What should the iPod shuffle have looked like? Based on submissions to a contest we held last year, the answer would have been something much closer to Mobiblu’s Cube (DAH-1500i) MP3 player, a metal- and plastic-shelled device with a screen, a headphone port, and a loop for easy attachment to clothing. So when such a device emerged – not from Apple or Sony, but from Korea’s Hyunwon – we had to check it out, and came away suitably impressed.
We’re going to get four important points about the Cube out of the way up front. First, its controls aren’t as easy to use as the shuffle’s. Second, its screen isn’t as useful as most people would prefer. Third, its industrial design is a step (or two*) behind Apple’s. And fourth, if we were given the choice between the Cube or the iPod shuffle for the same price – and they do sell for the same price – we’d take the Cube. Any day.
Yes, point four might not initially make sense in light of the first three, but that’s why it’s worth reading the rest of our quick review of the Cube, which you’ll find by clicking on Read More below.
As a general but regrettably not universal rule, Apple products are polished to an impressive level of physical and user interface perfection that competitors have struggled to duplicate. When the company does right – as with the iPod and iPod mini – it’s hard to argue that a competing product is better in any way that’s important to the majority of people. And even when the company misses the design bullseye with certain products – as it did with the iPod shuffle, and more recently with the Mighty Mouse – scores of people still line up to buy them. Even a so-so Apple product generates enough interest and buzz to win more customers than a well-executed, less well-known competitor.
So when another company really steps up to the plate and does almost all the right things – not ripping off an iPod, but thinking of smart ways to improve upon it – it deserves a pat on the back. That’s what Mobiblu’s done with the Cube. It fit a 1GB digital audio player into a cube the width of a quarter, and an iPod shuffle-style controller the size of a dime on its right side. The internal battery runs for 10 hours under normal playback conditions, and you don’t need any special software to use it – Macs and PCs recognize it as a USB storage device. It supports MP3, WMA and protected WMA formats, as well as limited playlist functionality. All major pluses.
Every Cube comes with a set of headphones, a single cable that charges and syncs the device from any powered USB port, and a little rubber edge-protecting box that we’d call a case, save that it exposes at least as much of the Cube as it covers. Though the unit’s lack of a USB plug limits its utility as a “go anywhere” storage device, we thought it was seriously cool (albeit impractical under some circumstances) that there is only one port on the entire Cube’s body.
For a device this small, you’ll be shocked to see how much control you have over your sound – more, in fact, than on even a full-sized iPod. The Cube features SRS (artificial sound enhancement) with focus, speaker size and volume controls, plus an adjustable level of Trubass enhancement. There are also nine equalizer presets – normal, rock (the default), jazz, classic, pop, SRS, Trubass, WOW, and User EQ. Yes, User EQ. A five-band graphic equalizer, easy to see on the screen thanks to a bright OLED display. Mobiblu also has a “fade in” feature for songs that works nicely.
Holding down a Menu button on the unit’s left side brings up a scrolling icon-laden menu (big plus) that lets you go through five options. You start at Music, go to FM Radio (yup), then to Setting (a sub-menu with its own set of iconic choices), then to Recording (yup, again), and finally to Listen, which lets you hear stored recordings. We were especially amazed that the Cube’s microphone works well from all directions even though it’s hidden on the unit’s bottom – you don’t need to plug anything (microphone or peripheral) in to record. Bitrate settings range from 64Kbps to 160Kbps (monaural), and there’s a manual gain control setting ranging from 1.5 to 22.5db, defaulting at 6db. It’s not as good as having an automatic gain control setting, as on Griffin’s iTalk, but – wait for it – it records, and the shuffle does not. A small lock-iconed button next to the Menu button lets you put the Cube in hold mode to prevent accidental button presses.
But what about the first three points we raised above? Well, they’re undeniable, but they’re also acceptable – at least, until someone does something considerably better. Unless you have tiny fingers, you’ll need to press the dime-sized control pad’s buttons with a fingertip or fingernail. And sometimes – often times – you’ll need to press them twice to get the Cube to do what you want.
That’s one of the mistakes that Apple’s been wisest to avoid in its devices. Other companies have tried to map multiple functions onto single buttons. Click a button fast and it does X. Press the button slower and it does Y. Hold the button down for two seconds and it does Z. Hit it two times quickly and it does something else. This sort of control engineering (sometimes) works fine in video games, but it doesn’t work well for a MP3 player – even the Hold button is multipurposed in this design. Over the course of multiple days of testing, we’ve sort of gotten used to the oddities, but they conspire to make the Cube less of an easy in-car music player than even an iPod shuffle.
The screen is also a mixed bag, though we give Mobiblu serious credit for what it’s accomplished in such a small space. There’s no doubt in our minds that Sony’s NW-E505/7 series came up as close to the “right” way to integrate an OLED screen into a flash player as we’ve seen, with a nice wide, multi-line display. Four lines of song options would be better, but three lines work. The Cube only gives you two, and not so wisely keeps a folder name (Root, ugh) at the top of the screen at all times when you’re scrolling through song titles. And – no joke – because it tries to fit icons and a tree structure graphic on the screen, it fits a total of five characters per line onto the display. The result is that your song list says “04 De” for a song title, then scrolls to reveal “04 Deep Cover.mp3.” Rename all of your songs, or you’ll almost wish you had a shuffle. Almost.
There’s a reset button on the unit’s bottom, pin-sized, as the reset buttons on most such devices are, to our dismay. But the good news is that the Cube didn’t lock up or have firmware-related problems in any of our testing, so we never had to use that button – a big difference from our experiences with Creative’s Zens, as just one example. Mobiblu hides the internal microphone inside the reset button.
There’s only one thing you’ll want to buy separately when buying a cube: headphones. Because Mobiblu used a gimmick rather than just shipping the unit with a standard set of headphones, the packed-in earphones are on the fine edge of goofy-looking, and they don’t sound great, either. Made from fabric and plastic, then capped with grayish ear foams, you have to wear them as a necklace, and keep the Cube dangling from your neck like a pendant. We swapped off the pack-ins for other headphones, which sounded great with the device, and wish that Mobiblu wouldn’t have gone with a mandatory wearable listening solution.
There are three final things we’ll mention before closing out our look at the Cube. First, the FM radio’s so-so under stressful conditions, but it’s programmable, easy to tune, and works outdoors – sometimes. Second, if Mobiblu wants to polish the design further – even a little bit further – for a next-generation model, they could have something truly spectacular on their hands. As it is, this is a shuffle killer, but that’s not too high of a bar given what Apple’s mission was with the low-priced, stripped down iPod. If we were Mobiblu, we’d polish the unit’s physical edges, make a few tweaks to the screen and interface (hence our * reference to “a step (or two)” above), and get another version of this out quickly. As-is, we think the current one is going to do great, but a next-generation version of this could be incredible.
Finally, there’s the price: under $100 for the 512MB version, and under $130 for the 1GB version. Admittedly, seven months have passed since the iPod shuffle was introduced, and it was inevitable that a superior option would appear at a comparable or lower price point. But that shouldn’t take away from what Mobiblu has accomplished, particularly given that no less a company than Sony recently blew an opportunity to do the same thing based on poor software, wacky controls, and high pricing. The Cube isn’t perfect, but it delivers a cool, user-customizable digital music experience in a tiny, affordable package that will turn heads. Apple is surely cooking up newer and better things for the flash market, but until they’re introduced, we’d pick the Cube over the shuffle.