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Subject: Neuros: Not ready for prime time
From: Neon John (johngd_at_bellsouth.net)
Date: 2003-09-24


I recently asked the RockBox mailing list for suggestions for a new hard drive
player, given the sad state of Archos stuff. One suggestion was the "Neuros
music computer" (http://www.neurosaudio.com) At the same time Neuros greatly
reduced the prices of their current products, apparently getting ready for new
ones. Despite some concerns (no audio book bookmarking, etc) I decided to
order one. It arrived today (Tuesday). What follows is the relevant entries
in my daily diary as I fought with this thing. I wrote these entries in real
time so early comments sometimes conflict with what I learned later in the
day.

Several people expressed an interest in my experience with this product so I'm
posting it to the relevant mailing lists. I'm also sending a copy to Neuros
in case they want to address the problems I identify in this message.

Of sufficient concern to me to mention again in this header is the matter of
Open Source. Neuros makes a huge deal about open source including their
"social contract" (sic) on the topic.
 http://open.neurosaudio.com/archives/000003.html

That this firmware was supposed to be open source was a major, maybe the
definitive factor in my decision to buy. I believe I got duped.

To me "open source" means that I can download the sources, set up a
development environment on my computer, run "make" and the result is an
executable that is byte-for-byte identical with that which shipped with the
product. I can do that with Linux. I can do that with the GNU stuff. I can
do that with RockBox. I (apparently) can't do that with the Neuros firmware.

Apparently the term means something else to them because they have NOT
released the firmware source code. That is according to the tech weenie I
talked to today on the support line and according to my prowling the above web
site. He could not give me a date for the "disclosure" (like it's some big
secret.) This is NOT Open Source!!!!

As I type this I've pretty much made up my mind. I can't allow my dollars to
support a company that uses Orwellian NewSpeak like this. Unless Neuros
responds to this message with a URL pointing to the sources, my unit is going
back.

Executive summary: Great hardware, absolutely horrible software, deceptive
promotion. So bad that I'll probably send the unit back. Experiencing
another commercial product such as this reminds me of just how good RockBox
is.

John
------------------

9/23/03

Neuros music player
first day

Packed in a nice static protected bag, inside anti-static styrofoam. The unit
is about the size of an Archos Studio. First negative impression is in
regards to the connector between the backpack and the player. Exposed pin
header. Very fragile.

The player has a cradle that it must be plugged into in order to function.
Apparently it contains the battery and Flash RAM. The hard drive is a similar
cradle. The cradle/player combo is about the same size as the Archos Studio
10. The first major disappointment is that the hard drive cradle won't fit
the CaseLogic case that I ordered.

The hardware looks good on the outside. Nice display and crisp keys.
There are two keys on the right, one orange, and one the keyboard lock
switch, and 5 soft keys on the left. There is a thumb-operated joy pad
for navigating. Below that is a play/stop button and a FF and REV key.

My first problem is in separating the player from the backpack. It has
a catch on the end that lets the two slide apart. Only I couldn't slide
it. I finally stuck the head of a paper clip in between the player and
backpack and twisted while holding the catch with the other hand. They
popped loose. A VERY tight fit. I hope it loosens up with use, as I do
NOT like having to use a tool on such a device.

Sync manager came on a mini-CD. Installed without incident but forced the
install of microshit's .net framework that it downloaded from the net. It did
not ask permission which pisses me. At the end of the install, the install
manager just goes away. No "run now?" dialog. No icon on the desktop. I
went through the "start" menus, found the sync manager and manually sent an
icon to the desktop.

The first invocation of the sync manager core dumped, probably because its
resident part wasn't loaded. My startup manager notified me that the sync
manager wanted to install a component to run at startup. *Sigh* Another
little chunk of memory eaten up at boot time.

I plugged in the Neuros to the USB port and XP found and installed the hard
drive with no problems.

The first step is to fill in a preferences screen which includes the device's
serial number. I'm going to guess that this architecture is similar to Palm's
HotSync manager whereby multiple players can be synced from one host. Just a
guess at this point. End of day addition: The architecture is painfully like
that of the Palm, with the complete inability to put any music on the drive
without going through the miserable sync manager. Also, apparently no way to
load songs from the hard drive into the flash player other than a very clunky
process through the PC. EVERYTHING is bound to the PC with the player being
an apparently almost dumb slave. Again, very Palm like and very unfortunate.

