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Thursday, April 20

Pimp my PMP
Yes. I am a sad geeky individual. I know that. I like toys and gadgets and I like them to suit my purposes. I am not incredibly impressed with things which are beautiful in themselves, but I do like it when things work in an elegant way. That's me.

So, in December 2004, I joined the mp3 player revolution. I bought a Philips HDD-120. I bought it because I wanted a toy. I didn't tell myself this at the time. I told myself that I bought it because I'd just bought a bike, and having music on the move would encourage me to use that bike. It was a compelling argument. And, in fairness to myself, that wee mp3 player accompanied most of my cycle rides, some of which lost me a lot of weight during Christmas 2004.

The HDD-120 had a 20Gb hard drive, a black and white LCD screen, and a somewhat quirky, but friendly user interface. It was fairly painful to copy music to it, as it insisted on using a badly-written music manager tool for the purpose, rather than just let me copy my mp3 files directly onto it (as though it were a portable hard disk). Worse than the fact that the music manager was clunky to use and slow, this same music manager also crashed. Insult to injury was added by the fact that the system was very sensitive about the exact mp3-identity tags (the bit of the file which says the album, trackname, artist, etc) so a lot of the player's search facilities - to help me find the music which had been hidden away on it somewhere - rarely worked. Often albums would be played in the wrong order. It was a bit of a dog's dinner.

On the plus side, the HDD-120 was reasonably small and lightweight, and it had a recording facility, so I could use it to record gigs. When I had it stolen in the great car break-in of August 2005 (it wasn't that great), I reviewed my mp3 player situation. Did I still need one? What were my requirements?
  • Of course I still needed one
  • It needed to record
  • It would be useful if it had a radio
  • I needed a minimum of 20Gb hard disk
  • It would be nice if it could take the files more neatly
So, I went on ebay and bought the iRiver PMP-120. At the time I didn't know whether it had a better method of getting files, but it had 20Gb hard disk, recording facility and radio. It also had a colour screen, movie player and threatened to be able to play games.

So far, no games. I've also not really watched any movies on it - excepting the handful of movie files that came with it. However, it has accompanied me on several car journeys and has recorded a few dozen gigs. The PMP-120 has two problems:
  1. The user interface sucks a big donkey's cock
  2. It has a 20Gb Hard Disk
Hang on a minute? What does sucking a big donkey's cock mean in user interface terms? More importantly, how can the fact that it has a 20Gb Hard Disk be a problem? it was on the wishlist wasn't it? Furthermore, what's with all the rhetorical questions? It's just a device to keep you interested in this dull narrative.

So, the user interface. Well, this is quite simply unpleasant to use. If you don't know what you're doing, the player is virtually unusable. It has been reviewed as a bit of a geek's toy. It's tricky. However, I'm prepared to pay for a hard-to-use interface with the easy-to-use method of transferring my mp3 files. I can keep them on the player in exactly the same form that I keep them on my main computer. They're just some files in some directories - organised by genre, artist (if relevant) and then album. Easy.

The hard disk size? Well, I filled the unit up. 20Gb wasn't enough. Perhaps I should have bought the PMP-140 which has a 40Gb drive? I don't know. Basically, my computer now has more than 20Gb of music on it and the PMP doesn't record reliably with a nearly-full disk, it skips a bit as it tries to put the music in the gaps.

So, what to do? As of November, I'd been pondering the possibility of upgrading the hard disk. I would involve a certain amount of taking the machine to pieces and a cost of buying a very small hard disk, which is not a very small cost. At some point, I snapped and ordered the drive. I forget exactly when. So I was going to Pimp my PMP (hence the title). So far, this process has not been completed. It has been one problem after another. At the moment, I have an mp3 player which doesn't play any music. So, perhaps now is the time to take stock on what has happened so far and see where this "project" is leading me.

Ordering the drive
I ordered a 60Gb Toshiba mini drive. It's tiny. 1.8" wide and only 8mm tall (excuse the mismatched units there). However, it's also the drive they put in iPods and there's a world-shortage. It wasn't incredibly expensive (though you could buy an mp3 player for that price) but it was on a long-delivery time.

