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The Toshiba Gigabeat F40 Portable Music Player gives you latest generation capabilities in a compact size with long battery life.

Although many aspects of this player are impressive and appealing, it suffers a clutzy interface with unnecessarily complicated procedures.

 
 
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Toshiba Gigabeat F40 MP3 Audio Player

The Toshiba Gigabeat is a shirt pocket sized device that stores 40GB of music, images, and data files.

A large and high-resolution color screen gives you the ability to look at pictures as well as listen to music.

Other models in the series store up to a massive 60GB.

Aggressively priced compared to industry leader iPod

 

 

Apple's iPod has made MP3 players into mainstream devices for ordinary people.  The iPod and its competitors offer massive amounts of music storage in a small form factor, and give you a convenient way to listen to music.

Latest generation players add the ability to display pictures and even watch video, too.  The Toshiba Gigabeat, newly released, is one of the strongest competitors to Apple's dominance.


The Apple iPod and MP3 Players

I first wrote about an MP3 player back in April 2002 - the 20GB Archos Jukebox Recorder 20, costing, at the time, about $250.  For something that is basically a hard drive in a case and almost nothing else, it was expensive, but it was one of the first hard drive based MP3 players and of course, one always pays a price premium for the latest and greatest.

Since that time, the MP3 player market has changed extraordinarily, and also, not at all.

The extraordinary change has been the appearance of the Apple iPod series of portable MP3 players.  These have popularized the concept of MP3, and with their stylish good looks and easily used menu system have made MP3 music easy to enjoy for everyone (8 million iPods were shipped in the last quarter).

Depending on how you define the market, the iPod now has between 75% and 90% of the market for MP3 players.  Apple has used its market dominance to keep its prices high, and surprisingly, none of the various companies competing for the small remaining amount of market share have chosen to compete strongly on price.

And so, alas, the attribute that has changed the least is the price of the players.  Three and a half years ago, my Archos Jukebox Recorder 20 cost about $250, today an Apple iPod of the same 20GB capacity costs about $225-275.  By contrast, the retail cost of the 20GB hard drive inside such a player, by itself, is about $65.

Clearly there are huge profits being made on these players, and a great deal of opportunity for prices to drop.

Current Competitors to the iPod

With as much as a 90% market share going to Apple, plainly there are no other major players.

For a while Hewlett Packard had been rebranding Apple's iPod and selling it as if it were its own player.  This was a strange bit of marketing (il)logic and didn't last long before being discontinued.

Dell have four models - two hard disk and two flash disk based.  They have relatively short battery life, and monochrome small screens.

Archos continue to release units and some of their combined video/MP3 players are interesting, but they remain a very small player.

Creative under Zen labels have been fairly active in promoting MP3 players.

Sony, after several false starts, are now starting to offer MP3 players.

Other brands include Samsung, iRiver and Cowon.

There had been a Rio line of MP3 players, but in August 2005 these were discontinued.

And then there is also the new line of Toshiba players, reviewed on this page, below.

Two Different Types of MP3 Player

There are two main types of MP3 player.  High capacity players with tens of GB of storage use a small hard drive to store their songs.  Lower capacity players use solid state flash memory instead.

The hard drive based players are most commonly found in 10GB, 20GB, 40GB and 60GB capacities, and sometimes 80GB.  Flash players can be found in capacities from as low as 128MB up to a current maximum of 4GB.

Clearly a hard drive based player gives you much greater capacity for storing more music, but various studies suggest that few people store even as 'little' as 10GB of music on their player.  So who needs a huge 80GB unit - or even a more moderate 20GB unit?

The answer to this question points to the other applications beyond simple music storage and playback these devices can be used for.  Storing pictures, regular backing up and transferring of data from/between computers, and even storing and playing of video files all add greatly to the need for large capacity units.

