Like its predecessor, the 294g Jukebox 3 resembles a shrunken portable CD player, barely passing the jacket-pocket test at 12.3cm by 13cm by 3.5cm. Creative has added a jog dial as well as Back and Find buttons, making for a more user-friendly interface than the one found on the previous version. We had a few gripes (song titles don't scroll as tunes play, and the Lock Buttons feature must be activated via the settings menu rather than by a dedicated button), but they're pretty minor.
Up to this point, the problem with all Windows-based hard drive MP3 players has been that they connect via USB, which is too slow to handle massive file transfers. Thankfully, Creative includes both a FireWire/IEEE 1394 port (Creative calls it SB1394) and a USB port, which translates into a nice combination of compatibility and speed. Also, this is the first hard drive-based player that we've seen to offer an optical digital in, which allows you to record content from a wide variety of sources.
First, let's talk autosync. The Jukebox 3 can synchronise with multiple PCs if they have the Creative PlayCenter software installed -- a feat that no other hard drive-based player can currently lay claim to. What's the big deal about this? Well, it means that you can trade entire MP3 collections in a relatively short period of time. In contrast, the iPod has built-in copy protection that allows you to sync with the iTunes folder on a single Mac only.
On top of its unique -- and possibly questionable -- autosyncing capabilities, the PlayCenter software also handles automatic song titling and organisation, music importing, CD burning and standard file transfers of any type. Third-party Notmad Explorer software also lets you access the songs on the device using Windows Explorer or a remote Web browser, among other things.
If that's not enough, another area in which the Jukebox 3 breaks new ground is recording options. Using the analogue-in or digital-in connections, you can record straight to the unit's hard drive from a variety of sources, including a powered microphone. You can choose to record files as uncompressed WAVs or as MP3s compressed at bit rates of 128Kbps to 320Kbps. In other words, with the right accoutrements, you can easily turn old records, lectures and concert recordings into MP3s or WAVs, upload them to your PC, and email them or burn them onto a CD. We do wish that there were a way to monitor recording levels, but this is still a great function.
Sound-wise, the Jukebox 3's DSP settings take advantage of Creative Labs' substantial experience with sound processing. As a result, you have more options for tweaking the way your 4,000 or so songs sound. Settings include a DSP that simulates auditorium or bathroom environments (among others); eight EQ presets, none of which are manual; a Time Scale feature, which changes music from half speed to time-and-a-half without altering pitch; a spatialization option (Wide, Narrow, or Full); and a Smart Volume feature, which tailors the sound for trains, cars or quiet environments by calibrating EQ to compensate for outside frequencies as well as normalizing volume across MP3s.
Tweaks aside, we're happy to note that the player features a crystal-clear 98dB signal-to-noise ratio and full, rich sound. The Jukebox 3 comes with decent-sounding wraparound headphones, but more discerning listeners will want to swap in a new pair. Creative claims seven minutes of anti-skip protection; however, we don't recommend jogging with hard drive-based MP3 players.
As far as battery life goes, you'll get up to 11 hours from the included Li-ion rechargeable battery (an AC adapter is provided), which is about average for these types of devices. Although the Nomad 3 lacks an in-line remote, Creative says that it will offer one that includes an FM radio, a built-in mike, and a backlit LCD starting in May. The company will also sell additional accessories, including an extra battery, a PC Dock with a wireless infrared remote; a car-adapter kit; a case with a belt clip; and a variety of faceplates.
At £349.99 (inc. VAT), the 20GB Jukebox 3 compares favourably to the iPod. Although it may not be as lightweight or as slickly styled as the latter, its impressive features and connectivity options make it the portable MP3 player for power users.