The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

A review of first portable hard drive player to support Ogg Vorbis playback.

The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer is a portable digital music player that includes an FM tuner. For penguin users, however, the most interesting capabilities probably are its support for music encoded in the Ogg Vorbis format and its compatibility with Linux computers.

Features

The reviewed product is the 128MB model, which weighs 5.8 ounces and measures 4.3" high, 2.5" wide and 1.3" deep. Neuros currently is shipped only in the US and is expected to reach Europe during the first half of 2004, after certification is achieved. Multivoltage AC/DC adapter and support for European FM frequencies also will be added by that time. The box includes earphones, a 110 volt AC/DC adapter, USB cable, belt clip and 35-page User's Guide, with a mini CD-ROM attached. The Neuros HD 20GB model also has a car power adapter.

The 128MB internal memory holds two hours of music encoded at 128Kbps or up to four hours of recordings, depending on the encoding rate—64, 96, 128 or 160Kbps. Everything can be recorded, not only radio input. The device has a built-in microphone and a line-level input to record from external sources. Because the computer sees it as a USB mass storage device, it also can be used as a portable hard drive to move around or back up any kind of file.

The battery is an internal memory-effect free NiMH and is not replaceable by the user. It is supposed to last for ten hours of continuous playback, and it takes eight hours to charge. Digital Innovations declares the battery lifetime is over two years and offers a replacement that costs less than $10 US if the battery dies.

As far as radio is concerned, the Neuros is more than a passive FM receiver thanks to a couple of patent-pending features, commercially called My-Fi and HiSi. My-Fi refers to Neuros' ability to find a free FM frequency and then transmit the digital music it contains on the frequency, up to a theoretical maximum range of 20 feet. The user must then synchronize his or her tuner to the frequency shown on the Neuros display to listen to it through the system speakers.

The HiSi acronym stands for Hear It! Save It! and allows identifications of songs heard over the radio. Pressing the orange button on the right while an unknown song is received creates a 30-seconds digital fingerprint. The next time the Neuros is connected to the PC, the fingerprint is transmitted to the NeurosAudio Web site, which compares it to a database and returns the current song title and artist.

The HiSi service requires a free registration, which writes a unique key based on the device serial number into the computer registry. This process is different from the Web site registration needed to participate in NeurosAudio Web forums, but the two sets of data are linked by the e-mail address. The key is used for verification purposes. The only user data sent to or logged by the server are that key and the IP address of the computer to which the Neuros is connected. Digital Innovations explained that “HiSi connections and data ARE NOT correlated with user profiles and no information is shared with third parties” and that “if the user lends the Neuros to a friend he would only 'appear' as a different IP address”. HiSi requires TCP ports 4447 and 4405.

The Neuros and Linux

Use of HiSi is based on the Neuros Sync Manager client, which runs only on Microsoft Windows. Support for Linux is under consideration. Because the Neuros is seen as a USB mass storage device, the user could copy the OGG files to it, but the songs would not be available in the Neuros menus.

The playback of Ogg Vorbis music in the Neuros and its management from Linux are based on special firmware and on a Python script. The firmware, called Neurosetta, has been developed by Xiph.org programmers (www.xiph.org) and is sponsored by Digital Innovations. Binary, installation instructions and release notes are available at www.xiph.org/neurosetta. Bugs should be reported to bugs.xiph.org. Future binaries also will be signed digitally.

The Python script, Positron, offers a command-line interface to synchronize the music files on the hard drive and those on the Neuros. We tested the RPM package of version 1.0 on Red Hat 9. It requires the pyogg and pyvorbis libraries, whose RPMs for Red Hat 9 are available at www.xiph.org/~volsung. Positron has its home page at www.xiph.org/positron and is distributed under the BSD license.

