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Appeared on: Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Terratec M3PO


1. Background

Terratec M3PO - Page 1

MP3 players background

Since the early eighties, when the dissemination and playback of audio disks changed dramatically due to the introduction of the audio Compact Disk (CD-Audio), little been offered since then by the leading (Japanese) manufacturers for extending the total playback time of these disks.

Although the necessary technology already existed since the late eighties, it seems the marketing of audio material, the "politics", and the (not to be overlooked) insatiability of copy-righted material owners has prevented, until recently, plain users and audiophiles from acquiring and using the latest in what the technology has to offer in this area.

Early solutions trying to overcome the rather limited (by today's standards) playability of audio compact disks leaned towards mechanical (instead of optical) solutions. CD changers became the only feasible solution and this (of course) resulted in a not-so-compact solution Increased cost and reliability issues has prevented this solution from entering mass market.

Limitations in the manufacturing of reliable laser diodes of short wavelength have always restricted the density of the pressed and (more recently) recorded pits on a compact disks' surface. Even the most recent DVD introduction offers (after 15 years of intensive lab research and development) only double the density of a plain old audio compact disk.

While laser and the accompanied material technology seems to move forward in such a slow pace, software innovation and psychological studies have already offered an elegant solution to this problem. Losy compression through the use of sophisticated psychometric techniques has been available since the days of the introduction of the Sony Mini-disk and the Philips Video CD. It is because of the advent of Internet and the necessity following out of it for establishing a new format for quick, and thus "cheap", audio content dissemination medium that things changed recently. An extension to the original MPEG-1 audio specification became so quickly the new de facto standard under the name of MP3 (MPEG 1, Layer 3).

Until just one year ago, playing MP3 audio files on anything else than a relatively "modern" home computer seemed almost impossible. When MP3 audio files started spreading over the Internet some 4-5 years ago, most 486 based PCs had trouble decoding them decently. Even one year ago, the early stand-alone MP3 players exhibited by some Taiwanese manufacturers where bulky, troublesome and expensive.

All this seems to have been changed dramatically lately. The introduction of more advanced ICs for implementing the MP3 software decoding on-chip, the low price, low consumption "miniature" processors originally intended for the WinCE and other embedded appliances market have now offered new possibilities for more compact and feature rich designs.


2. First impressions, look and "feel"

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First impressions, look and "feel":

Terratec M3PO Front

The player came in a fancy box of rather big dimensions. When we opened it, we faced a view we didn't expect to see: this drive is a beauty! It's aluminum-silver case with the 'Terratec' inscription on its top is very eye-catching, the buttons and the knob in the front-panel give you a quality impression, the remote's design is very elegant as well. As a whole, it's a device very well built, which can proudly accompany your home stereo system, giving it a consistent high-end tone.

Terratec M3PO BackSticking to the outside, the device dimensions' are 430x65x270mm, not so much different from a plain CD player. On the front, there are 4 buttons (named 'Up', 'Menu', 'Stop' and one multi-functioning 'Soft-Button'), the big pressure-sensitive turn knob, the power switch, and a 6.3mm stereo headphone jack. At the back, there are standard RCA (gold-coated) output jacks and a power input connector, where you may insert a power cable similar to the one you use for providing electric power to your PC.

Terratec M3PO InsideOpening the case we now came upon a view familiar to many computer users: A standard IDE Asus 40x CD-ROM drive and an (optional) Western Digital 43AA HD (with WhisperDrive Technology), both connected to a custom-made board through a standard IDE cable. There is also a small power supply, without any built-in fan (that might produce noise in excess of that coming from a usual home CD Player).

The custom-made board contained the main controllerTerratec M3PO Main Controller (a Hitachi SH703x 32bit RISC Processor), the Digital-to-Analog converter (Micronas DAC3550A) and of course the unit's "heart": the MPEG-1 Layer3 Decoder chip, a Micronas MAS3507D. On one side of the small board (at the dimensions of plain PCI card) stood (of course) an ATMEL flash-memory chip for keeping the unit's firmware. Everything (including cabling) was perfectly in place, except of the hard drive, which we found to be a little loosely fitted, something that might cause trouble in case someone moves the Player abruptly.

The unit's main features:

According to the manufacturer's published specifications, M3PO is able to:

o Playback MP3 files directly from a CD.
o Playback conventional audio CDs.
o Reproduce playlists in the widely used .M3U (WinAmp) format.

Moreover, the player supports:

o Additional installation space for a conventional 3.5 inch AT-bus hard disk. (It came standard in our evaluation unit.)
o ISO9660/Joliet and FAT16/32 file systems, both on CD and hard disk.
o MP3 data about artist, album and title (ID TAGS). All this is read and directly shown in the front-panel display.
o All MPEG audio bit rates, scan rates and variable bit rate streams (8-48 kHz, 8-320 kbps).

It is also equipped with:

o An easy to use infrared remote control.
o A 32-bit RISC processor for controlling operation of the unit.
o A High-Quality MPEG decoder from Micronas Intermetall.

Moreover,

o Variable playback speed is possible without affecting pitch.
o Quick access to titles using the shuttle is possible.
o The title list is saved in the internal RAM during playback operations.
o There are special playback modes for a variety of other uses.
o Future update of the operating system is possible with the use of a firmware pressed or burned on a CD-ROM.


3. Tests

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Terratec M3PO InsternalOur Tests:
We wanted to test the Player thoroughly in order to find out whether it fully complies with its specifications. First of all we tested the MP3 playing capabilities. We tried every kind of MP3 CD you could feasibly acquire or burn: from the standard 74min CD-R with MP3 files in it's root directory, to the overburned 80min CD-RW having MP3 files spawn among several subdirectories. Spread throughout them we included files of several other extensions including ZIP, .RAR or even DOC. Furthermore, we used more than 10 different CD-R brands including Mitsui, Princo, Leadtek, TDK, Kodak, Philips, and Verbatim. Along them we also tested it extensively using various CD-RW brand disks we found available, including disks made by Verbatim, TraxData, Leadtek, and Princo. The Asus 40x performed without a glitch in this area, managing to read everything we could possibly throw into it!