A few weeks later the supplier called me to see whether they could talk me out of receiving the drive. Sort of. They confirmed that I really wanted it before sending it. They'd receiving limited supply and wanted to be sure that the drivers were going to a good home. I said I wanted it and then tried to get it delivered to my good home. Farnborough (well, it's not good, or particularly home, but I'm there often). Sadly, my credit card is still registered in Newcastle so they threatened me with a confusing set of steps to convince them to deliver somewhere other than Newcastle. I let them deliver the drive to Newcastle on the basis that I would be able to pick it up the following weekend when I was visiting my house there anyway.

Not receiving the delivery
The drive didn't get through the door in Newcastle. It returned to the post office. One of my friends took the card along to the post office to pick it up but was turned away - the card needed to be signed by me. I gave them a copy of my signature to copy on the card. They went again with my signature reproduced faithfully on the card. No dice. The card needed to be signed and accompanied by an example of my signature on something official. If you think about it, since signatures can be relatively easily copied if you have enough time and nobody watching, there's no need to ask for a signature - they just needed to be certain that whoever was stealing my mail was also able to steal my driving licence.

So, when I went to Newcastle, the box was still in the post office and it was too late (that Saturday) for me to pick it up. D'oh. So, I gave my friend the driving licence. He went along, got the box, put the driving licence in it and then posted it to my Farnborough address.

Not receiving the re-delivery
A couple of days passed and no sign of a box or a card in Farnborough. Then I heard of a box which had no name on it which had been carded for. One of my housemates had the card in case it was for them. The tracking number from Royal Mail said that my box was waiting... of course my proof of ID was in the box, so picking it up might be a problem.

This was getting needlessly complicated.

Then I came back from work to find the box collected and sitting on the kitchen table. My name was on the side - the postman was just a numpty, not spotting the name and sticking it on the card.

So, just stick the drive in, right?
Not really.

I won't go into a huge amount of detail about this. Perhaps I will list the steps to complete the upgrade in my "geek" section, because there need to be more guides on doing this. Anyway, here are some of the things I had to do:
  • Take the device apart
  • Pry the main circuit board out of it
  • Disconnect the existing hard disk
  • Cut the hard disk's rubber encasement up so that some of it could be used to cushion the new drive
  • Put in the new hard drive
  • Put everything back together
  • Try to start up the machine, which immediately went wrong
  • Spend ages on the net looking for ways to fix it
  • Find that the machine would only work if I set the new hard disk to use only 20Gb of its 60Gb
  • Give up for a bit...
Which brings me to where we are at the moment. I've not copied the music back onto this, now blank, machine, as I've not yet completed the process of upgrading it. I thought that the hard bit would be the fiddly electronics-taking-apart-an-expensive-piece-of-equipment thing. It turned out that most of my irritation and fear that it may never work again was caused by software problems.

I have upgraded the firmware, which is the software that is permanently loaded into the memory of the machine and which controls it when it turns on (regardless of the hard disk). Now, I think I might be able to make the hard disk work as a 60Gb drive. Once I've done that I should be able to use it again. It's been the work of maybe 3 or 4 hours and a lot of waiting. When complete, it will be really good, as it will be able to contain a lot more of my music collection (I own a lot of music) and it will also be a bit quicker than it was (according to one person's experience doing the same upgrade).

Why do I need an mp3 player?
After all the effort of buying, replacing, upgrading and generally touching my mp3 player, has it been worth it?

Overall, yes. As a convenient way to record gigs, it's the perfect device (okay, so it could be smaller and less brick-like, but you can't have everything. More importantly, since I spend a lot of time driving and since I currently live 500 miles away from my CD collection (most of which is boxed in the loft in Newcastle), this little device is a portable library of the wide variety of music that I listen to. I'm plugged into music for a lot of the day. It's important to me.

Perhaps my geeky side likes the challenge of the pissing-about-with-hard-disks bit too.

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