And so it seems appropriate to look for a larger capacity rather than smaller capacity player, the same as one generally chooses a hard disk for one's computer to be much larger than originally needed (and inevitably the hard drive ends up getting full long before the computer is obsolete!).

Flash drives have the benefit of being even smaller than the hard drive and more physically robust - if you drop a Flash drive based player, you're unlikely to break it, whereas there is a possibility if you drop a hard drive player from a reasonable height onto a hard surface, you could damage/destroy its hard disk.  Currently, flash drive based players are limited to capacities of no more than 5GB, but this will inevitably increase as higher density memory chips come out.

How Many Songs Can You Store?

It is common to see claims for MP3 players in terms of how many thousands of songs can be stored on the unit.  But these numbers are variously meaningless and even potentially deceptive.

The number of songs you can store, per gigabyte, depends on three factors :

  • The average length of each song - obviously a six minute song requires twice as much space as a three minute song

  • The sampling rate used - how many MB are needed per minute of song; with a higher sampling rate using up more MB per minute than a lower sampling rate

  • The type of file format the song is stored in - MP3 or WMA or something else - differing file formats have slightly different storage requirements per minute at the same sampling rate

In reality, when you're trying to compare one player with another, the number of songs is an artificial number that has no meaning.  The key parameter is simply the size of each player's storage in GB.

But, in case you wondered, a quick rule of thumb is that 1GB will store about 15 hours of reasonable quality music, or perhaps 12 hours of good quality (ie 192kb sampling rate MP3) music.

And if you really want to know how many songs this is, 12 hours equates to 180 - 200 songs (assuming a 3.5 - 4 minute average play length).  So a 20GB player could hold 3500 - 4000 songs.

Some manufacturers claim numbers twice as large.  Shame on them.

The Toshiba Gigabeat F40

The Gigabeat MP3 player comes in a package with a reasonable range of related accessories, but lacks one important extra.

In the package is the unit itself, plus an external power supply.  The power supply is multi-voltage so can be used anywhere in the world, and the cord to the AC socket can be replaced with different cords for different socket types (or simply add a plug adapter to the end if you prefer).

There is a USB cable to connect the unit to your computer so you can transfer files to and fro; the Gigabeat has a mini USB socket.

When connected to a computer via the USB port, the Gigabeat will also use the computer's power to recharge its battery, which is helpful.  You could presumably also use any other type of USB charger, as well as its regular power charger.

There is also a cradle in which you can place the Gigabeat.  The cradle connects the unit to both a power supply and USB connection, and provides a line out and a second USB port to be used when transferring data from a camera or other device.  This second USB port is strangely limited to only the 1.1 specification and speed, whereas the main port supports the faster 2.0 spec.

In addition to the controls on the front of the unit, there is a wired remote which can be plugged into the speaker output of the unit, with your headphones then being plugged into the wired remote.  This is convenient if you are carrying your Gigabeat in a pouch such that its controls aren't easily accessed.

A pair of earbuds are also provided.  They are lightweight and not as easily dislodged as full size headphones and so are useful if you're exercising.  However, they don't give very good sound quality.

The unit comes with a CDrom containing various software, a 74 page owner's manual (also offered in French), a 52 page manual to explain the provided music management software, and a quick start guide.

The manual starts off with 3.5 pages of warnings and cautions - what an extreme example of a manufacturer's paranoia in dealing with our litigious society.

There was also an offer for a one month free trial of the Napster music download service.

The major missing accessory?  A carry case.  This is an essential extra that you should immediately rush out and purchase.  If you don't protect the Gigabeat with a carry case you run the risk of scratching or breaking its large screen (as well as the other less fragile parts of the unit), plus if the unit is rattling around loose in your carry bag, there's a chance it might accidentally turn on and flatten its battery.  Worse still, a series of random menu selections caused by items bumping against the unit could potentially end up with you deleting some or all of the music and other data on the unit.  Get a carry case.

