* Prices may differ from that shown
MP3 files have revolutionised the world of distributed music. Not only do the digital .mp3 files take up a lot less room than the CD-Audio format, which of course means that storage is less of a problem, but the file size also lends itself to transmission over the Internet, whether legitimately from music download sites, or from 'peer-to-peer' sites where the sharers of music become the law-breakers, whilst Kazaa and WinMX.com just wring their hands and ask what can they do about it. Another source of personal mp3 music is the process of creating files from sound CDs, known as 'ripping'. This is, not in itself illegal, since you are entitled within the spirit of the law, at least, to back-up your collection in the same way that back-up floppy disks or CD-ROMs of valuable software are permissible. What you can't do, is copy something and then sell either the copy or the original A while back, after retiring early, I started the lengthy process of ripping all my audio CDs to CD-ROM (Why? God knows, but it seemed like a good idea at the time!) This has resulted in whole swathes of my record collection being condensed down to mere single disks. For example, all my Beatles CDs fit on one CD-ROM, admittedly not at full CD-quality, but there or thereabouts. Incidentally, you can opt for different playback qualities during the ripping process. My early attempts were done at a rate of 90 kbps (kilobits per second) which is OK-ish for loading into a pocket MP3 player and going off for a jog, but doesn't really stand up to close aural scrutiny. My later efforts at 192 kbps are to my ear at least, CD quality. Even these larger files (say 3 megabytes per track) are still 10 times smaller than their CD-Audio equivalent, so you can see that the potential for storing on say a 40-gigabyte hard drive is immense (makes mental note - 3 megabytes goes into 40 gigabytes, err, umm, 1.3K times, so this would give scope for the storage of
1300 tracks). There's just one problem with storing your record collection on your PC - it isn't your hi-fi system. Despite the best efforts of Creative Soundblaster and the like, sound cards are NOT hi-fi amps, and since when did hi-fi systems emit fan and motor noise? Now then, if someone were to come up with a scheme for STORING your music on your PC (let's be grand and call it a 'music server' from here on in), whilst at the same time allowing you to play it back in the lounge, devoid of PC noise, and let's say that they chuck in a means of navigating your file structure remotely, that would be a damned fine idea wouldn't it? Well, that's exactly what the Slimp3 does. It's the juke-box you never had, working rather like those pub juke boxes that have remote selectors and a centralised music store. SO WHAT DO YOU GET? The initial kit from Slimp3 gives you the display, which is a neat smoked acrylic-fronted box with two lines of illuminated text used for navigating the filing system and keeping you informed of what's playing, a remote control to...errrr....control it remotely, a LAN patch cord (significant), two phono leads (also significant) and the mains unit. CONNECTING IT The display unit has rear panel connectors for as neat an installation as possible. The height of the display means that it could sit on the top of your hi-fi stack without much trouble, but in view of its tilt and the fact that the box is not very deep at all, it couldn't sit with anything stacked on it. The phono leads connect to a suitable set of spare inputs on your hi-fi amplifier. Bear in mind that if you've ripped all your CD collection, you may find it in your heart to connect it where the CD player USED to be! In theory I could have done this, but there's one CD, which has been nobbled by the record company not to play in a PC, so I can't 'rip' it. It
39;s a pity that Slimp3 doesn't come with a digital output, like DVD players and some CD players do. It just seems a little odd to be at the forefront of digital music and the have the last link in the chain switch back to analogue (OK, I know the speakers and my ears are too!). Apart from the low voltage cable from the mains unit, the only other connection needed is a network connection from your 'server' PC. If you haven't got a network yet, possibly because you have one PC, then this is where Slimp3 is going to cost you some more money on top of its original £210 price label. At the very least, you will need a LAN card (10/100 Network Interface Card) in your PC. At a pinch, you COULD then run network cable all the way to your Slimp3, either as one long cable, or through 'proper' network wiring with wall sockets at both ends. KERCHING! Up goes the price - a card will cost around £10 at least, and the wiring will depend on distance and how neat you want to be. Just remember that for a direct connection like this, a 'crossover' cable is needed, NOT the LAN patch cord supplied by Slimp3. To be fair to their website, www.slimp3.co.uk , they warn you of this. For users already running a LAN (maybe you've got a DSL router/switch to enable more than one PC to use your broadband connection), connection is more straightforward - just run some more wiring to the site of the Slimp3 and connect to a spare port on the router. Like some network printers, which run without a PC, Slimp3 occupies a network IP address, usually generated automatically by the system. WOULDN'T IT BE NICE IF IT WERE WIRELESS? It CERTAINLY would, and it can be made to be, but not directly by Slimp3, although they will sell you the bits to do it. If your LAN already operates using a Wireless Access Point (WAP), to allow for the cordless connection of PCs, then you're in business. You can't just add on anothe
