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Sunday, May 26, 2002

Technology

Take thousands of digital audio files on the road
Gizmos

By Ron Harris
Associated Press

At a glance
On the Net:
www.phatnoise.com
www.kenwoodusa.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- How many times have I been at the wheel of my car, reached back to the rear floor and rooted around for a cassette tape while careening down a freeway at 60 mph?

Those days appear to be in the rear view mirror thanks to a really nifty piece of machinery called PhatBox.

With hardware smaller than a toaster that tucks away in the trunk, PhatBox can store, access and catalog thousands of digital music files. These MP3s can be played and scanned using a compatible indashboard car stereo.

The PhatBox is branded as the Music Keg by Kenwood and is now sold only through authorized Kenwood dealers, at a list price of $900.

The unit I tested was provided by PhatBox's makers, PhatNoise, along with a compatible Kenwood CD stereo receiver, which is sold separately.

The PhatBox also works with some high-end Sony receivers as well as the stereos that come as original equipment in some BMW, Audi, VW, Honda and Toyota automobiles, PhatNoise said.

It is designed to work with stereos that have slots for conventional CDs as well as stereos designed to work only with separate CD changers.

The PhatBox proper is really four components: a 10-gigabyte hard drive to store the digital music files, a desktop cradle to transfer music from the computer to the hard drive, another docking unit for the car trunk and audio managing software for the PC (The system is not compatible with Apple operating systems).

The PhatNoise Music Manager software installed nicely and began scanning my computer for various types of audio files including MP3s as well as Windows Media Audio files. It found them all quickly -- even the ones ripped from CDs I paid for (wink).

The software then allowed me to create playlists such as rap, rock and pop song collections. It's a nice customization tool since I won't want to scan for each song separately once I'm in a car.

The provided software also lets the user rip and encode CDs into MP3s.

But enough about the desktop -- let's talk about the shiny hardware.

The desktop cradle has a USB connection and the software recognized the unit promptly when I plugged it in. Moments later I was transferring a couple hundred songs onto the hard drive.

The transfer speed seemed a bit sluggish. The company says a USB 2.0 cradle expected out this summer should speed things up.

Once loaded with music, the hard drive slips into the silver PhatBox docking unit in the trunk of the car and gets connected to the car stereo via a CD changer connecting cord.

PhatNoise has designed this unit to look like a heavy-duty car amplifier with a heat sink fin design on the sides -- a familiar shape for those used to installing car stereo goodies.

The PhatBox playlists appear on the dashboard stereo's screen in the same way that CDs in conventional disc changers are listed. All the information encoded into the MP3 files -- genre, artist name and track title -- appear as scrolling text.

Searching this text on the Kenwood's stereo for a particular track among the 200 or so songs I transferred onto the portable hard drive was a slightly arduous task. But I had made it more difficult by not naming the playlists, instead letting the default ''Playlist 1'' and ''Playlist 2'' titles take hold.

This was easily remedied by plugging the hard drive back into the desktop cradle and tweaking the playlists.

The PhatBox unit is a wonderful drive-time solution for fans of MP3 and other emerging digital audio technologies. The sound quality of the MP3s through the Kenwood stereo was pristine and, cover your ears audiophiles, indistinguishable from my conventional CDs.

The one thing to look out for with technology like PhatBox is the recording industry's plan for CDs that copy-protect new songs, which could mean trouble for PhatBox and other MP3-dependent devices.

The five major record labels are working to bring their CDs of the future to store shelves in un-rippable formats. Some of these CDs won't even play in your computer, let alone permit you to make copies and take them on the road.

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