There's a reason why the Apple iPod is not only the world's best-selling digital music player but also a bona fide cultural phenomenon: it works. But the reason the iPod will remain king of the MP3 player hill is the overall lacklustre competition. Exhibit A: the new Toshiba Gigabeat F series, available in four capacities: the black, aqua blue, or silver 10GB MEG-F10 (£150); the silver or black 20GB MEG-F20 (£190); the brushed-aluminum, champagne-coloured 40GB MEG-F40 (£230); and the 60GB brushed-aluminum MEG-F60 (£305), the only model that ships with an in-line remote control.
Packed with creative technology, the silver 20GB version we tested nevertheless suffered from a plethora of overly complicated and frustrating setup and operational flaws, exemplified by the inclusion of not one but two manuals: one for the software and one for the player itself. Many of the Gigabeat's problems could be solved with a serious reworking of the firmware and software, but the remaining flaws will keep the Gigabeat F series from even pretending to reach the iPod's throne.
Sleek and graceful at first glance, with just a jumbo screen and the white Plus Touch control cross on its face, the 20GB Toshiba Gigabeat F series, at 107 x 64 x 15mm and 162g, is nearly the same size and weight as the 20GB iPod; all models are the same size, with the exception of the 60GB version, which is 19mm thick. However, the Gigabeat's 56mm, 320x240-pixel colour LCD is noticeably larger than the iPod's. In addition, the graphics-intensive interface is noticeably more colourful and alive.
Arrayed along the right spine, the Gigabeat also has cool blue backlit power and menu buttons, redundant volume controls, and a mysterious Action button; volume and other functions can also be adjusted using the primary cross control -- more on those later. On top are power and headphone jacks and a hold button to lock all the controls. On the bottom are the cradle and USB connectors, along with a unique battery-on/off switch.
Toshiba does not include a belt clip or a case. Generic music skins -- even an iPod case -- won't work because they'll cover these side controls. Since the Gigabeat is the same size as the 20GB iPod and since the cross control is located in precisely the same relative position as the Click Wheel on the varying iPods, you could get away with using certain iPod cases and still have access to the most basic controls.
Each additional control button and connector adds a layer of operational complexity, something Apple understands but Toshiba doesn't. For instance, we had major difficulties just trying to show off some of our stored pictures. We pushed the menu button expecting to navigate through submenus to get to our pictures. Instead, just one menu appeared, listing the interface, the play mode, and the EQ options. Not until we consulted the manual did we discover that all the other menus were accessed by pressing the power button. We were shocked.
The primary power-button menu presents, among other things, choices for artist, album, genre, and playlist. There is no separate choice for tracks or songs. To find your stored tracks, you have to select the Folders option, which presents multiple folders whose contents vary depending on the source of the tracks. These subfolders are filled either with artist-specific folders or individual track names, all in no discernable sequence. In other words, locating any given track by name is like trying to find a lost sock in your laundry.