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2008-05-29My review: SumVision SnowFox XT-105 SD card MP3 player

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The quest for an ideal MP3 player continues. The cheap Uxcell ones are still going, and last for a couple of days' use on a full charge, but I don't always know when I'm going to want to use a portable player. Too much of the time one just stays in a bag whilst the NiCD battery goes flat.

So I decided to look for something that:

- is cheap enough that I don't feel bad about losing/breaking it;
- runs off normal batteries, so I can choose whether to use rechargeables or not;
- supports shuffle/random play, plus ideally folder navigation;
- has at least average battery life and sound quality.

My requirements for portable music fall into two categories: there's stuff I listen to as whole albums, and stuff I listen to as stray tracks. And there are a few of ways to approach this; find something with plenty of capacity (2Gb+) that not only supports folder navigation but will play random tracks within a directory rather than just the player as a whole, selecting that folder when I feel like a shuffled selection, use multiple disposable-grade players, or get something that allows you to change a memory card.

SumVision's SnowFox XT-105 debuted at about £24 (this one was a quarter of that, retail seems to be £13 currently) back when 512Mb SD cards cost upwards of ten quid, so it appears to max out at 1Gb cards (the Simplified Physical Layer Specification 1.0 rather than 1.01, the latter of which allows up to 4Gb.) Getting those will only become trickier, but for now a pair of 1Gb cards can be had from Play.com for £7 — only fractionally less than a pair of 2Gb cards, admittedly, but 1Gb equals over 300 tracks at 128kbps VBR and well over 15hrs of music per card. As Apple are well aware, a gig is fine for most of the people who don't want their entire library with them at all times — they're still flogging iPod shuffles of that capacity for over thirty quid.

(As is usually the case with me, prices noted include postage.)

I've cursed players for not having it in the past, but folder navigation isn't important when dealing with albums I like all of the tracks of... merging them into single files for quick navigation is what I'll be doing, plus I'll be reducing the bitrate and number of channels anyway (mono is ideal since I only use one earphone most of the time when listening on the move, the better to avoid cars.) The XT105 does handle directory navigation just fine, though, if you play for a bit to find the menu option. It handles ID3 tags and VBR happily, too. One review I found claimed it couldn't fast forward or rewind a track, which is wrong... just hold down the left/right buttons rather than tap them... though it moves at a linear pace rather than speeding up the longer you hold a button. Another review claims there's no pause... again, someone doesn't seem to have grasped the difference between tapping a button and holding it down longer for a different action. Though it's not too surprising if they tried to read the manual, which is a noteworthy and often hilarious mangling of the English language.

The downsides are USB 1.1 transfer (inevitable with the age) and that settings don't seem to be saved if you take the battery out. For a modern player it's quite large, but most of those aren't trying to squeeze an SD card slot and an AAA battery into the space. The player seems happiest with cards formatted as FAT rather than FAT32, as it failed to recognise MP3s on one and choked on another whilst skipping tracks. FAT has been fine so far... there's actually a sentence in the manual warning (I think) to format cards with the device rather than using a computer. Lastly, the random play feature doesn't seem to be all that random — it seems to keep coming back to the same start track and to shuffle to the same order; you can nudge it onto a different track but it returns to its existing shuffle order after that song's played. In short, random play is very poorly implemented and almost more trouble than it's worth on this player.

I'm probably going to get at least couple of extra 1Gb cards for temporary things I might like to listen to such as audiobooks or recently-bought CDs. Might even try the (undoubtedly crap) voice recording out. All in all you can get a player plus 4Gb of cards for just over twenty quid by looking around, which'll do me, and I can use the cards in anything similar I pick up in future. Not too shabby.

In closing, a gem from the manual:

"Cowgirl choice" is oddly specific for a dictionary or machine translation, isn't it?

Various updates: the biggest problem I've had with this after a few weeks' use is it losing connection with the card if it gets knocked, or you turn it, or look at it funny. This happens more with some cards than others, so it may have more to do with dodgy manufacturing of media than the player — in the same way floppies and CD-Rs these days are more crap than those made ten years ago. Jamming a piece of card down the side improved things a little, but "check card" errors made the thing an annoyance and almost total waste of space on a coach journey. The cards are already FAT, but if there's an option to format directly using the player I'll try that and see if it improves things. I doubt it. Equally annoyingly, the damn thing seems fine now I'm back in the UK.

The fact playback resets to the beginning of the current track rather than storing the position within it gets extremely annoying after a while, particularly with audio books.

(Oh, and apparently SumVision do a 'NiteFox' variant of this player, the XT106. Looking at the photo on Amazon, it doesn't seem as if it shows song titles... mock-up image?)


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