After registering, the manager automatically looked for a new firmware version
and got it. I don't yet know if I can prevent that or not. Answer: yes I
can, under "properties". Also under Preferences I can disable the boot
loading of the sync agent. GOOD!

Trying to add songs to the database. The process is VERY slow, requiring
several seconds per song. Intolerable. Manual does not tell how to turn the
volume up and down. FM band is European band, doesn't go above 104mhz. End
of the day note: This band is the TRANSMIT band. The FM receiver covers the
whole US FM band.

Call to neuros support. Quick answer by a human and not an automated
attendant. For the volume control to work the headphones must be
plugged in. Otherwise the FM transmitter is engaged and the volume control
changes the FM frequency. If the unit is started playing without the
headphones plugged in it goes into FM transmit mode. Plugging in the
headphones has no effect. The song must be stopped and started again.

He said that the slow database speed is "normal". It looks like it would take
at least 24 hours to read in the 20 gig of stuff I had on my FMR and then
another several hours to transfer it to the player. Totally unsat. End of
day note: I was uncannily accurate in that prediction, with the whole process
taking >24 hours.

The sources have NOT been released and the tech support guy could not give me
a date. IMHO, the web site lies.

I loaded a few titles. The "play" display is unsat. It displays the
song name in bold letters and the album and artist names in lawyer type.
It does not scroll so long names go off the display and are lost.
It has a bargraph to show how much has played, along with a time
display. IT does NOT show the track length, nor can it show the time
remaining like Rockbox can. This display might be tolerable for music
but it is worthless for other audio materials.

The fast forward and back is a fixed, very slow speed. No acceleration as in
Rockbox.

The sync manager has been running for about 2 hours now against the collection
of files I had on my FMR. We're still in the "C"s. This is NOT syncing with
the Neuros but simply reading the songs into the PC database. I just timed
the sync manager while adding some 128kb songs to the database. 22 seconds
for 10 songs.

I just pulled the USB cable after syncing some stuff. The screen went to
"caching database" and remained there for over a minute. I hate to think how
many hours it will take with the whole 20 gig drive.

I'm sitting here at 5:30 pm and still no stuff on the unit. I started
at about 12:30 pm. I canceled the scan of my old archos directory. Of
course this crappy sync manager threw away all the work it had done.
Shades of DOS or CP/M!! I now have it importing only my audio books
section to the database. It's been running for an hour now. Looks to
be about 2/3s finished.

So far I cannot figure out a way to load the 128k player from the hard drive
cradle. Apparently there isn't an easy way, despite a support guy telling me
(before I bought, of course) that I could simply plug in the player to the
hard drive cradle and transfer stuff. The USB circuitry is in the player
while the memory is in the saddles. My old Rio Volt is looking nice at this
point.

I sent the following message to Neuros last week and again today. It has yet
to be answered.

------
Hi,

I just ordered a Neuros bundle and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. Meanwhile
I have been looking in vain for the open source to this device. I've
(casually) looked at open.neurosaudio.com and found only fragments. Where can
I find the code for the whole system? And what kind of development
environment is required?

Thanks,
John
------

Shazam!!!! It finally finished importing (but not sending to the Neuros) my
audio books. I had 23 books to import. Here's the message from the sync
manager.

Search is successful! Total tracks found: 2244. Total playlists found: 0.
Total tracks imported: 2244.
Track import execution time: 01:05:28.6808928
Object reference not set to an instance of an object.

Simply friggin' amazing. How can such a simple task take so long? This is on
a 2 gig Dell laptop. I'd hate to think how long it would take on my old 350
mhz pentium I normally use for music stuff.

I just selected all those books to be installed on the Neuros. I did a ^A on
the list to select all, right clicked and selected "send to neuros". That was
5 minutes ago and it's still running. Not transferring files, just selecting
them out of the database. There is no indication of what this thing is doing,
just an hourglass. The transfer to the Neuros should not start until I hit
the "sync" button. I listened to the Neuros to confirm that the drive is
still. 8 minutes later it finished queuing the files to be transferred.
This is a total of 3 gig of data.

06:00 PM I just hit the Sync button with great trepidation. The
software is predicting exactly 2 hours. I figure maybe 3 hours for this
one. I can see now why there is no USB2 on this unit - it would be a
total waste of silicon, given the software performance.

