Date: 2008-06-29 16:18:00
dick smith mp3 player

Since I had my bike accident, I've been taking the bus to work. It takes nearly an hour from door to door, and I thought I could use that time more effectively than just watching the world go by. I decided to use that time to listen to various podcasts that I think I might find interesting.

So the other day I picked up the cheapest MP3 player I could find: a 1 GB player from Dick Smith for $30. Dick Smith is sort of half way between Radio Shack and Fry's—they carry cheap "DSE" branded items in addition to name brand stuff.

This player is essentially a USB memory stick with a few control buttons and an audio out jack. I can't complain too much because it was only $30, but I do have some complaints:

  1. The audio jack sticks out the side perpendicular to the major axis of the device, which makes it awkwardly shaped and harder to slip into a pocket.
  2. There is no "pause" function. The play/stop button stops playback, and resets to the beginning of the file you were playing. If you want to resume, you have to fast forward to the right spot and continue. This is an issue when playing hour-long podcast files.
  3. When playing files in order, they're played in the same order as they appear in the directory on the FAT filesystem. Copying files in bulk doesn't necessarily preserve a sane order.
  4. The device is supposed to read ID3 information to get the title that it shows. But for my copy of NIN Ghosts, it shows "ÿþ1 ÿþN ÿþG" as the track title.
  5. Its UI is slow. For a folder full of 90 minute MP3 files, it takes about 5 seconds to move from one file to the next when just browsing through the files.
  6. It claims to be able to delete files from the filesystem, but trying to do this results in the file not actually being deleted.
  7. One of the folder management functions in the UI causes the device to unceremoniously reboot.

I solved problem 3 by writing a Python program that directly reads the FAT32 volume structure, sorts all the directories by file name, and writes them back. This is essentially a reimplementation of the ancient DOS utility "DIRSORT".

I'm going to work on problem 4 next and see whether I can figure out what it's objecting to in the ID3 information.

My biggest issue is problem 2. Fast forwarding is only one speed, and it takes about 5 seconds to fast forward one minute. To get to minute 50 takes about four minutes of holding down the fast forward control. If only it remembered the position where it was playing the last audio file, this wouldn't be a problem.

Depending on how annoying this turns out to be, I may return this one and get a more functional model. You can hardly get a nice sit-down meal for two for $30 here, so it amazes me that they can produce a (barely) functional bit of electronics for the same price. Even if I spend $90, I'll probably get more enjoyment out of the player than three meals out.

[info]edm : DSE MP3 player
I had one of the first generation of those DSE "USB memory stick with MP3 player functions" and found it worked tolerably well but as you've noticed it had various issues with podcasts (the main thing I was using it for). I've not looked at the more recent ones closely, but assuming they've kept basically the same UI then it was possible to pause by pressing the forward/back rocker button straight down. My one came with a right angle 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter, which I used with "standard" headphones instead of the supplied ones, which mostly solved the strange positioning of the headphone jack. Although I did have increasingly frequent issues with the headphones coming lose in the jack, which in my model would cause it to turn off (and lose the position where I was).

When the battery in my DSE player eventually died (after about 5 years), I ended up getting a iPod Shuffle to replace it (about $80 for the 1GB model at DSE, and $100 for the 2GB model; there were some 2nd generation ones in some stores remaindered for less). Amongst the UI improvements over my old DSE player, it remembers where you were up to when you turn it off. So if I'm listening to a podcast and need to stop I just turn the shuffle off, and when I turn it on again it picks up where I left off (it also has a pause function, as well as fast-forward/rewind). It's also tiny and very light. It does need an adapter to plug into the USB port (it comes with a tiny "dock"), but for around $6 you can get a tiny "shuffle USB to normal USB" adapter off various people on TradeMe.

I use shuffle_db (a tiny Python script) to manage the Shuffle's music database, which makes it nearly as simple as the DSE one used to be -- copy stuff onto the disk, and then run the python script to add it to the "stuff to play" database.

[info]ghewgill : Re: DSE MP3 player
Mine obviously has a more advanced UI that continues playing music when you press the rocker switch down to enter the menu. :) It looks like they also use a standard headphone jack now.

I'm not terribly keen on an iPod Shuffle because then I'd have to use iTunes to manage my music, which would be tolerable but not preferable. I'm currently looking at a Creative Zen Stone Plus, which is Shuffle-like but has a screen and doesn't require iTunes. Reviews on Amazon have the usual mix of good and bad, but it avoids all my complains above except possibly 5.

