* Prices may differ from that shown
Imagine being able to carry around entire music collection (as long as your CD collection doesn't number more than 384 CDs), play any track in crystal clear quality and not having to worry about recharging for 10 hours. And we're not talking a five strong personal entourage, a stereo system and a portable generator, this is all available in one handy size device. Now your thinking this sounds like science fiction, something you see in a segment on Tomorrows World and don?t see in the shops for another ten years, but no, the Personal Jukebox or PJB-100 (PJB to its friends) can do all this and much more. The PJB is a portable mass storage MP3 player, which uses a laptop computer hard disk drive as a storage medium instead of the solid state memory cards used by most other MP3 players that have at most 256MB capacity, which is less than one seventieth of the lowest capacity PJB. Its effectively skip-proof, it uses temporary memory to store between 8 and 12 minutes of music (depending on the encoded bit rate) and only when it needs to replenish this does it spin up the hard drive, read in the MP3 data and then shutdown the hard drive. It also uses USB to communicate with your computer, which can be running either Windows (at least Windows 98), Linux or Macintosh OS, for increased transfer speed and has a very useful feature, the player itself can encode a complete CD straight from your CD-ROM player to the PJB in a matter of minutes. The onboard MP3 encoder was designed and developed by can Fraunhofer IIS, the inventors of the MP3 compression technique, and can encode music at between 64 Kb/s and 320 Kb/s with the default being 128 Kb/s, which is equivalent to CD quality. This encoder has been designed "so that the original structure and timing of the recording is retained" this means that if you encode a CD containing a live performance or classical recording the playback will be gapless like the original recording, unlike many other MP3 players which add annoying gaps between tracks. If you already have MP3s encoded on your computer or download them from the internet, these can also easily be downloaded to the PJB without the need for re-encoding. All this means that PJB is compatible with most computers, which is a definite advantage, and means that no matter how you current listen to music it can be transferred to the PJB with relative ease. The PJB organises its contents using a three tier system, a number of sets, which can contain a number of discs, that in turn can contain a number of tracks. This allows for a fairly rigid structure, one of the downsides to the PJB's design, although you could have sets for Rock, Pop and Dance with discs named Artist/Title and then each individual track OR you could have sets for Artists with discs named after each of the artist's albums and then each individual track. The supplied Jukebox Manager software (JBM) is used to transfer music to the PJB and allows you to organise it. This is the one piece of the PJB package which is a real disappointment, basically because it isn't very user friendly, nor is it a slick piece of software, but it does what it sets out to do (just!). The software provides a Windows Explorer style interface to the contents of PJB that allows you to remove or rename discs, sets and tracks and move discs and tracks around. Also when you are encoding CDs or anytime afterwards you can use the JBM and CDDB (so an Internet connection is required to this) to inset track information for CDs, without all that boring typing. Using the JBM you can also create playlists, using a copy and paste method to create a copy of a particular track(s) in another disc, allowing you to create your top 20 Rock track from all the rock albums on your PJB or your own ultimate Beatles disc - without any real limit on the number of tracks. Installing the JBM is straight forward, but the supplied instruction for installing the PJB driver under each operating system should be followed step by step, as this process can cause problems. The sound quality of the PJB, while dependent on the source MP3s, is amazing and crystal clear, while this is perhaps a rather subjective area, to me even when encoded at 128 Kb/s the output is superior to any portable CD player I've ever heard. The PJB display, a large LCD display (128x68 pixels), has seven interactive fields, the current set, disc and track, Play mode, Order mode, Tone mode and the Time mode. The Play mode, which can be either This Track, This Disc, This Set or Everything, and Order mode, which can be either Sequential, Repeat, Shuffle, Shuffle Discs (randomly play each disc in a set with the tracks played sequentially), combine to provides a number of different options for playback. The Tone mode allows you to set how much bass your hear, either Normal, Extra Bass and Super Bass. While the Time mode allows you to choose what is displayed in the time counter, either Track (how long the track has been playing), Track Left (how long it will take to finish playing the track), Disc or Disc Left. These interactive fields are navigated using the up and down buttons and changed using the left and right buttons, with the play/pause and stop buttons used to control play back. The volume button controls the digital playback volume and also acts like the play/pause button when pressed. There is also a browse while playing mode, activated by pressing and holding the play/pause button, which allows you to browse the contents of the PJB and select the next track to play without effecting the currently playing track. This means that the PJB is very easy to navigate and provides a method of playback to suit every one, you can build numerous playlist, randomly play tracks from a possible selection of thousands, or simply play your favourite CDs one after another. The PJB was originally available with a 4.6 GB drive, but is now available with either a 6GB drive, which provided a capacity of about 100 hours (encoded at 128 Kb/s) or 125/150 CDs, or a 20GB drive, which provides a capacity of 320 hours or 320/350 CDs, and all new models now come with a backlight for the LCD display. The PJB measures 150 x 80 x 26 millimetres, now that?s about the size of two and a bit cigarette packets and a lot less that a portable CD player and 125 CDs, and it weight about 300 grams. Now its true to say that its bigger than solid state MP3 players, for example the Rio brand, but it is easily pocket size and is definitely a pocket rocket when it comes to features and sound. The PJB comes in a choice of three colours, Titanium (silver), Black or Transparent Blue (allows you to see inside the unit). I think this is one area where the PJB is let down, although my blue PJB looks great, people only go WOW when you tell them that its capacity is 20 GB ? it doesn?t look like the technological marvel it truly is. The PJB comes with a host of accessories, these include the adjustable Koss portaPro headphones which are super-comfortable, produce a really clean crisp sound and I just adore (apparently the mysterious screw on the side of the left ear piece was originally designed to allow a boom mike to be attached to headphones!), a CD-ROM with the JBM & manual, an international external power adapter, a shielded USB cable, a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery (this type of rechargeable battery does not have any memory, so it can be recharged at any time without effecting is overall capacity), a headphone to RCA jacks cable (to connect the PJB to your stereo), a cassette deck adapter and a cigarette lighter power adapter (these last two together make an instant in-car kit!). In short you get everything you need to get started, apart from the music, there?s no need to buy loads of extras to get the best out of this device ? it?s great straight from the box! Many of the features described within this OP are only possible by applying a firm ware upgrade (depending on the version currently being shipped on release), this simply means upgrading the software contained within the PJB, which is done by simply downloading a small file from a web site (see www.pjb.com for the latest firmware) and using the JBM to upload the file to the PJB. This may sound complicated, but believe me it?s a three step process that offers real advances that have consistently improved the PJB over the last two years and made it the almost perfect portable audio device. Oh, and the other thing to mention is that the firmware upgrade are free, all you need is an internet connection and about 5 or 10 minutes and if you buy and register with pjbox.co.uk they will even email you when there is a new upgrade becomes available. Another clear advantage of the PJB over other similar MP3 players is the possibility for hardware upgrades, those with a 6 GB drive can upgrade to 20 GB. You can do this yourself or have it done by a reseller, such as pjbox.co.uk. It also possible to install a 30 GB drive, although the resellers are only just starting to offer this service (the 20 GB upgrade been available for a while), and a 40 GB is also in the pipeline. It is important to note that only certain hard drives are compatible and doing the upgrade yourself invalidates your warranty. Now the one thing which I am sure you?ll be thinking by now is how much is this going to cost, well it isn't cheep and as I'm sure you've heard before, when it comes to this type of device, you really do get what you pay for. The 6 GB version cost £429, while the 20 GB version cost £529. Now when you take into account how much you pay per hour of music (capacity), for a typical MP3 player its about £50/£100, a 6 GB PJB its about £4 and a 20 GB its actually less than £2. So the PJB is a serious portable audio player for a serious music enthus iast, its not something to buy lightly, but is well worth the price ? real value for money. Another great feature of the PJB, which is free even before you buy one, is the User Group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pjb100, it