08:02 PM
Well, that's nice. I got the evening news and PBS news watched and a few
chores done. This transfer just completed. How special. I'm about to unplug
the USB cable. I can hardly wait to see how long THIS takes.

Not bad, just about a minute to "cache the databases". Well, not bad by
Neuros standards, anyway.

I'm headed out for awhile so I'm going to start the import of the rest of the
material on my Archos.

11:48 PM
I'm back. The import is finished. Here's the last part of the log.

Search is successful! Total tracks found: 90. Total playlists found: 0. Total
tracks imported: 90.
Track import execution time: 02:04:24.5034288

The track count is wrong since apparently the sync software resets the counter
each time it starts down a new tree. The "90" is the number of songs in the
last tree, in this case, the Led Zeppelin directory. The actual count is 2668
files. 2.8 seconds a song.

I tried the unit in my car, the same car and radio I regularly use my Archo
with in conjunction with an in-line FM modulator. The transmitter works very
well, much better even than the in-line modulator. The "scan for a free
channel" doesn't work, mainly because the radio is typically crappy and
because there is a station on practically every channel here. I chose a
fairly clear channel and manually set the frequency.

I suffered no interference while driving around town, even when visiting my
parents' house which is right under a high power FM transmitter.
Unfortunately, as I'm beginning to think is typical, Neuros took some great
hardware and screwed it up with their software.

The first problem is the modulation is low, necessitating a high volume
setting on the radio. This is not in itself a problem. The problem is, when
I STOP playing a selection, the firmware turns off the frigging transmitter!!!
Instant ear-splitting static and interference from the now-signal-free
channel. It also turns the transmitter off and back on constantly during FF,
superimposing a staccato brap of static, kinda like a machine gun in the
background. Does anyone there actually use this thing? How could they have
missed something this glaringly wrong?

I realized the next huge problem as I got out of the car to come inside.
Normally I unplug the Archos and plug in my headphones so that I can continue
listening. It is not possible to change from the FM transmitter to headphones
while a track is playing. Inserting or removing the headphone jack makes the
transition but the firmware only reads this status at the START of the track
play. Once the track is underway, the mode (FM or headphone) is stuck.
Annoying when playing a short music track. A REAL pisser when playing an
audio book file or a long live track. I'd have to stop the play, insert the
headphone jack, restart play and then use the constant, slow speed fast
forward to find my place in the file. Arrrrrghhh!!!!!

Back to the laptop.

Time to be brave and start a sync to put all this music stuff on the Neuros
hard drive. The first painful step is to choose everything to "send to the
neuros".

11:55 PM "choose" process started.
12:30 PM Still running. Still soaking up 100mb of RAM and 98% of the
processor time on this 2 gig laptop. Windows thinks it is "not responding".
I'm beginning to think the same thing. I'll give it another half hour. After
all, what's a measly half hour in Neuros time?

12:39 AM Well now. Isn't this special? The sync manager just finished
queuing this 2668 song file collection. NOT actually transferring the files
to the Neuros, mind you, just queuing them for transfer.

Here comes the transfer. Let's plug in the USB cable.... Strange. It
paralyzed my computer for the approx 1 minute it took to discover the drive
and mount it. Same dialog as when I plug in the Archos but the Archos doesn't
paralyze the computer.

I'm now plugged in at 12:45 AM. Time to hit the button.

Hmmm. The "sync" button on the tool bar "clicks" but does nothing. I had to
use the drop-down menu to start the sync. WOW. The sync manager says that
it's going to take 22 hours and 6 minutes to load this 8 gig batch. I know
this is USB 1.1 but let's get real. I loaded my FMR via a 1.1 interface and
it only took about 6 hours or so, as I recall. Surely not a whole day.

---
End of day thoughts:

This package impresses me as some very nice hardware badly soiled by horrid software. Indeed, I'd swear that some Madison Avenue types took a buzz word list and had it implemented in software. Sync manager. HiSi (Hear it! Save it!) (their exclamation points.) MyFi. Si. (HiSi is basically what the Archos does with the FM radio to disk recording but without the 30 second back buffer. They've glomed on something I find useless, a feature that tries to fingerprint the sound file and identify the song. It failed on everything I threw at it.

MyFi is the FM transmitter. Si is "special information" or what displays on the normal screen of an Archos recorder with Rockbox - ID3 info and the like) The problem with all this cute shit is that it confuses things. I have to stop and think, "now what is HiSi" when I see it on the menu. The worst part is they dedicated a perfectly useful key (the orange one) to this function. Two presses of the orange key starts the recorder. I hate multiple keypress interfaces, particularly when the keys have little tactile feedback.