Thanks for the additional info.
[info]edm : Re: DSE MP3 player
FWIW, there are a bunch of programs that allow managing music on a Shuffle without using iTunes. My Shuffle has never even been plugged into a computer that has iTunes installed. I was initially wary of the iPod Shuffle for just that reason, but after talking to a friend who used one under Linux and a bunch of searching it turned out not to be a problem. The Shuffle in particular has a very simple database format which was been pretty reliably reverse engineered.

As I said in my previous comment I'm using a python script (link in previous comment) which allows me to treat the Shuffle like a USB mass storage drive, and then run the python script to update its music database so it knows to play the files. I just leave the python script on the drive (as they suggest you do). So it works out nearly as convenient as the DSE one was (the only hassle is if you forget to run the script it won't recognise the new music -- if it becomes a problem I'll probably hook something to the eject feature.)

If you want something more guified then my friend suggests GtkPod is the best (and will apparently work with regular iPods as well as the Shuffles -- the regular iPods have a much more complex database format).

[info]ghewgill : Re: DSE MP3 player
That's good to know. The Shuffle is seeming like less of a non-option with that info. However, I do like the idea of having a screen that will at least show me how far I am in to the audio file.

I also saw something about the Shuffle using a "spaghetti cable" where the USB and audio share a port on the device. I'm sure that's not a huge issue, but what are your thoughts on that?
[info]edm : Re: DSE MP3 player
The USB on the Shuffle is through the same socket as the headphones (so you can either have it plugged into the computer or use the headphones, there's no splitter cable AFAIK). Since USB needs four wires (power/ground, plus two data lines) and the traditional headphones need three wires (ground, left and right), what they do in the socket is split the ground strip into two bits. Presumably the mapping is the right way around so they can tell that they're getting +5V and hence go into the USB mode.

This means that you can use normal 3.5mm plug stereo headphones with the device without any problem. It also means that you need an adapter to plug it into the USB. The Shuffle comes with a "dock" which is basically a four part 3.5mm plug mounted vertically in some moulding, and a USB lead. For ease of portability I got a $6 four-part 3.5mm plug to USB plug adapter:

(there a bunch listed on TradeMe which seems to be the easiest way to buy from them; as well as a bunch of the "Shuffle 2G dock" OEM things on TradeMe)

It's a very clever hack, and even using the little plug adapter feels more robust than the large DSE MP3 player hanging off the USB port did. (The fact that the Shuffle is about 20% of the weight probably helps.) The dock is fine too if you only use one computer in one place, but it felt too bulky to carry around all the time, hence buying the tiny adapter to keep in my bag.

Lack of a pause function is truly idiotic! I am often surprised at the crappy design and flat-out programming bugs in the software of consumer electronics.

E.g. I once had a 5-disc CD player with a shuffle function which would occasionally simply play the discs and tracks in order. (It happened sufficiently often that I truly doubt it was by random chance that 50 or 60 tracks happened to be played in order...)

I now have a radio accepts a USB memory card to play MP3 files; it has several annoyances:
Sometimes it simply locks up and must be turned off and back on.
The shuffle function just repeated the first track this morning before finishing playing all the files.
The LCD screen goes completely dark instead of dim after playing for a minute or so; to see any information you need to hit a button.
The UI is sufficiently incomprehensible in general that we both still need to refer to the manual to figure out how to do many things with it.
The buttons have embossed symbols for their function, but these indentations are rather invisible if the lighting is not excellent. Some of the buttons have nearby text printed in a very small font (at least with a contrasting color instead of simply being indented in the surface...)

But at least it has a pause! :)
[info]bovineone : Firmware hacking
Is it this device? If so, then there are a number of links to an unofficial replacement firmware project at the bottom of that article. That can likely overcome many of the software usability complaints.

I've used the Rockbox firmware on another MP3 player that I got several years ago (mentioned March 27th, 2004). I stopped using it about a year ago when the battery life had become too short to last an entire airplane flight, but I was sure to look for a new MP3 player that would also support Rockbox.
[info]ghewgill : Re: Firmware hacking
It appears likely that it was an S1. Previous DSE models were, and this looks like just a newer model of the same thing. However, the physical device is still crap which software can't fix. :)

I thought about Rockbox but none of the devices on which it runs were small enough for what I wanted.
(anonymous) : Dick Smith mp3 A5368
Just purchased this model for my son, a piece of crap, I got ripped.
Greg Hewgill <>