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Scott's Column
MP3 Players & The Game Room

December 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

The months seem to be getting more and more boring lately. However, our house plans are moving along great, and I have been doing more research on MP3 players than you can shake a stick at.

Work

A quick note: I am in a massive transfer knowledge mode at work. My manager has blocked me from pursuing any other career opportunities within the company for fear that the work I do won't get done without me. So now I am doing the absolute minimum amount of work I can get away with without actually getting into trouble. I don't know how it will turn out. I will keep you posted. However, a word of advise... being indispensable definitely has its drawbacks.

The House

We received the first draft of the full working plans for our house. We have a few small changes we want, and my contractor/brother-in-law has a few questions. We will be meeting with the designer before you even read this. My wife and I are very happy with the house as it is drawn. In fact, my wife doesn't even need to meet with the designer anymore. Except for two items, all of the little things we have left to discuss have nothing to do with the actual design. The two design items are minor. First we wanted to switch the oven and refrigerator locations. This will put the refrigerator backed up against the garage were we can countersink it so the front will be flush with the kitchen cabinets/countertops. Second was the need to redesign the built in entertainment center. We have a picture of what we are looking for and it should be no trouble incorporating it into the living room.

As it stands the house is at 3240 sq. ft. We wanted to have it around 3100 sq. ft., but the designer couldn't get it any smaller without cutting something. We decided we would stop shrinking the house for the sake of shrinking.

The Game Room

The game room is about 18'x20'. That is enough room for a pool table. I had given up on the idea of ever having a pool table. It didn't look like we would be able to get a game room large enough in the square footage we were aiming for.

I am still very apprehensive about getting a pool table. It is a big investment, and I would be very disappointed if I did not get my money's worth out of it. I have made mistakes like that in the past. For example, I bought a large free weight set when I left the military. No longer did I get the incredible rate of $2.50 a year (that is not a typo, it was for the towel exchange program) for a full service fitness center, and the ability to work out on company time. The free weights worked well. But when we moved into our first house the weights went from being in a guest room to the garage. Then they went to the back porch. My wife wanted to workout as well, so we bought a universal style machine from Sears.

Alas, they were used a lot for a few months, but then they sat there. As the kids arrived it was harder to workout while keeping them off of the equipment, and it was hard to workout in the outdoor weather. It was very disappointing selling an $800 investment in exercise equipment for $200 at our last garage sale. 

A similar thing happened with my fish tank. I always wanted one, and my wife got me a 20 gal. setup. Unfortunately I didn't give it the attention it deserved. Perhaps if I had a larger tank with better fish... but I will never know. I just gave the fish to a friend to make room for the Christmas tree.

However, I do have plans for the game room. I expect to put in a Slotted Race Track, Air Hockey Table, and Foosball Table. In that order. My son is just getting old enough to start enjoying air hockey so I won't be playing by myself. And I recently played foosball against me wife in our apartment complex's club house. They should see enough use each to justify their cost. I could buy both for less than a pool table.

The one I am most excited about is the slotted race cars. I still have my Aurora AFX cars & track from when I was a teenager. I was into them a lot throughout my teen years. I plan on putting an 8x4 sheet of plywood in the game room and tacking the track down to it. This won't be as much fun as building lots of different tracks, but it will be much safer with small children. Plus I can lean the board up against a wall when it is not in use.

The box I keep my track in received some water damage in an apartment a few years ago. I have not looked at the track since before then. I am hoping I will be able to get it all working. Trust me when I tell you I have enough track to fill two 4x8 boards. In fact, if it all works out I may take a couple of boards and make a large table out of them filled with track.

I have been doing a fair amount of research on the Internet. There is a lot of information on slotted cars. I have found a number of sites that sell cars and individual track. However, I have not found places that sell many race sets. It is always much more economical to buy sets to get cars, track, controllers, etc.

Also, I have not found any place that sells the Aurora stuff. It seems that Hot Wheels has bought out Tyco's slotted car stuff. Toys R Us sells a Hot Wheels four lane cliffhanger set for $100. I would love to get that, but until I can put it in the house it would be a total waste of money. Besides, that track would be incompatible with what I have. If I did that I would have to start all over. It would take about $1000 to amass the amount of track and cars I already have. I would prefer to find hobbyists that want to sell the Aurora stuff first. I have found a place that sells rebuild kits for the cars. At this point I would need them for my cars. I have over 50 cars and buying rebuild kits to revive them will go a long way toward saving money from buying new cars.

I have four difference radius of turns (6", 9", 12" & 15"). Theoretically I could build an 8 lane setup assuming I could power the whole thing. I will definitely build a four lane setup, but might try for six lanes just for fun. 