r wireless adapter as you would for an extra PC, because the Slimp3 quite simply isn't a PC, not being capable of being loaded with installation software. However, you can add a 'bridge' adapter. Slimp3 suggest the D-Link DWL-810 offering, priced by them at £98.70, but available from www.dabs.com for less than £70. This kind of adapter works with less intelligent items like stand-alone printers etc To my mind, this really makes Slimp3 come of age, after all it isn't everyone's idea of cosmetic excellence to have the lounge wired as a LAN, although the bridge adapter does bring with it its own power needs, so there goes another mains socket! This combination also requires a crossover cable instead of the patch cable supplied. You begin to wonder if that supplied patch cable will ever get used, apart perhaps from initial testing next to the PC! USING IT To a certain extent, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it, both in terms of bit-rate quality and ease of navigation. It can't make 90 kbps files sound any better, and the lack of background noise through being well away from the PC may make the lack of quality even more evident. The majority of my files are now 192 kbps and these sound fine although classical fans might not think so. The number of files really depends on how much disk space you are willing to donate to this project. Personally, I've dedicated an entire 40 gigabyte D:Drive to it ('RAID-mirrored' for extra security). I'm halfway through the alphabet so far, and less than halfway through my disk space - promising. Since Slimp3 has only two lines of display text to play with, its stands to reason that it can only really navigate 'up/down and sideways'. It therefore behoves the user to make their directory structure as user-friendly as possible. I've adopted the 'Alphabet, Artist, Album, Track' format for my folders. For example, 'Pave
ment Cracks' will be found in L>Annie Lennox>Bare>Pavement Cracks. Once you've 'drilled down' this far, you can of course play whole albums. It wouldn't hurt to have a paper listing of the directory structure in your lounge, after all, what else are you going to do with all that shelf space now the CDs are in the loft? Do NOT put them in a car-boot or garage sale - that is immediately illegal. Think of them as installation disks. One neat little idea I've come up with is what to do with all that music when you want a party compilation, preferably hands-free allowing you to get squiffy and seduce someone, or as the evening drags on, some-THING, possibly a door knob. You simply create a folder in C> called Compilation, and copy the required files to there! Use the 'copy' function though rather than 'cut', otherwise you'll have to find a home for them all over again in the morning, probably with a hangover and divorce proceedings in the offing. Hmmm, Slimp3 would make dividing all the albums an interesting concept that divorce lawyers need to give attention to! Of course, included in Slimp3's PC software comes a web-based browser designed to help cope with your ever-bourgeoning music collection so it may be best to stick with this, since it can assess the locations of all your mp3 files, and note them down for future reference. I guess this also would make any printouts a lot easier to handle. You can even use this to divert 'web radio' to your lounge. OTHER NIFTY BITS You run a separate Slimp3 in several rooms - they can either be 'sync'd-up' to play the same music, saving you running speaker wires to each room, or, and here's the neat bit, they can be accessing totally different files - just keep the doors closed or you'll go mad! CONCLUSION Slimp3 is a brilliant concept that heralds more integration of home computing a
nd entertai nment. Whether you'd want to jump in this early is another matter. It could really do with an alternative version with the wireless option built in, although the cable to the wireless bridge can be as long as you like, so the opportunities to hide it are good. Fancy not providing an optical or co-axial digital output - a lost opportunity there, guys! Personally, I'm a sucker for a gadget, so value for money and other considerations just don't matter when the 'red mist' comes down over my credit card. IF you don't mind shelling out AT LEAST £210*, and IF you already have a wireless LAN, and IF you can donate some serious disk space to the project, and IF you've a large music collection threatening to take over the lounge, then Slimp3 could be for you - but they're big 'IFS' *Yet another example of $US strangely translating into the same number of UK £'s - of course, our price already includes a standardised VAT, whereas US prices tend to be quoted net of tax, since many states differ. Even so, some creative accounting has obviously taken place at the exchange rate desk!
