Toshiba gigabeat F20

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Toshiba gigabeat F20
  • Toshiba gigabeat F20
  • Toshiba gigabeat F20
  • Toshiba gigabeat F20

Pros

  • Excellent screen; useful one-touch rip/record function

Cons

  • Unnecessarily complicated to use

Bottom Line

Taken purely as a player or picture viewer it's a good product at a good price but it's fatally hamstrung by poor software and complicated operation.

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After a brief period where medium-sized hard drive players such as iPod's Mini dominated the portable music player market, it now appears that players with large capacities are back in vogue. Toshiba's new Gigabeat F20 is 20GB model (also available in 40GB and 60GB versions) that could potentially challenge the iPod's supremacy.

The F20 is similar in physical size to a 20GB iPod, and therefore significantly larger than Sony's NW-HD5. A cross-shaped touch pad caters for basic controls such as volume and skip, while several backlit buttons along the spine provide access to menus and advanced functions, including 28 EQ settings. The Toshiba also has a useful programmable button that allows one-touch access to whatever takes your fancy, and it's good to see that the Gigabeat is compatible with tracks downloaded from the Coketunes and Digirama music sites.

The F20 has two great features that top those on rival players. The first of these is a 2.2-inch, 240 x 320 pixel QVGA colour LCD screen. It's the most impressive we've seen on any MP3 player and when used to view pictures easily surpasses the iPod Photo's onscreen display.

The second standout feature is the Gigabeat's one button 'RipRec' technology that lets you copy a CD directly to the player. It works well and is a very quick way of transferring your music: We loaded an entire 60-minute CD to the player in just 2 minutes 50 seconds. There's a downside to this, however. The Gigabeat's software only rips music to the player; you can't use it to save the files to your PC. This means you have to use Windows Media Player 9 or 10 to rip and store files. Windows Media Player does a good job, but why didn't Toshiba simply include its own rip-to-PC function, rather than requiring punters to use someone else's software?

And there's a catch here, too. Although the Gigabeat plays WMA files natively, it re-encodes them to a maximum of 192kbit/s. So while you can use Windows Media Player tracks the Gigabeat won't read them if they're encoded at a higher bit-rate. To listen to larger files you have to synchronise them first, which reduces the bit-rate. When we rip CDs with WMP, we do so at the highest quality possible. Not everyone wants this. We do. What we don't want is for a player - especially one with a large hard drive, where space is not such an issue - to drastically limit the sound quality.

Moreover, to synchronise WMA files from a PC, the player has to first be manually set to connect to Windows Media Player. It's fiddly and such messing about should be unnecessary. So involved is its operation that the F20 comes with two user manuals: one for the player and one for the software. Annoyingly, we were forever flicking between the two, as the player manual constantly required me to refer to the software manual and vice versa.

When you finally get everything working the F20 sounds excellent - even if the files have been downsized to 192kbit/s - with the fullest bass I've yet heard on a portable player. The earbuds provide good sound and in terms of audio quality are better than most earphones that come bundled with MP3 players. Unfortunately, they don't sit well in the ear and we were constantly pushing them back in, which we don't have to do with Apple's headsets or my favoured Sonys.

It's a shame that the Gigabeat F20 is so darned tricky to master. Taken purely as a player or picture viewer it's a good product at a good price, but it's fatally hamstrung by poor software and complicated operation. Listening to music on the move shouldn't be this difficult.

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