The unit itself measures 4.2" by 2.5" by 0.7" inches and weighs 5.7 oz.  This contrasts with my older Archos unit, which has half the GB capacity, but is 2.3 times the size and more than twice the weight.  So although prices have remained high, size and weight has reduced appreciably in the last 3.5 years.

Toshiba offer a one year warranty on the player.  They have toll free support, and my several calls were answered quickly by competent people who helpfully answered my questions fully.

The player sells for about $275 at Amazon and elsewhere.  In addition to the 40GB model, the Toshiba Gigabeat also comes in 10GB, 20GB, and 60GB sizes, and some models offer a choice of color options.

Using the Gigabeat Player

The Gigabeat has a lovely large and bright color screen, measuring 2.2" on its diagonal, and with a 320 x 240 pixel resolution (QVGA).  This is larger, and with a better resolution, than most other players on the market today.

Most operations are done via on screen prompting and the cross shaped control buttons beneath the screen (grandly described as the Plus Touch sensor control).  This cross looks fancy, but underneath it are only five sensors - one at the end of each arm and one in the middle.  It is not always easy to activate the buttons.  You can scroll through a list by dragging your finger down the arm of the cross, but you can't control the speed of the scrolling, and the speed is either too slow (for a big list) or too fast (for a small list).

There are some additional buttons on the side of the unit - a volume control rocker, which duplicates the operation of the cross much of the time, a menu button, an 'A' button (for extra menu responses sometimes) and a power button.

At the top of the unit is a very helpful slide switch marked 'Hold'.  If this is activated, none of the other controls will work.  This can be convenient to prevent inadvertently bumping the controls.

There's also a less helpful switch on the bottom of the unit - a master power switch which can disconnect the batteries from the unit.  There seems little reason to ever need to do this, and if you do, you will lose all your customized settings.

There's good news and bad news when it comes to the battery.  The good news is that it is a high capacity Lithium Ion battery, with a claimed life of up to 16 hours playing time on each charge.  The bad news is that when the battery needs replacing, can only be replaced by sending the unit back to Toshiba.  The manual estimates the battery has about a 500 charge life, which is a fair estimate.

Music is transferred to the Gigabeat either through Toshiba's own program (Gigabeat Room) or through Windows Media Player (version 10 required).

The Gigabeat software is clumsy and difficult to understand and imposes their view of the best way to manage your software.  It seems from a comment in the manual that it may convert all files (mp3 and wav) into wma format; a process which almost certainly embodies some loss of quality as part of the converting, but Toshiba themselves don't think this is actually what occurs.  However, because WMA format is usually better quality than MP3, you should perhaps, whenever you have the choice, buy and create music files in WMA rather than MP3 format.

Transferring MP3 files was a slow process, probably due to the conversion occurring at the same time.

Playing Music

Playing music is fairly easy to do.  From the main menu, you can access your music files via several different logical paths - you can choose by artist, by album, by genre, by playlists (created not on the unit but using the Gigabeat Room or Windows Media Player software), or by going through your file directory pathing directly to the files you want.  You can also create bookmarks that take you direct to files.

Sound quality seemed very similar to that provided by my older Archos player.  One wouldn't normally expect the player to have much of an impact on sound quality - the most dominant factors being the encoding rate used and the headphones you're listening through.

Volume levels were a bit on the low side in quiet passages, even with the volume turned up to maximum.

An annoying 'feature' that is turned on by default is when the player has finished the selections you've made, rather than simply stopping, it then steps on to whatever is next on the disk, and starts playing that.

Looking at Pictures

The lovely bright color screen can display jpg pictures, and software automatically resizes pictures down to the 320 x 240 resolution of the screen.

Toshiba don't specify how many colors the screen can display, and when I called their support number, they said they didn't know the answer.  But, whatever the number is, it is way too few (it is at least 256 colors and maybe more than 1024 colors, but probably less than 4096 colors).  The lack of color depth on the screen means pictures have visible banding in them rather than smooth continuous color.