Are you one of those people that like music? Do you have a CD or MP3 collection running away from you? Does it take you so long to find an old record that it's not worth the bother in the first place? This was the case in my household. Apart from the latest record that was doing the rounds at the minute, we just didn't really listen to music other than on the radio. My family is traditionally musical, so I knew that something needed to be done, preferably something suitably electronic, impressive and most importantly, cool. I started looking around the internet and I came by this. The rest, as they say, is history. Okay, that may be going a bit far, but I really like it. ~ what is it? ~ The SLIMP3 (pronounced Slim-P-3, but hereafter affectionately know as Slimpy) is a small device that is connected to your computer via a cable or your existing LAN network if you've got one. From this connection it reads any music that you have got stored on your computer and plays it through either its own set of speakers or your existing sound system. You could put it anywhere, but it is most commonly used as a hi-fi separate . This means that once your music is on your computer you may never need to touch those fragile, expensive CDs again. It also means that your entire music collection, limitless in its volume, is instantly accessible. No more searching through space-consuming CD racks; no more disks in wrong cases, this is the ONLY way to bring your music collection into the twenty-first century, and you certainly won't regret it. ~ physical being ~ There are a couple of products on the market (only a couple) at the momen t that do roughly the same sort of thing as the Slimpy. However, these are all large black boxes that look decidedly unappealing and like just another piece of hi-fi equipment. The Slimpy is certainly not just another piece of hi-fi equipment, so it is jolly good that it doesn't look l
ike one. Its proportions are tiny compared to its peers. A small rectangular box tilted about 30 degrees upwards by an elegant glass frame. Covering pretty much the whole of the front is a large fluorescent white-on-black VFD display. This is by far the best on the market. It can be read from across the room easily, especially thanks to the option to display large text. All other competitors are left cowering in the corner, hiding their pathetic backlight LCD affairs. As the official website (www.slimp3.com) says, this is where a lot of the Slimpy's budget was spent ? a very wise decision indeed. What?s the point of putting you entire musical library onto a device if you cannot even see the whole title of a song on the display? The other physical aspect to the Slimpy is its remote control, a stylish, compact black-grey affair. There are no buttons on the device itself, to maintain small size and minimalist design I think. Therefore everything is controlled from the remote (or your computer, but I'll get that later), and so luckily it's a very good one. That said, it is still just a remote control and there is not much more to talk about, so, moving on? ~ computer connections ~ The Slimpy cannot work if it is not plugged into your computer. You can do this in a variety of ways; if you have a Local Area Network it would probably be most convenient to hook it up to that, if you don?t, you can connect it directly to your computer with a crossed network cable. This plugs into the RJ-45 network port on your computer and into a similar one on the back of the Slimpy. The main selling point of the Slimpy is the fact that it liberates the music on your comp uter to the rest of the house, and so you need to make sure that you have enough wire in order to achieve this. I think it is possible to connect it to your computer via your telephone extensions, but I do not use this method myself. Although this may seem complicated, it took me the
best part of fifteen minutes to set the whole system up. ~ how does it work? ~ Well, the first thing to know is that the device itself does not store any of the music itself. It is stored on your computer, and using the network connection the Slimpy reads the music off your computer. But how does this music get there in the first place? Any sound file can be converted into mp3 format with the supplied software and thus played on the Slimpy. This could be music that you've recorded yourself, downloaded from the internet or, primarily, 'ripped' onto your computer from a CD. This process does not need a CD burner, or any other hardware than a CD-ROM drive. This is where you extract the musical data on the disk and make a copy of it on the hard disk on your computer. This can be done to a variety of quality settings; lowest quality is a much faster process and takes up far less memory, but when you come to play this on the Slimpy the sound will be obviously worse than if you record it on a higher setting. The playback quality on the Slimpy itself is superb. ~ interface ~ There are two main interfaces on the Slimpy. The first is on the box itself. The bright fluorescent display is a joy to behold, and this immediately gives the menu system an advantage. It is amazingly easy to navigate and you can access any track within a few seconds. What I like about it is that you can navigate around the menus as one song is playing, and once you find another you can either wait for the first song to finish, or you could just play it straight away - the Slimpy can multitask (to an extent). The other interface is on your computer. You install the S limpy server program which acts as an organiser for all your tracks, a base camp for all operations. Set in an attractive black-grey colour scheme the screen is split in half - the right is a "Now Playing" area, which provides information on the song currently playing a
