[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, Sept. 22.]
Staff Writer Chris Nelson reports:
When the engineers at Creative Labs wanted to test the durability of their
Nomad portable MP3 player, they dropped it on the floor. They gave it to
folks to use in sweaty workouts. They even sent it out to Woodstock '99,
where it survived scratches, bumps and its fair share of mud.
But they didn't put it through the washing machine.
They left that to me.
Actually, my wife put it through after I forgot to take the device
which measures about 3.5 inches high, 2.3 inches wide and half an inch
thick out of the pocket of my olive drab flannel-lined work shirt.
This wasn't just any washer. This was one of those massive, multicycle
front loaders you use when you want to get clothes really clean.
Of course, it also gets them extra wet, so my wife put an extra quarter
in the dryer just to be sure they got good and dry.
When I arrived at the laundromat and started pulling out clothes for
folding, I realized what had happened and my heart sank. I unbuttoned
the pocket and pulled out the Nomad. The prognosis was not good. Its
faux-leather carrying case was waterlogged, and the device itself still
had a droplet or two on it.
I hit the power button, and the machine offered only a faint signal, via
an LCD window, that it once held Bruce Springsteen's "Loose Ends"
excerpt) and other tracks in its memory before apparently giving
up the ghost.
But I held out hope. Partially because I really enjoyed the player, and
partially to ease the fears of my wife, who was sure she'd killed it.
Back at home I pulled out the extra memory card and the batteries, and
I let it rest for a day. Then two.
Eventually the player recovered almost completely. I say "almost" because
occasionally I hit the volume button and it switches from MP3 to FM mode.
But considering the trauma it endured, I was pretty happy to live with
The folks at Creative Labs were as surprised as I was.
"In our marketing materials, we could state, 'Will even function after
you put it in the washing machine,' " joked Christi Wilkenson, a
product-development manager at Creative.
The small size of MP3 players brings up some interesting questions. For
the first time, people have CD-quality or near-CD-quality music that they
can literally lose in the washer and other such places.
That could never happen with a turntable or a boom box. A Walkman tape
player is too bulky and heavy to overlook even in the baggiest of cargo
"The whole idea is to make something that people can use that's portable,"
said Dave Arland, a spokesperson for Thompson Consumer Electronics, which
makes the RCA brand Lyra MP3 player.
"But you also want something that people won't lose, and that they can
get dirt in [without ruining it]," he said. The Lyra, which measures
about an inch longer and half an inch wider than the Nomad, will be
available on the Net in the next week, and in stores in the next few
Just as important, manufacturers say, is conveying a sense that the player
is substantial, particularly when the price of portable MP3 players still
hovers around $200. How do you convince listeners to cough up that much
money if a player is so small it seems almost disposable?
Internet entertainment analyst Mark Hardie of Forrester Research said he
went snowboarding with his Diamond Rio PMP 300 several times last winter.
He said it never gave out, although six months of banging around in his
gym bag took a toll on the player's buttons. (SonicNet's parent company,
MTV Networks Online, owns a portion of RioPort, which manufactures the
"I think you'll reach a point where smaller is not necessarily better,"
Hardie said. As devices become ever more miniaturized, their controls
are harder to manipulate, and they become easier to lose.
"Just like with pagers and phones, consumers will identify with their
pocketbooks what they like," Hardie said.
Some of the people in Creative Labs' focus groups are itching for an MP3
player that's even smaller than the first edition of the Nomad, Wilkenson
"There's going to be a certain market that would love to have something
they could hang around their neck," she said. "Or [use] in a headphone.
Something smaller, like a watch-type thing. I can definitely see it going
Sarah McLachlan is offering new live recordings of "Plenty" and
"Elsewhere" for free download in Liquid Audio format through Amazon.com.
The tracks are from the new "Mirrorball" DVD and video, but are not on
the live album of the same name. ... Amazon is also now offering MP3s of
lesser-known bands, similar to what sites such as MP3.com and Riffage.com
are doing, but on a smaller scale. ...
Dogg Pound rapper Kurupt has posted four advance tracks
from his Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha (Nov. 2) for download through
Mjuice.com's hip-hop section. The title song, "Girls All Pause," "This
Is Me" and "Trylogy" are available for free in encrypted MP3 form. ...
A Musicmaker.com spokesperson said live songs featuring Eddie Vedder
could not be offered in the site's Pete Townshend free download
promotion because of complications securing rights to the tracks.
Pearl Jam singer Vedder guests on a bonus disc that comes with the
new Townshend album, Live: A Benefit for Maryville Academy. All
11 songs from the main concert album including songs Townshend
wrote while in the Who, such as "Magic Bus" and "Won't Get Fooled
Again" are being offered as free MP3 downloads this week. ...
The 64-megabyte version of RCA's new Lyra MP3 player will come with a
cassette adapter so listeners can use the device in their cars. An RCA
spokesperson said the company is looking at adding compact flash memory
ports to boom boxes and home stereos, so they, too, can make use of