Figure 1. Configuring Positron, the Neuros Manager for Linux

Positron creates a database of all the songs in the user specified source directory and copies them and the database to the device. The main Positron operations are:

positron config     # for configuration
positron sync       # synchronizes hard disk and Neuros
                    # music repositories
positron rebuild    # rebuild the internal database

Oddly, the first command configured Ogg support as false, and it was necessary to open $HOME/.positron/config and change it to true. This should be fixed in future releases. It also is possible to add or delete single music tracks.

As of this writing (mid-August 2003) the Neurosetta/Positron combination still is declared as beta. It does not play back MP3 yet, and according to the home page, it may present “possible skipping on high-bit-rate files (over 200kps)”. We never experienced such problems during the review, however. Audio quality was superior to what the above statements had prepared us to expect. On the other hand, we did experience, “database problems [which] frequently cause the unit to freeze [during use], or songs to be missing or misfiled”—something predicted in the Positron troubleshooting guide. In our case, the misfiling corresponded to listing all stored songs correctly but playing back only the first one of the current list.

______________________

Articles about Digital Rights and more at http://stop.zona-m.net CV, talks and bio at http://mfioretti.com

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The first portable ogg player was...

Anonymous's picture

...the Sharp Zaurus 5500, with wireless support and micro-drives and all the other features and more of the Neuros. Indeed I can nfs or smb mount my terabyte server, if I don't have enough local media... The Neuros is cool, but can't compete with an open platform.

Very good Idea, want to see more of these

Anonymous's picture

I thing that this open sourced device is great and I hope to see more device sold that way. I thing it will be also great to have

.DVD player (desk)
.Hard disk Video recording

That would be very nice thing. It's very frustrating when we dont have a feature that we all know could be easily be added with a simple firmware upgrade but we dont have this choice. Inovative Technology give us this choice. I'm very glad and prode to encourage this.

Thanks

Re: The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

Starkey's picture

I think the reviewer is missing some important parts of the Neuros, that makes it a great product.

Digital Innovations is very open with their customers about the state of development with the Neuros. The Neuros allows firmware upgrades, which enhance and add to the current feature set. For example, only mp3 was supported when I first bought my Neuros. Now the player supports Ogg Vorbis, WMA and WAV formats. That's just an example of how this product grows.

Support from the Neuros "community" is great. Anyone who has Linux knows what this is. The forums at the Neuros' website has lots of information about the current and upcoming features. Much more than was mentioned in the article.

Also the openess of the software and database allows one to write third party applications. I have written (with help) a complete open source sync manager in Java (http://neurosdbm.sourceforge.net). This was written specifically with Linux in mind, but works on any Java enabled platform. Just the ability to do this appeals to the hacker in all of us...

Linux support is great. DI doesn't officially "support" Linux, how could they? They are small company. But the support from the community is just as good. Anyone who has used Linux knows how strong this kind of support is.

I'm one of many Neuros users who would never give up their "baby" for another Music player. Don't take my Neuros from me!

(I posted this in the wrong place the first time. Sorry for repeat.)

From the reviewer: DI position on Open source

Anonymous's picture

"I think the reviewer is missing some important parts of the Neuros, that makes it a great product."...

I am well aware of the openness of Digital Innovations, and
the qualities and potential of the Neuros "community".

The reason was simply space constraints: I had to fit in
the given word count an overview of those good things and also the basic features and info on
how to get it up and running on a Linux box.

I agree completely with your comments. For the record,
they where the other main reason why I proposed this
review to LJ last year (the first being having finally something with a Linux interface and OGG support).
Thanks for the nice
complement to my review (and for sparing me from typing
it myself as a comment :-) ...)

Ciao
Marco Fioretti

Fairly dated information

Anonymous's picture

There are some items in this review which are rather dated (since it was originally written back in August of last year).

The Neurosetta firmware is no longer the most recent ogg-capable firmware available for the Neuros. If you use firmware 1.45 from www.neurosaudio.com/support/support_updates.asp you get ogg, non-drm wma and mp3 support.