s well as listing the other songs on that particular album or playlist. The left division is where you can search through and organise all your songs, a general working area. It is very easily navigable and easy to get the hang of, and a very powerful piece of software. The software for this is written in Pearl so I'm assured that it is very easy to hack into and customise. Although I am quite a technical person, I cannot say that I would be particularly confident doing this sort of thing, but many people have, and if you are that sort of person, it?s another feature that you?d be thankful for. The powerful server program can individually control over a dozen Slimp3s from one computer and one library of music, playing the same or different songs simultaneously from just one program. There is also the potential from the web configurability function to control your Slimpy from any internet-accessing computer in the world. Quite why I am not sure, but it may come in handy. Erm? ~ other features ~ There is a variety of other features that the Slimpy has for you to take advantage of. The first, and probably the function you're most appreciative of, would be playlists. These are lists of any songs that you choose in any order you want, handpicked by you. You could have a 'rainy-day' playlist, a 'holiday' playlist, all groups of songs with nothing more in common than the fact that (a) you like them and (b) they put you in a particular mood. The can edit them, add to them, take them away, anything that you want - it is completely unlimited. Another feature is that you can listen to internet radio directly through your Slimpy, and with a plug?in you can also listen and record digital radio. ~ preparing for your SLIMP3 ~ A Slimp3 is a complicated device that does a complicated job. However, the very nature of this job means that you have to put a lot into it to get a lot out of it - it is not something
that you can just plug in and enjoy. Obviously, the most part of this preparation is organising your music library. The first thing to do is to collect all your digital music and save it in one designated directory. Make sure that you are very strict about the format that you give them (which order you put artist/album/track title etc), as well as making sure that you?ve spelt all names correctly. What the Slimpy server does is look through your music directory, picking up any compatible files and remembering the filing structure that you?ve given them. Although this is very clever technology, it is still a computer, so beware; at first in my 'Artists' list I had two different entries; "Simon and Garfunkel" and "Simon & Garfunkel". Get what I mean? I would recommend this structure; Music>Genre>Artist>Album>Track. The Slimpy takes this into account, remembering where you?ve put everything, thus enabling you to search by genre, artist, album and tracks accordingly. This makes it all the more easy for you to find what you're looking for. Beware though, although the system works superbly for pop music, classical music that requires a lot more information (eg composer/work/movement/conductor/orchestra rather than just artist/album/track) may need you to ?tweak? the software if you want to be super-organised. ~ advantages and disadvantages of computerised music ~ As above, a lot of people would call having to load and organise all of your music into your computer a hassle, and so mark the Slimpy down by it. However, I feel that this is justified for a variety of reasons. For starters, you buy an album, load it onto your computer and then archive i t away in pristine condition, no scratches and wear-and-tear on the booklet, only resurfacing 50 years later to be sold as an antique. Secondly, it means that you always have a copy of your music, which means that you needn't have to go out and buy a second CD if th
e first is lost. Thirdly, if you have a digital copy of your music in the house, you can move your favourite CDs to places like your car, so you'll always have a good collection of listening material in places where you previously didn't. However, there are a few disadvantages to having your music on your computer. Primarily, it takes up a lot of space, which can bog down the computer. Even so, on the very highest quality you will get ten albums onto a gigabyte of hard disk space ? a £100 120GB disk will store 1,200 albums or around 14,400 top-quality tracks, and with prices coming down and down this really isn't that much of an issue. Also there's the time factor ? recording a top-quality CD will probably take 45 processor-intense minutes, but, as I've said, this is in my opinion a small price to pay. ~ comparison to similar devices ~ The Slimp3 is the latest take on a gadget that fits the basic criterion of putting all your music onto easily - organised MP3 format in a hifi rather than a personal unit. There are a few other devices out there, but only one other main competitor is open to sales in the UK; the Turtle Beach Audiotron. This has already been reviewed a couple of times, and is in fact getting on for a year old. The choice between the two machines was fairly simple for me; whereas the Audiotron in fact runs Windows CE, the Slimp3 runs software written 100% just for it - and it is completely customizable, something that the Audiotron certainly isn't. The Slimp3 is compatible to ANY modern OS, the AT is unsurprisingly limited to Windows users. As I've said before, the Slimp3's screen is a million times better for practical use than the A T's, and the Slimp3 benefits from a superb design - whereas the AT is a sombre black rectangular hifi unit, the Slimp3 is so elegantly versatile (and a heck of a lot smaller) it would not look out of place in a bedroom, kitchen or even garage. Also, the song c
apacity of the Slimp3 is truly unlimited, the AT can handle a maximum of 30,000 tracks. Finally, the Slimp3 is priced at $230, even though it is a relatively new release. The most basic model of the AT (one that will only work on an Ethernet connection) is still $300 although over a year old. Easy decision! ~ conclusion ~ "Like any great technological innovation, the SLIMP3 came about from two guys in a garage." Slim Devices, the company that make it are very new and very small. Therefore, their customer service is great, their product is great and the price is right. $230 is superb value for money, and the company had no qualms in delivering to the UK. In the two weeks of ownership I have had absolutely no problems with it, but thanks to the many customer testimonials (www.slimp3.com) even if I did I am reassured that it would be taken care of. Are you one of those people that like music? Yes? Then buy one of these.