Wednesday, 8 September 2004

New MiniDisc player

OK, after writing this entry, I thought some more about it, then eventually ordered a MZ-NH900 from unbeatable.co.uk. Not a bad turn-around, since I actually ordered it last Saturday night (and when I say night, I mean about 11pm) - it turned up today. I decided not to spend the extra £35 or so on the NH1 because it only has one extra feature (time-stamping recorded tracks) and worse battery life. This one's battery chemistry is NiMH again, though.

Impressions so far: there's a lot in the box - the player itself, a 1GB HMD1G disc, the power supply, charging cradle, an optical 'cable' for recording from optical digital sources, a USB cradle for use with the software, and the software itself, a remote and pair of crappy earphones. They haven't actually gone in the bin, but I took one look and plugged in my EX71s instead. Haven't tried the remote yet - it's compatible in the sense that the EX71s have a relatively short cable (about 50cm) with a standard inline 3.5mm 3-contact plug plus a really long extension cable with a right-angle plug, and the remote's headphone socket is also a 3.5mm 3-contact.

The player itself is a little plasticky, which is a bit disappointing - only the top cover is aluminium with plastic controls, the rest of the body is plastic. I was also disappointed with that on my Dell Axim x30 - it looks like it ought to be metal on the website, but no - it's all plastic (apart from the stylus, weirdly). The controls seem fairly solid, although volume and seek back/next are accomplished by tilting a central, well, joystick in the middle of the jog wheel in the four major compass directions. 'Clicking' the joystick is Play/Enter. I had to look that one up in the manual.

The menu and track selection (Navi) are a bit weird, but I suppose that's expected since it does cram a lot of features in. I think I'm getting the hang of 'next album' - press Group, then while the folder icon is flashing, move the jog dial or press Next. The USB socket cover is pretty flimsy and doesn't look like it'll keep much dust out - it's basically a hinged piece of white plastic with a catch on the end. USB is always via a cable - there's no USB connection through the cradle (another difference between this device and the NH1).

Sound quality is fine - on ATRAC-1 292kbps SP that I recorded with the old recorder, new material copied from 256kbps MP3, new material ripped to OpenMG ATRAC3plus 256kbps and material transcoded from high-rate VBR WMA.

Now to the software. Oh. My. God. It's. Awful.

We start by putting the CD in the drive. Because I'm a limited user, the first thing we see is this dialog:

Install Program As Other User

OK, bang in the Administrator password, hit OK, the installer starts, click Install. The main installer launches three or four separate subinstallers (black mark no.1). At the end of the subinstallers, we get a 'finished installing, restart now' dialog with no standard Windows controls, and only a Restart button in the corner. Black mark #2. However, they've not disabled Close in the system menu - right-click the taskbar button and choose Close, it doesn't reboot. However it's probably a good idea to reboot, so I do.

The system restarts and I log on, then I'm faced with a bunch of 'file not found' message boxes as a few programs in the Run registry key fail to run (black mark 3). Ah, I see it's added three icons to the desktop without asking (#4), and something to the system tray (#5). Right-click the tray icon (MD Simple Burner) and Exit. Nothing. Do it again. Nothing. This could have been to do with AVG scanning the disk at the time... After leaving it alone for a while, it spits out an error and goes away. I try starting SonicStage, and it bitches about not being able to open the device because another program has it open (#6). I apply a bit of intuition and decide to install the software using my own account elevated to Administrators. I add myself to the Administrators group and log off and back on. I uninstall MD Simple Burner and SonicStage, reinstall, restart, and this time MD Simple Burner works. I clear the 'run at logon' option and exit, because SonicStage is still bitching about not being able to open the device. Yes, the two pieces of software supplied with my device don't co-operate with each other (#7).

So I go into SonicStage and check for a working link. Yep, it works, let's try copying They Might Be Giants' The Spine and The Spine Surfs Alone EP, which I downloaded over the weekend. I go to Import Media. It claims to be processing for a while, then finished. Nothing appears in My Library. Switching to the other views (Music Source, Transfer) and back still shows nothing (#8). I quit and restart, and sure enough my music has appeared. The actual playback on this PC is via my stereo anyway, so I don't have a lot.

The downloaded files are in MP3 256kbps CBR format. Copies fairly quickly, we're OK. I pick up the device and try to eject the disc - oh, I can't, it's not actually finished writing (#9). I wait for it to finish. I try again. Nope, still locked - I have to press Stop and wait for 'Eject Disc OK' before ejecting.

It sounds pretty good, actually - very little noticeable transcoding loss. In fact, I can hear details I couldn't on the original MP3s because of the relative crapness of my sound chipsets (C-Media on-board audio, here and at work) compared to actual HiFi equipment. I decide to give it a challenge and select Joe Satriani's Chords Of Life (the 20kbps sample does it no justice), which I previously ripped to WMA for testing playback on the Axim. That doesn't come off too well - and then I notice that the indicator on the device shows 'Hi-LP', which is 64kbps. Yes, the transcoded MP3s were at 64kbps and I barely noticed. Yeesh.