There are 2 options for sync software under Linux. Positron is a command-line python script, as stated in the review. There have been some updates to it since this article was written, but those aren't yet rolled into the version available from xiph's site. The other option is NeurosDBM (Neuros Database Manipulator), a java app written by one of the Neuros users. It has both a gui and command-line mode, and is more actively developed than Positron. It's also open-source, and is hosted on sourceforge. neurosdbm.sourceforge.net

Digital Innovations (maker of the Neuros) is actively developing some significant updates to this product. They are working on several USB 2.0 backpacks, one with the same form-factor as before (using a 2.5 in hard drive) and one that is smaller (using a 1.8 in hard drive). The larger of the 2 should be out relatively soon, with the 1.8 in version following after. They are also working on a significant rewrite to the firmware of the Neuros which will support some of the features that users have been asking for from the beginning, with browse-while-playing and auto-resume probably topping the list.

Re: The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

Anonymous's picture

The Neuros will also support gapless playback for Ogg Vorbis when new beta firmwares are released to the public. MP3s will not be supported for gapless playback.

Re: The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

Starkey's picture

I think the reviewer is missing some important parts of the Neuros, that makes it a great product.

Digital Innovations is very open with their customers about the state of development with the Neuros. The Neuros allows firmware upgrades, which enhance and add to the current feature set. For example, only mp3 was supported when I first bought my Neuros. Now the player supports Ogg Vorbis, WMA and WAV formats. That's just an example of how this product grows.

Support from the Neuros "community" is great. Anyone who has Linux knows what this is. The forums at the Neuros' website has lots of information about the current and upcoming features. Much more than was mentioned in the article.

Also the openess of the software and database allows one to write third party applications. I have written (with help) a complete open source sync manager in Java (http://neurosdbm.sourceforge.net). This was written specifically with Linux in mind, but works on any Java enabled platform. Just the ability to do this appeals to the hacker in all of us...

Linux support is great. DI doesn't officially "support" Linux, how could they? They are small company. But the support from the community is just as good. Anyone who has used Linux knows how strong this kind of support is.

I'm one of many Neuros users who would never give up their "baby" for another Music player. Don't take my Neuros from me!

Re: The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

Anonymous's picture

An alternative Java application, http://neurosdbm.sourceforge.net/ will alleviate your sync and playlist problems. Requires JSRE 1.41 or greater, I believe.

The "fingerprint generation" routine inside of Neuros Sync Manager on Windows is basically the only closed-source function in the application. When released to Linux, it will be included as a compiled library.

Neuros Sync Manager is currently coded in C#.

Beta firmwares are in testing for multi-threaded browsing and playback, as well as a host of new features that are platform indepentant.

Re: The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

Anonymous's picture

The Neuros Sync Manager for windows is also open source. I have no problems running it with linux (Red Hat Fedora Core 1) and I get greater than 20ft MyFi transmission.

Unlike the iRiver and Rio Karma the Neuros really has open source on the brain. They also have a great online community check out their forums to see what I mean.

Seamless playback?

Anonymous's picture

It's nice to read about the technology, but does this player support seamless playback (no gaps between the tracks) or is it just another fancy toy?

Rio Karma

Anonymous's picture

The Rio Karma series also support OGG and FLAC (woohoo!).

Unfortunately, they don't support the USB DISK class driver and must be accessed through special win32 software or over a network using a java applet. I initially expected it to support SMB over the network (it should at that price) - but no, only a simple page accessed using http where you can download the java app.

WTF is wrong with having a simple directory tree accessed on FAT32 with the USB DISK class driver, and having a "reindex" option in the player menus? Is it really that hard? Plug in, mount, copy, unmount, unplug, press "reindex", play.

I'll buy one when I can do that.

-- Craig Ringer

Re: The Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

Anonymous's picture

iRiver iHP series support Ogg Vorbis. Much cooler.

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