I can hardly wait. If anyone has (or knows someplace that has) Aurora AFX track, cars, or parts please let me know.

MP3 Players

I have been looking for the ideal MP3 player. I have read almost everything I see on them. But it seems the perfect player is ever elusive. Here are my requirements for a MP3 player. I need a player that can hold a day's worth of music (approximately 8 hours give or take). I will be using it while working on my land/house and would get bored quickly with only one or two hours of music. Next, it needs to last all day (again, about 8 hours) with a single set of batteries. I will get rechargeable batteries, but I don't want to go though the trouble of bringing extra batteries with me. I would also like it if it could plug into the wall with an A/C adapter while I sit at my desk at work. Lastly, it should be portable enough to be clipped to my belt while working on my land/house, and doing workouts if I ever get back into exercising again. Finally I was really hoping to keep this purchase to no more than $300.

Simple. Not so simple to find. I find it amazing that the first widely available MP3 player came with 32 MB of memory and we still have players with only 32 & 64 MB of memory. I don't believe that one of the portable CD/MP3 players would be able to handle being strapped to my waist while doing construction work, so I gave up on them. Here are the ones I am thinking about at the moment.

The Creative Nomad Jukebox has plenty of storage. I have heard many good things and very little bad about this player. Its 6 GB hard drive will hold about 3/4 of my MP3s. More than good enough. But its size has me weary about its portability, and I have not heard much about durability in workouts or other harsh environments. Also it eats batteries a lot, which is probably why I haven't heard much about portability/durability.

Next on my list is the Rio 600. I have heard only one bad thing about this player... lack of memory. Everything I have read says it is one of the best players on the market. It doesn't waste effort on FM tuners, voice recorders or address book features. It just plays music really well. But it only comes with 32MB of memory. However, it uses a "backpack" design for expandable memory. The only trouble with that is where are the expansion backpacks and how much will they cost? I have heard that Rio has plans to create a backpack that will use DataPlay discs. These are tiny 500 MB optical disc. That is enough storage to meet my requirements. The discs are supposed to cost about $5-10 each. They are write once discs like CD-Rs, but at that price I could get 4 or 5 of them and that would last a very long time for me. The trouble is that Rio has nothing on there web site about this technology. I am weary about getting the Rio 600 now, only to find out that this expansion backpack will be too expensive or non-existent later. Rio also plans to provide backpacks with IBM's microdrive. Those drives would suit my storage needs, but I here they eat batteries and they are expensive. I can only assume it would cost more that the player itself.

Recently I read about the Archos Jukebox 6000. This is about 2/3 the size of the Nomad Jukebox, but also contains a 6 GB hard drive. The manufacturer claims a fair amount of durability, and its size seems practical for being clipped to my belt while working on my house. However, I have yet to read one actual review. Also, I heard a rumor that players like this (and the next one on this list) are spurring Creative to make a smaller more portable version of the Nomad in the near future. This player is $349, quite a bit less than the Nomad Jukebox's $499 (although I have seen the Nomad on Amazon.com for $419).

Finally, I heard of the Treo Player from a Comdex report. It is supposed to be available in January 2001. It is another hard drive solution in a pretty small package. It weighs just slightly more than half the Nomad Jukebox. But alas, it is still vaporware, and is supposed to cost $400.

So there is my dilemma. I like the Nomad Jukebox, but... it eats batteries, it is expensive, it is bulky, and I wonder about its ruggedness in the environment I would put it. I really like the Rio 600, but the DataPlay backpack is not available and I fear I would be left out in the cold in the future. If Rio could guarantee me the availability and price of the DataPlay backpack I would buy the 600 in a heartbeat. The Archos Jukebox is so new I don't have any way of knowing if it is a quality and useful product. Perhaps if the return policy is good enough (so I can return it just because I don't like it) I might consider it. Finally the Treo looks like a nice device, but it is not available yet. Plus it suffers from the same fate as the Archos... untested and very new from a company I have heard nothing about.

Add to this that all these hard drive solutions are first generation products. It is likely that in a few months second generation devices could take care of any of my concerns plus add features, usability enhancements, and lower prices.

I don't know what to do. If anyone out there has first hand experience with these or any similar MP3 players, please let me know what you think. I was really hoping to get a MP3 player for Christmas.

Conclusion

That's it for this month. If I ever make up my mind on a MP3 player I will provide a full report here. Also, I was playing with Paint Shop Pro briefly and think I could use it as a slotted car track designer. If so I will try to start planning a layout for when I move into the house.

Until next time...

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