July 31, 2006
If the iPod had Wi-Fi built in and didn't need iTunes, it would probably be the Gremlin.
Price: $299.99 (MSRP)
Pros: Downloads music over a WLAN, no PC required; built-in FM radio
Cons: Doesn't support WPA encryption; no equalizer; Web site doesn't support Firefox
If music is at all important to you, you probably keep an iPod or another portable music device within close reach to satisfy your musical cravings. But if downloading music on your PC and then synchronizing it with your portable device seems oh so 2002, you might want to take a look at MusicGremlin.
In the context of a technology product, the word gremlin has a decidedly negative connotation as the malevolent and ethereal force behind a variety of maddening system problems. The gremlin we're talking about here, though, uses its powers for good: instead of requiring a PC as an intermediary, MusicGremlin lets you download music to a portable device (which they call the Gremlin) directly from that series of tubes we know as the Internet all via built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi.
The $299.99 Gremin, clad in glossy black plastic, measures 4.0 x 2.4 x 0.8 (HWD, in inches). It's not a large device, but it is somewhat thicker than most digital music players (including a 60GB iPod). Weight is another matter, though: just looking at it, you'd think the Gremlin was a lot heavier than the 4.2 ounces with which it tips the scales. It feels feather-light.
The Gremlin sports 8GB of storage capacity courtesy of its internal hard drive. And it's quiet it doesn't exhibit the faint hum or vibration you typically get with hard drive based devices. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear it used flash memory. Another nice feature of the unit is a bright two-inch color LCD display. Although its 220 x 176 resolution is a bit low by the standards of most portable devices these days (again, think the current video iPod), it's more than sufficient to clearly display the Gremlin's menus.
You navigate those menus with a large four-way directional pad surrounding an action button, but the Gremlin puts play/pause, rewind/fast-forward and volume buttons on the right side of the unit. I didn't mind the unconventional location of these controls, but left-handed users might find their placement awkward. The power button -- which can also lock the controls -- is on the opposite side of the device. The Gremlin comes with earbuds that plug into the top of the unit, while the bottom sports line-in and USB 2.0 ports along with a jack for the included AC adapter.
That adapter charges the Gremlin's internal rechargeable battery, which the company says will last 10 hours (when Wi-Fi isn't being used). We got around 7 hours out of it with Wi-Fi turned on a significant portion of the time. The battery, which is not user-serviceable, takes about two hours to recharge from dry (it might take less if the Gremlin's backlight didn't remain on while charging, which it does, even if the unit is switched off).
Before you can use your Gremlin, you need to first register the device and create an account, which you can do at the company's Web site (www.musicgremlin.com) or via the device itself. The company's online music store, MusicGremlin Direct, gives you two purchase options: set up an unlimited download account for $14.99 per month, or opt to buy music a la carte, usually at $.99 per track. If you want to retain permanent ownership of a downloaded song, you must choose the a la carte option and pay the a la carte price for a song even if you're on the monthly plan -- otherwise, you'll have access to it only as long as you're a MusicGremlin subscriber.
Accessing Wireless Networks
Connecting the Gremlin to a wireless network is pretty straightforward. The most time-consuming part is entering an encryption key via the directional keys, which is always tedious whenever you don't have the benefit of a keyboard. Unfortunately, the Gremlin doesn't support WPA encryption (only WEP). It's hard to believe that years after WPA became ubiquitous there are still wireless media devices coming out that don't support it (sadly, the Gremlin is hardly alone).
A green icon lights up over the left corner of the display to remind you that you're successfully connected. You can disable the wireless connection to save battery power when you're not downloading music.
The Gremlin's lack of WPA support is irksome, but it probably won't matter much if you plan to use the device mainly on unencrypted networks and free hotspots. If you use WPA at home, you'll have to download music to your PC first via the MusicGremlin Web site and then transfer it to your MusicGremlin.
One caveat: although we could browse for music using Firefox, you need Internet Explorer in order to preview or download any tunes on the MusiGremlin.com site.
Finding, Downloading and Playing Music
Of course, the entire point of the Gremlin is to get music without using a PC, and on that front the device does a pretty good job. In general, the Gremlin's interface is easy to work with, but it would benefit from a pair of soft keys (like the kind you find in most PDAs and mobile phones) to move between features with a bit less menu traversal.
MusicGremlin Direct boasts 2 million tracks available for purchase (just music -- no books or other audio content), and you can search directly from the Gremlin by artist, track, album or genre. Using up and down direction keys obviously isn't the ideal way to enter alphanumeric characters for searches, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it well enough to be efficient, if not adept.
When you find something you want to download, pressing the action button will add it to the Gremlin's Download Manager queue. Although you can preview songs before buying from a PC, you unfortunately can't do the same thing from the Gremlin. You can reorder or remove individual items in your queue at any time, and the Gremlin will automatically download your items whenever it finds itself connected to a network.
The Gremlin doesn't have to be connected to a wireless network for you to search for songs or add them to your queue. This also makes the search process instantly responsive, since the data is all local on the unit. If it's been a while since you've been online, the Gremlin may insist on downloading the most recent list of available music before letting you search.
In addition to searching for specific tracks or albums, you can also browse through a few dozen Gremlists -- themed playlists that MusicGremlin creates and regularly updates. When you select a Gremlist, its contents are automatically added to your download queue. These are an all-or-nothing proposition, however: you can't pick and choose individual tracks to download from a Gremlist.
The Gremlin can play either purchased audio or your own tracks in either MP3 or WMA format (including DRM-protected Windows Media files, which is what you get when you purchase music from MusicGremlin Direct). On your PC, you can use Windows Media Player 10 (which requires Windows XP) to play your music and synchronize with your Gremlin using the included USB cable.
Sound quality from the included ear buds is quite good, but unlike many portable music devices, the Gremlin doesn't include an equalizer for you to fine-tune the sound for different music types. It does include an FM radio that gets good reception (the earbud cable serves as the antenna).
Should you ever grow weary of listening to your own music collection, the Gremlin gives you a number of other options. Perhaps the most interesting is its community feature, which lets Gremlin users publish their music libraries to a central directory that other Gremlin users can browse and access via wireless. (You must be a monthly subscriber to use this feature.)
If there happen to be other Gremlins nearby, you can choose to connect to them via an ad-hoc wireless link to exchange content. In this mode, however, you can't play any of the songs you've acquired until you first connect to MusicGremlin Direct to obtain the appropriate licenses.
If you prefer to keep your tunes to yourself, you can turn off the community features on your Gremlin, or choose to only share information with specific users you've added to a buddy list.
It's got a few weaknesses, but MusicGremlin nevertheless manages to be a fairly innovative device/service combo that's an interesting alternative to a conventional PC-centric music player. The company says WPA support and an equalizer will be available as a free upgrade sometime in the fall.
If you like the idea of sharing music with others or just being able to download new music when you're nowhere near your computer, you'll find the MusicGremlin worth your consideration.