Choosing the pictures to display is poorly thought out.  All pictures get dumped in one large folder, so if you end up with hundreds or thousands of pictures on the unit (and why not do so - there's plenty of capacity) scrolling through the tiny thumbnails to find the particular picture you are looking for can be time consuming and difficult.

Attempting to use the photo browser built in to the Gigabeat Room software uncovered a known bug - if any of the files in a directory the photo browser attempts to read are in an unknown format, the software will simply crash.  In my case, at least one of the 703 images in the 'My Pictures' directory causes the software to crash every time it is loaded, but short of testing each of the 703 pictures individually, I have no idea which is the guilty image (or images) and so the photo browser can not be used.

Copy Protection and Digital Rights Management Problems

There has been an insidious increase in what is politely referred to as 'digital rights management' (DRM) issues with MP3 and other types of digital music and video players.  While ostensibly designed to prevent piracy and unauthorized copying of music, the reality is these restrictions typically interfere with one's regular use of the music one buys, compared to the freedoms one has when buying 'old fashioned' CDs or tapes.

Toshiba have chosen a very aggressive and stupid approach to enforcing some sort of peculiar and completely unnecessary gratuitous protection scheme.  You can't simply copy music files from your PC to the Gigabeat player, and neither can you copy the music files from the Gigabeat player back to your PC.  Instead, this all has to be directed through either the Windows Media Player program or Toshiba's own Gigabeat Room software, making the process more complicated and difficult and potentially much slower.

This restriction applies to music you own, to music you create yourself, as well as to music you buy.  It also applies to pictures, too, which gives rise to the extraordinarily stupid situation whereby you can use the Gigabeat to directly store images from your camera, but you can't then view them on the Gigabeat because the images weren't transferred via a PC with the Toshiba transfer management software.

This is a clear example of totally unnecessary 'protection' that does not protect anyone or anything, but merely mindlessly interferes with the owner's experience and convenience.

Let's hope Toshiba rethinks this stupidity in a future update of their firmware.  To be fair to Toshiba, they are far from alone in adopting these controls on how we can use our music.

Missing Features

The Gigabeat is a functionally effective music player, but it isn't a state of the art device because it lacks features which some of its competitors offer.

A simple but handy feature is a recorder capability, enabling you to use the unit as a voice recorder or as a music recorder, plugging in a microphone (or with an inbuilt microphone) or other line in source.

Some MP3 units have a built in FM receiver, enabling you to listen to radio broadcasts as well as stored MP3s.

And the Gigabeat's screen begs out for displaying video, but so far there are no video playback capabilities.

Some MP3 players also have some personal information management type software integrated into them; for example, they might allow you to take a copy of your Outlook calendar and view your schedule on the player's screen.

Some players also have some 'eye candy' type programs that aren't really needed, but which add to the feel-good factor when buying a unit.  A world time clock is one such example, a stop watch is another such example.  Obviously such extra features have no impact on the basic ability of the Gigabeat to play your music for you, but they would be nice to have.

Stop Press - new iPods announced

A new generation of iPods have been announced on 12 October.  They will have larger color screens than the Gigabeat (2.5" compared to 2.2" diagonal) and the same screen resolution.  The new iPods, available in 30GB and 60GB capacities, will be much slimmer than the Gigabeat units, and will also play video.  Their battery life has been extended to 20 hours.  They are planned to retail for $300 and $400.

The Gigabeat is generally superior to earlier generation iPods, but these new units seem to be as good or better than the Toshiba Gigabeat in all respects, and at comparable prices.

Summary

The Toshiba Gigabeat F40 is a good portable music player with a huge amount of disk capacity and long battery life, in a small lightweight unit.  And at $275 from Amazon, it is well priced.

For a very short while it may have been the best choice for many people, but the unit, although new to market, seems to have now been trumped by the latest Apple iPods.

 

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Originally published 14 Oct 2005, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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