, I would think that a case is really a necessity with the DJ, or any other hard drive based player. You want to give the hard drive as much protection as possible.

The sound quality from the DJ has been quite good on the included ear buds for me. There’s a good range on the volume control and while you’re not going to get CD-like stereo sound out of the DJ, depending on the file quality, you shouldn’t notice most difference. The only sound problems I’ve noticed have been from songs that were ripped at lower qualities, then some of the imperfections from the ripping and compression show through and the music tends to be muted and flat

What about the iPod?

While the Dell’s interface isn’t as slick as the one Apple has for its iPods, the size of the DJ is slightly larger than a similar iPod and the ear buds aren’t quite as comfortable, I think overall that the Dell DJ gives the iPod a run for its money – especially when you look at the price difference.

Apple devotees will point out various idiosyncrasies, especially the included software, but considering that the DJ is about $50 cheaper than an iPod (even more so if it’s on sale) and offers just about all the features and abilities of the iPod – I think it’s a worthy alternative and one that I’m happy to have.

Unless you’ve got your heart set on joining the white ear bud army – I think a look at the Dell DJ is worth your time. You just might find something that fulfills your needs and saves you a few bucks in the process.

The biggest problem/issue with the DJ for me is the included Music Match Jukebox software. It is cumbersome, confusing and clunky. While the DJ Explorer software isn’t the ultimate answer, it’s better than Music Match (but doesn’t offer ripping capabilities) and if you’ve already got a music management program you enjoy – not installing and not using Music Match is a good option.

Final Thoughts

With a price that starts at $249 (almost always less, as Dell is always running some sort of sale), the Dell DJ is a good deal. Not only does it offer tons of music storage on its 20 gigabyte hard drive, but you get a good looking device with a user-friendly interface and good sound output. On the other hand, you might find the included Music Match Jukebox music management software hard to use.

But with only one real negative (the software, which doesn’t need to be installed and can be easily substituted with something else), I think that the Dell DJ 20 gigabyte MP3 player is definitely worth a look.

With the Dell DJ you’ll get a ton of storage space, good sounding music, an easy to navigate interface and plenty of customization options for your music playing - all that in a package that has a very competitive price.

Anyone looking at high-capacity hard-drive based MP3 players should at least give the Dell DJ a look and they’ll probably find what is an attractive MP3 player for almost anyone.

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