Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

The Wireless Factor: A Challenge to the iPod

How do you dislodge Apple’s mighty iPod music player, and its popular iTunes music service, from their total dominance in the digital-music market? Numerous hardware companies and music services — most backed by Apple’s historic rival, Microsoft — have tried, and failed, with all sorts of approaches.

Some contenders were cheaper. Others had built-in features the iPod lacked, like FM radios. Some had more capacity, or greater battery life. Others relied on monthly subscriptions instead of per-song fees. But the public has mainly yawned, and none of these approaches has gained any traction.

Today, a small New York City company called MusicGremlin Inc. is rolling out a fresh approach to denting the iPod hegemony: the wireless music player. Its new $299 Gremlin portable player has built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, so it can download songs from an accompanying subscription service directly, without requiring the use of a personal computer.

Not only that, but Gremlin users can wirelessly exchange entire songs right from their players, legally, as long as both the sender and receiver are subscribers to the MusicGremlin Direct service, which costs $14.99 a month. This process, called “beaming,” allows you to share songs with your Gremlin-toting pals, no matter where they are, without ever using a computer or a CD burner. You can even peer into other users’ Gremlins to see what they’re playing and what they’ve downloaded, and pluck any song you like from their devices, if they give you permission.

The Gremlin is available today at Amazon.com, and the company’s own Web site, musicgremlin.com. While it doesn’t require a computer, the Gremlin can synchronize with a PC, but this only works with Windows machines. Its Web site requires Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser and Windows Media Player for full functionality. The subscription service, which is optional, is free for the first month and offers unlimited downloads from a catalog of two million songs, about the same size as Apple Computer‘s catalog.

We’ve been testing the Gremlin player and the MusicGremlin service, and we like them. The experience of downloading new music from the palm of your hand and sharing it legally with others is refreshing and fun, and can’t be done on our trusty iPods. Plus, MusicGremlin is one of the few iPod competitors we’ve encountered that shares Apple’s strong dedication to a smooth, end-to-end experience, where the hardware, software and online service work seamlessly.

However, this first version of the Gremlin has some major rough spots, in its user interface and in its wireless behavior, that detract from the experience and can get downright annoying. The company promises to fix these, but some other limitations can’t be repaired as easily. For instance, the magic doesn’t work if you aren’t in range of a Wi-Fi network you can use. And limitations imposed on MusicGremlin by the record labels mean that you can’t share certain kinds of songs, including legally obtained MP3 files that you transfer to the Gremlin from your computer.

Also, for $299, the Gremlin holds far less music than the $299 base model of the full-size iPod — just eight gigabytes, or 2,000 songs, versus 30 gigabytes, or 7,500 songs, for the $299 iPod.

The Gremlin player is a rather plain, black, chunky-looking device with none of the visual sex appeal of the iPod. It’s the same width as the base $299 model of the full-size iPod, but slightly shorter and thicker, at 0.76 inches, versus 0.43 inches for the iPod. At four ounces, it’s lighter than the iPod (which weighs 4.8 ounces).

The Gremlin’s color screen is smaller than the iPod’s — two inches, versus Apple’s 2.5 inches. And, instead of Apple’s excellent scroll wheel, the Gremlin uses a clumsier five-way navigation pad, like the ones on some cellphones. The Gremlin’s volume and playback controls are on its side. Battery life is 10 hours, versus 14 hours for the similar-size iPod.

Unlike the iPod, the Gremlin can’t display photos or videos. It can technically play back podcasts or audiobooks, but no podcasts and only a few audiobooks are yet available on the MusicGremlin service. It does include an FM radio, which the iPod lacks.

In our tests, the wireless features worked well — when we were able to get wireless connectivity. We could pick from the service’s huge catalog and download songs at will. The device shows you how many songs are queued up for downloading and reports on its progress in fetching them. If you lose the Wi-Fi connection, the process pauses and resumes later when you’re connected again.

We were also able to send and receive songs via beaming. We saw a list of other users and could easily send them songs and receive beams, giving permission each time.

But the Gremlin often told us it couldn’t find a wireless network, even when we were just a few feet from a Wi-Fi base station that laptops in the room located easily. And, in order to save battery power, the Wi-Fi feature shuts itself off frequently. It can be slow to come back and sometimes doesn’t come back at all.

On one occasion, when we were sitting next to each other with our test Gremlins, the devices couldn’t see each other, because the Wi-Fi on one or the other device had turned off automatically and wasn’t coming back up.

A last-minute software upgrade yesterday improved some of this wireless behavior, but the company acknowledges that more work is needed. (The device can be quickly upgraded by the company with bug fixes and new features, over the wireless network.)

The Mossberg Solution

The Gremlin won’t work with some commercial Wi-Fi hot spots, which require a Web browser to connect. But it comes with the built-in ability to connect to T-Mobile’s large network of Wi-Fi hot spots, if you have a T-Mobile account and enter your account information into the Gremlin.

The user interface is much clumsier than an iPod’s. This is partly because there are more functions, like downloading, and the community-sharing capabilities. But some things aren’t well thought out. For instance, it’s not obvious how you get the song-playing display, which shows the album cover, to stay on-screen for more than a few seconds.

To pick a song out of a list, you have to laboriously enter letters of the alphabet using the down arrow, and many functions require lots of arrow clicks and navigating fly-out submenus. Again, the company promises to improve some of this navigation.

We easily synchronized music from our computers to the Gremlin, using a Windows PC and Windows Media Player. You can also view the Gremlin as an added disk on your Windows PC and just drag and drop files between the Gremlin and your hard disk. Only the latter method allows you to copy subscription songs from the Gremlin to the PC.

One really cool feature is the MusicGremlin Web site, which not only allows downloading of songs to either a Gremlin player or a PC, but automatically displays a list of all the subscription songs on your Gremlin.

Both the Web site, and the Gremlin itself, offer you the option of purchasing songs outright, for 99 cents each, just as on Apple’s iTunes service. Unlike the subscription downloads, these songs don’t expire if you end your subscription.

In fact, you could buy a Gremlin and decline to join the MusicGremlin Direct subscription service, just filling your Gremlin with purchased tunes or songs transferred from your PC. But you’d lose the community feature of the Gremlin, because only subscription songs can be shared.

Despite its drawbacks, the MusicGremlin player and service are a great idea done pretty well. There’s nothing else like them in the marketplace, and they represent a fresh approach to challenging the iPod. For some people, a system that cuts out the need for a PC and allows legal sharing of songs may just be the perfect iPod alternative. But the company will have to file off the Gremlin’s rough edges if it’s to succeed.


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