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I wrote the following hardware review during a brief summer internship at mp3.com. Since they weren't bringing me on for content, I'm not sure of my contract said anything about who owns what I write, and since they never actually gave me a copy I can't be sure, but I think this is still mine.

You'll notice that most if not all of the hardware reviews on mp3.com offer gushing praise and very little criticism. This one is different, and it is probably the reason they didn't let me write any more (they also told me it was waaaay too long, and may have muttered something about vitrol)...
PDHercules Digital Recorder Jukebox PD-430-01
Developer Perception Digital
MSRP $499.95
Category Home Stereo

Pros:
  • Holds thousands of songs in the form factor of a VCR
  • Top 20 and Last 20 make finding popular songs easy
  • Built-in CDDB
  • Sort by artist or album
  • Good instruction manual and easy setup
Cons: With the PDHercules, Perception Digital makes a valiant attempt at a full-featured and powerful digital music hub, a hard drive-based MP3 jukebox with a built-in CD-ROM drive for music ripping. Sadly, an attempt is all this product turns out to be -- despite being the second revision of the Hercules line, this jukebox still disappoints in several key regards.

We've gotten tired of praising every new device for its wonderful sound output -- it has become a given this late in the game that most new products sound nice. What matters, then, in a unit such as this, is aesthetics. When you're organizing thousands of songs, being able to easily navigate and play them is very important. So we looked at the new Hercules with these criteria in mind:
  1. Speed of ripping CD music to the hard drive
  2. Ease of use and navigation
  3. Ease of organization and personalization
  4. Capacity
  5. Stability
This unit costs a hefty sum, so we decided to compare it with a low-end PC of a similar price. What we found was disappointing -- in every respect the PC beat the Hercules, even in the category we thought it was least likely to win: ease of use.

First, let's review the features. The Hercules is a standalone unit with a 20GB hard drive and a built-in CD-ROM drive. The concept is to organize your CD collection by popping in each CD, ripping the tunes to the drive, then storing your disks away, never to be needed again.

While this idea is good in theory, it can only work if you can easily catalog your music such that retrieving it is easier then just grabbing the relevant CD from the shelf.

The Hercules sorts by artist or album, automatically appending songs as they are ripped. This is useful, but what would be much more useful is sorting by artist and album, first seeing the artist, then a list of their records.

The Hercules boasts a huge offline database of ID3 tags -- they utilize a built-in version of the Gracenote CD Database (CDDB) catalog of 425,000 CDs. All the commercial CDs we tried were in the database. However, the newest releases won't be, necessitating manually entering song and artist information using the alphanumeric keypad, or updating the database by attaching the unit via USB to your PC.

Additionally, the Hercules doesn't tap the CDDB information on CD insert. Rather, it only allows access to this valuable info when you choose to rip your music. This odd quirk goes against the provided documentation, and hopefully will be fixed in the next firmware update (again, a software patch you must apply with the assistance of a computer and USB cable, neither of which comes with the unit).

When it comes to ripping disks, the unit is equally quirky. It's impossible to listen to music while ripping a CD, unless you're listening to the music on the CD, as it is ripping, in real time. This slows ripping speed and means it's impossible to jump forward or backward, pause or skip tracks.

Ripping speed leaves something to be desired. The unit can rip and compress to MP3 in real-time (meaning a 50-minute CD will take almost 50 minutes to rip) or at about 6x speed using the rapid-archive feature, which grabs the raw PCM music data off the disk in its uncompressed format and compresses it when the unit is in sleep mode.

Playlists are one feature where this unit really shines. It allows for quick creation of unlimited playlists from any artist or album. Playlists can be edited and named, and additional options for playback include repeat, shuffle and the ability to listen to 20-second previews of each song.

The system also has a built-in equalizer, but it only offers four modes: normal, bass 1, bass 2 and classic.

Searching is available by artist, album or song. The search works well from the remote control, and fans of SMS text messaging can quickly get the hang of the alphanumeric keypad.

The remote is a key feature of this unit. It's huge, the size of a graphing calculator, and contains a big eight-line display. The remote communicates two ways with the unit. All song info, play statistics, playlists and actions are performed from the remote. This also means the remote won't function if it's out of line-of-sight of the infrared sensor on the machine. And it's often slow to react due to the lag between hitting a button, alerting the base unit and receiving a response. The remote does have a nice backlight, a handy feature.

The unit contains a 20 GB hard drive which can hold several thousand songs in MP3 format. However, a 40GB, 60GB or 80GB drive would have been nice for those of us with larger music collections.

In comparing this unit to a bargain PC, we can't overlook the convenience of a VCR-sized music jukebox. But we're used to our TiVo, a video unit that for less price records TV shows and uses a clear onscreen TV display and a beautifully laid-out remote for easy access and navigation. TiVo also can record one show while we watch another. If a TV unit at half the price can record one thing while playing another, is it so much to ask for an MP3 jukebox to be able to do the same?

Before you rush out to replace your 100-disc changer with one of these units, you must decide if you can live with the quirks and problems -- not being able to read multisession disks, not being able to edit a playlist while playing, no way to upload your music to your computer, unexpected behaviors when using the various navigation buttons, and slow ripping speeds.

If you absolutely hate computers and just want a good small jukebox, this unit is worth the tradeoffs. But if you have an ounce of computer knowledge, just placing a little PC with a scan converter in your living room unit makes a lot more sense. At least that way you can watch cool music visualizations on your TV!

Company Hype
PDHercules Jukebox II is the remarkable second-generation digital recordable jukebox that follows on the successful launch of the world's first DSP based jukebox. The new addition of Gracenote CDDB database allows users to match album information from over 420,000 CD titles with just a few clicks. No more typing manually and no more connection to PC for CD identifications.

Reference: http://hardware.mp3.com/hardware/individual/3863.html

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