The decoding engine of the Micronas showed its strength when it had to deal with a full range of MP3-encoded files at bit-rates of 8, 16, 18, 20, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 96, 112, 128, 160, 192, 224, 256 and finally 320kbps. Sampling rates of 22, 32, 44.1 and 48KHz, both 8 and 16 bit were also tested. We then extended our tests with variable bit rate encoded MP3s. All of them were also reproduced successfully, whether encoded in the 'Lowest' or 'Highest' setting of the  Xing encoder in AudioCatalyst 2.x. Finally, the player managed to process all the M3U (WinAmp-type) Playlists we tried on it, even if some of them pointed to different directories in the CD or the HD.

After doing all of the above, we didn't expect to face a single problem when moving on to test the player using normal music disks. Trying to be, however, completely typical, we also tried several pressed, recorded and erasables. Each one of them played like a charm.

Terratec M3PO HD caseGetting on to the hard disk, things become even more interesting. The M3PO can handle virtually every hard disk you can find on the market today. We tested several brands (Western Digital, Quantum, Seagate), even an old, now not-in-use, Conner we were able to find. Their capacities ranged from 1.2 to 30GB and we didn't face a single problem with anyone of them. Whether it being PIO-1, PIO-4, UDMA/33 or even UDMA/66, the M3PO player could handle them successfully.

We measured the CD-to-HD copy speed though, and got a number of about 150Kb/s, considered to be a somewhat low (same as 1x recording speed). The annoying thing is that the player must stop all of its activities (and thus the music reproduction itself) when performing the copy job. So, you have to wait the 74 or so minutes for the transfer of a whole MP3 CD to the HD. We mailed the company about this problem and they sent us an alpha firmware update that could reach copying speeds of up to 4x (600kb/s). This is quite an improvement and we expect that a production release will be officially issued in the immediate future.

It might be important to our readers to point out here that the flashing process is very simple, if you have a recorder around. You can burn the downloaded BIN file onto a disk, load it up to the M3P0, select 'Update with CD' on the menu and voila! It's ready in a few seconds.

Of course, there is a much faster way for obtaining a HD full of MP3 songs. Just take the disk out of the player (a very simple and easy process), mount it to your PC, do the copy stuff and remount it back to the M3PO.

The output quality of the Player when playing MP3 files was about the same you get when using WinAmp on a PC equipped with a modern sound-card. We were unable to spot any anomalies on the reproduction of the music on the higher (above 128kbps) bit rates. Furthermore, using audio CDs and testing the player with the proper audio equipment under the appropriate audio lab "simulation", we found that the reproduction quality could reach that of the high-end players available in the market today.

As for the usability test, the first impression you get is that the device somewhat complicated due to its large feature set. You certainly have to read the manual to get along with everything. As you get used to it though, you quickly find out that the philosophy of the menus is quite clever and couldn't be done much differently. Especially considering you have only at your disposal 4 buttons and a turn knob at the front panel (The LCD though seemed a little small for the intended use and we wished it had a wider viewing angle and better song scrolling.)

We are delighted to say here, that most of the inconveniencies we sTerratec M3PO Remote Controlpotted in the menu system earlier were greatly improved by uploading the alpha firmware we were sent. Additionally, many other, new to us, features were also added! If you check Teratec's website (www.terratec.net) you will see that there have been numerous firmware releases in the past. This shows that 'Terratec'' seems to be a company which cares a lot about its customers. It doesn't stop development on its products after initial market introduction. Aftersale support we expect to be of similar quality as well. The homepage of M3PO is located at www.m3po.com.

A certain issue they might want to deal with in the future concerns the unit's remote control. Although it numbers many more buttons than the Player itself, thus providing shortcuts for the most frequently used functions (such as Play, Stop, Next Song, Previous Song, Search back and forth, Speed adjustment, File information), it's lack of the multi function 'Soft-button' that is present on the Player itself leads to some inconveniences. A number of functions cannot be preformed through the remote control itself and one has to access the main unit for doing so.


4. Conclusion

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Conclusion:

Positive (+) :

Negative (-) :

- Works with all kinds of CD-R and CD-RW discs and every kind of MP3 file available today.
- You can store your favorite songs in the internal HD and never swap a CD again! Using a 30GB HD, you can store about 680 hours of music. This is about one month of non-stop music;)
- High quality of construction, Cool design.
- This player can easily replace your high-end CD Player.
- Good after-sales support and frequent firmware updates.

- The unit's small LCD display offers a narrow viewing angle and jerky scrolling.
- The absence of the 'Soft Button' on the remote needs to be fixed in future hardware revisions.
- Some small inconveniency in the menu system might require new firmware releases.

Terratec M3PO Top!The Terratec M3PO player is a prime example of this entire new trend. Based on a Micronas chip decoder, this powerful PC-on-a-card player offers the usability of a full-featured PC based MP3 player. Equipped with a standard CD-ROM, a small display and even an optional standard IDE hard-disk (HD), it is able to play every possible MP3 audio file in circulation today. From an 8Kbps, 8KHz, mono, up to a 320Kbps, 48KHz, Variable-Bit-Rate (VBR) stereo MP3 file. Playlists, CD-to-HD copying is all-standard in this unit. With an elegant design, it is even able to stand side-by-side to your other audio home equipment. A PC enthusiast's and audiophile's dream is finally true?



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