Reg Review I've wondered, in the past, how small solid state digital music players could get, but I'm starting to have to ask the same question of hard drive-based machines. Apple's iPod Mini is sleek enough, but Creative's rival product, the MuVo2 comes very close.
Both pack a 4GB Hitachi hard drive, making for ultra compact sizes: the Muvo is 6.7×6.7×2cm, the iPod Mini is 9×5×1.3cm. The iPod Mini has almost half the volume of the MuVo, but the Creative player wins on weight: 90.7g to 102.1g.
Of course, there is one big difference between the MuVo and the iPod Mini: in the UK, at least, you can buy a Muvo. Consumers won't see the Apple product until July. And it hardly been easy to lay your hands on in the US, it seems.
While Creative's Jukebox line of hard drive players remain rather clunky and aesthetically unappealing (see El Reg's review of the Jukebox Zen Xtra), the company's solid-state units are rather more attractive. I like the look the the MuVo line and it's good to see that looks are also one of the MuVo2 traits.
The player is small, square and fits neatly in your hand, a little like a large pager. It feels solid but not heavy. The front is shiny black, the rest Creative's usual matt silver finish. On the front is the backlit LCD, a slim two-line job of the kind Creative already uses in the MuVo NX. Below it, to the right are the player's sole controls: a five-way navigation wheel - at last, no jog dial! - and the Play/Pause button that doubles up as the on/off switch.
The 1cm wheel combines the player's volume and Fast Forward/Rewind/Track Skip controls. Push it and you call up the player's menu. Unlike the tiny joystick found on Rio's players, it's easy to push the wrong part of the wheel, particularly if you use your thumb, which the control's position encourages, whether you're left- or right-handed. But it's not difficult to get the hang of and, for me, a big improvement on the jog dial.
On the top of the player, you'll find the headphone socket, USB 2.0 port and the power connector. The latter feeds the MuVo's rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery. Like the Jukebox Zen Xtra, the MuVo's battery is removable, allowing you to slot in a spare when you're out and about, and the main cell drains. Unlike the Xtra, the MuVo's battery fits snugly under a hatch on the back the of player that likewise latches solidly onto the body of the device. In fact, the MuVo shows how Creative should have implemented this feature on the more expensive machine.
The USB 2.0 connector makes for rapid file transfers, either by drag and drop, or using Creative's own music manager application. The MuVo mounts as a USB Mass Storage device, so you can copy any kind of file over, using any OS that supports that medium. I used Creative's own hard-to-find (you can get it here) Mac OS X-based Nomad plug-in for iTunes, to copy over the test tracks. Even on my year-old USB 1.1 12in PowerBook G4, the songs went over remarkably quickly, testament perhaps to the performance of Hitachi's 4GB hard drive.
Un-mounting the MuVo forces it to restart and to run its integrated disk scan software. It can't repair the drive if it tracks an error - it warns you to connect the player to a Windows PC and run ScanDisk if it finds something amiss.
The MuVo loads a song into RAM when it's selected. The Hitachi drive is remarkably quiet, but by putting the unit up against your ear you can hear the drive spin up, seek and send the requested data, then power down and park the heads. Unlike the iPod Mini's 32MB anti-skip buffer which is enough for a good chunk of an album, the MuVo fires up the hard drive at the start of every song, suggesting it has a much smaller buffer size. Skip forward through the song, and you'll hear the same thing. Ditto skipping to the next song, and back again.
That said, the anti-skip mechanism certainly does the job, and despite some pretty frenzied shaking I wasn't able to interrupt the playback. You might think that constantly firing up the hard drive would hit the battery life, but Creative has managed to tune its power management system very nicely. Our tests, based on the constant playback of 100-odd MP3s (a mix of 160Kbps and 128Kbps tracks) yielded a very impressive battery life of well over 15 hours.