Pontis MPlayer3 – Review

Pontis MPlayer3
Company: Pontis
Pricing: $159 for MPlayer3 player only
$49 per 16 MB MultiMediaCard
$195 for MPlayer3/16 MB card bundle


I’ve mentioned a couple of times in my “Wall Writings” columns that I use the MP3 audio format quite a bit on my Mac. But my use of MP3s has been limited to just that­using them on my Macintosh. While Mac users have had MP3 encoders (such as MPecker and Xing AudioCatalyst) and software MP3 players (such as MacAmp and QuickTime 4) for several months, there has not been a Mac-compatible solution for portable, pocket-sized MP3 players. Devices such as Diamond’s RIO player have been available for the Wintel platform for quite some time, but companies who produce such players are just now starting to develop Mac-compatible versions. Once they do hit the market, most of these players will be compatible only with USB-equipped Macs, leaving many Mac users out in the cold. Fortunately, a European company called Pontis has decided to fill in the gap with their MPlayer3. The standalone MP3 music player is the first on the market to support Macs, and offers a serial cable adapter so that users of older Macs can join in the fun, too.

The MPlayer3 package contains the player, a MultiMediaCard for MP3 storage, a pair of earphones, cables for connecting the player to your Mac, and a CD-ROM containing software for loading MP3 files from your Mac’s hard drive onto the player’s MultiMediaCards. Pontis also offers software for Windows and Linux, as well as PC-compatible cables, making the MPlayer3 a good cross-platform solution, too. The MPlayer3 runs on two AA batteries, which last for up to 14 hours.

The MPlayer3 itself is very small­a little larger than my credit card, but smaller than my wallet. Pontis describes the player as “roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes,” and that’s a pretty accurate comparison. The MPlayer3 fit very comfortably in both my jean pocket and hand, making it easy to carry and use while riding, walking, or jogging. One big advantage of the MPlayer3 over a portable CD player during “active” use is that the MPlayer3 is not susceptible to skipping during quick or jarring movement. The only thing missing that would have increased the MPlayer3’s convenience on the go is a clip for attaching to a belt buckle or waistband.

The MPlayer3 is very easy to control and use, and produces very good sound. The player only has five buttons on its face, located next to the LCD display. The rightmost button is used to turn the player on, and the other four are standard CD controls (play/pause, stop, forward, and reverse). The forward and reverse buttons can be used to skip to a different track or go to different points within a song, just like on a CD player.

Those same five buttons are used to navigate the player’s onscreen menus, which allow you to adjust settings such as treble and bass, random or repeated track play, and the download mode (Mac or PC) for loading songs. You use the four control buttons to make your choices, and the power button is used to return to the main menu. Overall, the system is very intuitive while keeping the number of buttons you need to push and memorize to a minimum.

Listening to the MPlayer3 is just like listening to a portable CD player. MP3s are known for their CD-quality sound, and the MPlayer3 plays the files in all of their glory. The bass and treble controls on the player also add to a better listening experience. Things sound great through the included earphones, and (obviously) even better through a pair of expensive, high quality headphones. Just for fun, I hooked up the MPlayer3 to my pair of Benwin flat panel speakers, and the result was fabulous! It’s definitely the smallest, coolest stereo setup I’ve ever used!

Unfortunately, the only aspect of the MPlayer3 that falls a little short of fabulous is loading songs onto and using the MultiMediaCards. That’s not to say that the media is bad or disappointing in any way–the cards are roughly the size of a postage stamp, and worked flawlessly for me. Although they are not as ubiquitous as the SmartMediaCards which are often used in digital cameras, MultiMediaCards are gaining in popularity, being used in high-end cellular phones and digital video cameras. The included software worked fine, too, but both hardware and software suffer from a few inconveniences that make the necessary tasks a little more annoying than they should be.

Using the included software works is a fairly straightforward procedure. The routine of searching through the MP3 collection on your computer’s hard drive, choosing songs to include in a playlist, and finally creating and saving a playlist will be familiar to anyone who has used MacAmp or similar software products. When the MPlayer3 is connected to the Mac via the serial port (which, by the way, is a simple plug-and-play operation), and is in download mode, the Pontis software will transfer the chosen playlist onto the MultiMediaCard in the player. This process is painless and easy to do, albeit a little slow (see below). The only problem I have with the included Mac software is that it is far behind the included Windows software. While Windows users also have a full-featured, proprietary encoder and decoder package for ripping and creating MP3 files from audio CDs, Mac users are left to find other software to use for this task; the Pontis software for the Mac only allows you to take previously encoded MP3 files and load them onto the MultiMediaCards. However, I was assured by Pontis that there will soon be parity in the feature set of both versions of the software, and that Mac users will receive free upgrades to the new software when it becomes available.

The number of songs that can be handled at one time is also a little disappointing. Using MPecker, the encoding scheme for MP3s usually translates into one megabyte per minute of audio, meaning that an average song encoded into the MP3 format will take up about 3 to 5 megabytes of disk space. At press time, the largest capacity cards for the MPlayer3 were only 16 megabytes, enough for roughly the equivalent of four songs. According to Pontis, 32 megabyte cards are supposed to be available very soon, which will help alleviate this problem. Assuming that you take advantage of both card slots in the MPlayer3, the 32 megabyte cards will allow you to load a little over a CD’s worth of audio at one time. Cards with capacities of 64 and 128 megabytes are also scheduled to be shipped within six months to a year, so this annoyance will be overcome with time.

In a perfect world, I could buy a couple of 128 megabyte MultiMediaCards and store all of my favorite songs on them, but that would be very cost prohibitive. The other option, of course, is to rewrite the contents of my existing 16 megabyte cards every time I get tired of a playlist or want to include different songs. This isn’t a big deal to me, but it is unfortunate that doing so takes extremely long amounts of time. Loading one song onto a MultiMediaCard takes anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes, so you better have some time set aside if you plan on rewriting any 32 megabyte cards! (Even rewriting an entire 16 megabyte card takes the better part of an hour.) This is due to the MPlayer3’s serial connection, which has a maximum throughput of 11.5 k/sec, as opposed to the Mac’s ceiling of 23 k/sec. Pontis admits that averages of only 6-10 k/sec is normal when connecting the MPlayer3 to a Macintosh. This is not likely to be changed anytime soon for older Macs, but users with brand new Macintoshes can look forward to a forthcoming USB external cardwriter, due by the end of September, which will offer higher transfer rates.

Pontis has really done Mac users a favor by being the first to offer a Mac-compatible portable MP3 player. Its small dimensions, simple design and operation, and high quality make the player itself a surefire winner. The only complaints I had about the player were minor ones at best, and Pontis is committed to fixing them. Once they deliver the high capacity MultiMediaCards, a full-featured Mac software package, and speedier methods of loading songs from your Mac to the player, they will have a product that will be ready to change your portable music habits for good!

MacMice Rating: 3.5

Mike Wallinga

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