So I try again at 256kbps and... it skips the 'converting' stage. I play it back again, it's still Hi-LP. Hang on, what just happened? Yes, just like Windows Media Player, it caches transcoded files. Unlike WMP, there's no global option to clear the transcoded files, you have to go to each track, select Properties from the context menu, File Info tab, select the OpenMG format file from the list, and hit Delete File:

Delete Transcoded File

Black mark #10. Having done this it now re-encodes the file; better, but still a bit distorted. Listening to the WMA reveals that the distortion crept in there - I rip from the CD straight to OpenMG. Now I see what all those 'Record a CD' options were about - they mean Rip a CD, not Burn one. Black mark #11 for using non-standard and confusing terminology. Let's hit CD Info to get the track information:

Register with CDDB

Funny, didn't need to do that for Media Player. I click Yes, I get the same prompt again, I click Yes again, nothing apparently happens, and I don't get any track data. We're up to 12 now. I don't know how it thought it was going to register, since it doesn't open any sockets according to Process Explorer.

Yes, the distortion's still there at the peaks. Checking the CD with my headphones reveals that the CD is probably over the limit [note: read this article, another example of how the labels are destroying music] - the source material has clipping in it, which causes all the codecs to throw a wobbly. Nuts.

Note that you can't rip directly to MD - you have to rip into the library, then transfer to the device. Black mark #13.

Well, I'm not going to end my experiment with reduced privileges just for the sake of this piece of recalcitrant software, so I remove myself from the Administrators group again, and log off and on. Starting SonicStage this time spits out this error:

You are logged on as a Limited account user. Some SonicStage functions are not available.

#14 right there, just for the message box. Let's see which functions work:

No Music Store!

No Net Music Store?? I have to be privileged to use a website?? Oh well, I can live without that (but #15).

No Transfer

Oh you have got to be joking. I can't transfer to my device as a limited user, even though you've made it accessible as a USB removable drive? #16.

No CD Info

Ah, that will be the psychic transport for the retrieval of CD info again. I also see that Tools/Options is unavailable - #17.

Reading the Readme also says "Do not use SonicStage while logged on to a domain user account under Windows 2000 Professional, Windows XP Professional or Windows XP Home Edition." That last one would be a trick - XP Home doesn't support domains. I guess I won't be using it at work, then!

I could go on, but this post is long enough already. I sympathise with the Channel 9 reader who asked for NetMD device support in Windows Media Player - but it ain't gonna happen, Sony just won't reveal that information, and I don't think Microsoft have the energy or inclination to support what's really quite a small user population.

These bugs and misfeatures prevent this application from really being the tool it should be - a way to get source media onto the MiniDisc. Instead they've built yet another incompatible player.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds Like it's not improved from my MZ-N1, which although being a nice player has some really shite software.
The Ipod on the other hand....
Colin

Anonymous said...

I had a NetMD for a while; I'd previously owned MD players that didn't have connectivity. Sony's pitiful software was enough to put me off ever repeating the purchase.

I'm now an extremely satisfied iPod user. If Sony think their music store or supporting MP3s directly is going to save them, they're sorely mistaken.

And what is the obsession with making UIs difficult to use (not to mention horrendously slow) by ignoring all of the common controls?

cthulu said...

I have a NH900, while the player is good the software i sub-standard compared to the hardware.

Although I have no problems with the software Sony Music seem to be limiting what Sony Electronics are allowed to do and what features they are allowed to incorporate into their software/hardware.

I am currently using Sonicstage 3.4, which is the latest version and it has the most functionality of all the Sonicstages so far. My machine is a 1.8ghz Athlon with 256MB of RAM which in todays age isn't top of the range by any means. Encoding to ATRAC beforehand is a pain, but there should be an option to remove temporary files automatically after trasnfer to the MD device, as it stands you have to do this manually. This is one of my gripes about Sonicstage. However on the other hand if you want to rip a CD to MD directly, SimpleBurner will do this quickly and remove all temporary ATRAC files from your computer after completion.
Users' experiences seem to be mixed with Sonic Stage, some people have very bad experiences while others like me have a relatively good experience overall. Using Sonic Stage is a small price to pay to be able to use my NH900 with my computer.

lovejoy23 said...

I've been a big fan of minidisc since around 1997 when I bought my first MD walkman, which was excellent. I progressed to a full size separate piece of hi-fi kit and even got it in the car. Great. Then along came SonicStage and ruined everything. It does nothing but crash, lose information and stop me transferring music and I've used everything from version 2 right up to 3.4. In a last ditch attempt I did a complete Windows re-install and downloaded a fresh copy of 3.4. Fantastic - everything works without a hitch.. For 2 weeks! I come to add a few more tracks to the compilation I use for my gym sessions this morning and all of a sudden "Transfers are not allowed".. But nothing has changed. I give up. I've been onto Sony support numerous times about this very same problem which has occurred previously when I 'upgraded' from version 3. Four months down the line, they still can't provide me with an answer. I'm so fed up with it that I've already sold 210 of my minidiscs on Ebay and only have about 5 left as the format just isn't usable anymore with such badly written software. A shame, as the hardware is excellent, but there's just too many restrictions placed on the user, even when it does work and I resent being treated like a thief just because I want to listen to music I've bought on another format.