Column published on Saturday November 24th 2007 in The Guardian “Eco Media Player Cranks up the volume” – The Guardian headline
I was mean to the Philips Streamium Player the other week. Some of you might have thought, “Well, that was a PC product and Fry is a Mac man to his boots, so what can we expect?” I can hardly express therefore the pleasure with which I am able to rave about another, in many ways, similar device, and one that is even more emphatically PC-oriented.
Trevor Baylis leapt to fame 10 years ago with his wind-up radio. Now comes his Eco Media Player (around £170). There is something about this adorable device that makes me smile, and keep smiling. The difference between it and the Streamium says a lot about the crucial emotional reciprocity between manufacturer and consumer of which one is aware the moment one opens the packaging. One product gives off an air of corporate indifference and separation from the human world, the other a sense of wanting to please, of wanting to love and be loved.
Chunky, rubber-skinned and round-cornered, the Eco Player’s dimensions make it thicker than the mainstream generation of players, but then it has to house the famous Baylis crank. For all that, it feels lighter than a packet of cigarettes. My version has 2GB of internal flash memory, but models up to 8GB are (or will be) available. All that you’d hope to find is present and correct: mini USB connector with which it can be charged via your PC or Mac’s USB (2.0) port, slot for a mini-SD memory card and sockets for headphones and line-in. Plus FM radio (great quality), a music player in all the usual formats (if you like volume, this blasts the iPod out of the water), video (using the asv codec: boo), a voice recorder, a self-styled ebook reader and a startlingly bright torch. Yes, torch.
Granted, the video is no better than on the Philips and the resolution and icon design on its 1.8-inch screen is never going to make Apple quake in their boots, but this device has got that thing, you know?
Its most obviously innovative feature is that whatever you have eaten that morning will power it – calorie-fuelled charge of one minute via the wind-up handle provides 40 minutes of audio play.
The details are so right, too. Both the mobile phone and the PC-to-device mini-USB cables come in sprung recoil housing. Good – really good – bud earphones. The torch simply makes one grin. And there’s more under the bonnet. A kind of cheerful openness pervades the Eco. Audio recording is fine for “voice memos”, whatever the hell they are, but the Eco goes one step farther with a software switch that lets you record via line-in, too. Cassettes, minidisks, DATs and vinyl are welcomed through a minijack for conversion into MP3. There are plenty of dedicated little boxes that do this, but Baylis has thrown this into an already function-rich object that has already more than justified its asking price.
There is also a switch that allows the crank to discharge its power not internally to the device’s own Lithium Ion battery but out through the mini-USB into a mobile phone, charging it with up to two minutes of talk time. A selection of popular phone connections is included. Very handy in an emergency, though I found it couldn’t deliver enough kick to start up a phone whose battery was drained. Still, it’s yet another pleasing extra. And did I mention that there’s a speaker so you can listen, in mono admittedly, without earphones? Eat Trevor’s dust, Apple. Only the iPhone can match that. No iPod can.
But yes, this is truly a PC-only device. The asv video codec is not available on the Mac. So far as I am aware, there isn’t any Mac software to allow you to convert into it. The Eco’s utility CD can’t even play on a Windows Virtualised or Bootcamped Mac, for it is a tiny disk and the slot-loading Mac accepts only the standard CD size. Well, that’s Apple’s fault, not Baylis’s, though the device works well enough with a Mac, mounting itself as a disc when connected.
For all its quirkiness, perhaps because of it, I love this little thing. It could have just traded on the “eco” aspect of its power generation and Baylis’s name. But it offers more than that. It is robust, clever without being pleased with itself, useful and appealing. And, as with people, I like it because it likes me.
© Stephen Fry 2007