provides great peer level support to both novices and the long time owner with a problem. The group even includes those who actually designed the PJB and are involved with the firmware upgrades, which means that suggestions and discussions within the user group have had real effects on how this product has developed. As well as advice and suggestions from the horses mouth, so to speak. An interesting thing that has come out of this exchange of ideas was the enabling of two-way transfer which basically means that the MP3 (in fact any files) can be downloaded from the PJB back to your computer. This is great for backing up purposes, no need to re-encoded all those CDs if there?s any problem with your PJB, and means that the PJB can act like a portable hard drive which you can use to upload and download any files you want, not just MP3 files. When Compaq took the enlightened decision to open the client side of the PJB software, the functionality provided by the JBM, to the public it provided a real boost to the product and an avenue for a solution to most users problems ? the JBM. Following many months of development various third party replacements for the JBM have materialised, firstly there is MP3Loader (http://www.mp3loader.com/), a commercially developed, well designed and executed product (that is what the JBM should have been), very useful for mass uploading MP3s from you computer. Then there is pjbExplorer (www.presstoday.com/pjb), another well designed tool, this is free and is basically the Swiss army pen knife for the PJB owner, everything you could need is available with this product and most of them work very effectively. However, both of these products are only available for Windows, others are available for Linux and the Mac, but as I don?t need to use them, I don?t have any experience to give an opinion on them. Although when the PJB first appeared in the marketplace it had no real competition, its nearest rival could hold at most 128 MB, it does now have a hand full of rivals. The first is the Creative Nomad Jukebox, it main strength is it cost half the price of the PJB, but it isn't even half as good. The sound quality of the Nomad is nowhere near as good, it takes an age to start-up, navigation is very unfriendly, battery life is about half of the PJB and its display is tiny compared to the PJB. This time its not the corporate media giant that has developed the best, this time it?s the small research group that came out on top. Then there?s the Archos Jukebox 6000, this player seems to have been designed to make navigation as complicated it can possibly be, it is probably faster in the upload department than the PJB (both use USB), its playback options are limited - it only shuffles within sets not everything like the PJB, the sound quality is good but does not beat the PJB by any means and the build quality of this player leaves a little to be desired. Finally, the new kid on the block is the iPod, a Mac only device which is smaller than the PJB, uses the faster Firewire for uploads, and looks very slick. Few people have actually heard one of these players yet and there are only rumours that a Windows or Linux interface COULD be developed, so this could be a problem if you don?t have a Mac. Hopefully most people have reached this part of the OP, I know it long, but I feel the PJB deserved this much in-depth coverage to put its cost into perspective. A simple list of features would not have been enough, the PJB really is value for money, right down to the perfect Koss headphones. I don't now how I survived without my PJB. Well I do, I either had to make do with one of the CDs I had in my bag or else listen to some thing I wasn't really in the mood for. The fact that the PJB is virtually skip proof means you can run, jump and even drop it and it won't miss a beat. It towers above those wimpy MP3 players that come with 32MB as standard and beats its nearest rivals with sound quality, build and ease of use. The firmware and hardware upgrades that continue to become available prove the commitment to this cutting edge product and enhancements insure its place as a market leader. While the PJB may ship with client software, the JBM, which isn't up to scratch, free and not so free alternatives are available that provide all the tools you could need. It doesn't have the ability to build playlist on the fly or bookmarks for long tracks, these features could be in a future firmware upgrade, and the User Group provides a place to make a case for such features. All this illustrates the point that this is a portable audio player, not just an MP3 player, for life (well for a good while yet). ***** UPDATE ***** A new commercial 40GB version is now available and for those brave of heart & steady of hand a 60GB capacity can be achieved by doing a (simple) DIY upgrade. Check the newsgroup detailed above for more details. (Also for all you non-members, why not join and rate this review or leave a comment).