One of the more gross "features" is that the settings cannot be changed while playing a track. At least I've not yet found a way. Any attempt to navigate using the joy pad results in the previous or next track being selected, or the volume (or frequency in FM mode) being changed. There isn't a "menu" key like there is even with the stock Archos firmware.

There is NO resume or other placemarking functionality. Either you play a track to the end or you start over. If you quit playing, other than a pause, you start over from scratch and this includes having to navigate the menues to the album and track you were listening to. Even the stock Archos firmware stops you in the directory you were in.

I have developed an intense, almost palpable hatred for this database system. Even ignoring the hours-long loading time. I hate it equally badly for both music and other audio playback.

I have carefully organized the approx 8000 songs in my music collection by group->album->songs. I have made a similar organization with my audio books, author->book->audio files. This organization is practically worthless on the Neuros, as I've never paid much attention to ID3 tags and the Neuros bases everything on the tags.

The database INSISTS on presenting the material in either song, album, artist or genre order. In song mode, every song on the unit is tossed into one huge alphabetical list. Since I've renamed my songs 01-song1.mp3, 02-song2.mp3, etc to make them play in the order I want, I get hundreds of first songs listed, followed by hundreds of second songs, etc. That is, if the ID3 tags are present. Unless I had known to select "treat file names as tags" in the sync manager options list (not likely before starting the BIG import), files missing tags are all glomed to the top of the list.

If I select "artists", then everything from an artist is presented in one large list with no album or other organization. Only when I select "album" can I see some semblance of the structure I have on my hard drive.

The next major problem is that I'll be effectively forced to maintain a copy of all the Neuros-installed files on my PC. That's an additional 20 gig hunk of disk space I'd have to come up with.

I put downsampled and otherwise edited songs on my Archos to save space and generally make things work better. Shorter file names, that kind of stuff. I copied the files onto the first Archos I had and then ran the resampling and normalizing software over the files on the Archos hard drive. No need to keep copies on the PC. When I got the next Archos, I simply mounted both it and the old one and used file manager (winders explorer) to copy the files over en masse. No hard drive space on the PC required at all.

When my last FMR went down (swelled batteries, broken screen) I copied the whole collection back to my PC. I had to blow off a bunch of stuff to CDR to make room. Now apparently the Neuros model expects me to keep all these files on the PC hard drive permanently, at least if I want to change anything or put any of them on the flash ram player. I can't just copy files onto the Neuros hard drive and use them. They first have to be imported into the sync manager and then loaded onto the hard drive by the sync manager. This sucks!!!!

Being leery of this database architecture, Before I ordered this unit I called Neuros tech support and asked if I could copy files to the Neuros hard drive directly. The tech support guy said "sure. You'll just have to run the sync manager to make them visible." This is apparently impossible. Either this guy didn't know what he was talking about or he lied.

Even the process of loading firmware is clunky. It appears that the firmware is flashed, as in the latest flash rockbox version. Updating the firmware involves invoking a boot loader by pressing DOWN and PLAY at the same time. But only if the power adapter is unplugged. If it is plugged in the key combo does nothing. When the boot loader is started, I'm instructed to plug in the USB cable. The disk mounts. I'm instructed to unzip the new firmware and copy over the \firmware directory. This I do. I'm then instructed to unplug the USB cable. This brings up a screen asking me if I want to update the firmware. Selecting YES brings up instructions to plug in the power cable. I cannot proceed until I do. when I plug in the power cable the update starts automatically. This is bad, in that if I don't make the connection completely the first time, say, I fumble with the connector, there is a power transient just as the flashing process starts. Not good.

Maybe I'm a little gun shy because of all the crappy jack problems I've had with my FMRs and the Rio Volts before them but I just don't like being forced to first unplug and then replug the power cord during an update.

After playing around a little I figured out that if a file named WOID.HEX is contained in \firmware on the Neuros drive, then it will be installed if the boot loader is triggered and fooled by plugging and unplugging the USB cable, followed by plugging in the power cable. At least a little easier than following the official procedure.

----------

I'm now at the point where I have to make a big decision. Whether to keep this thing or send it back. My instincts tell me to send this crap back and be done with it. Scrounge up another Archos and continue to live with its problems. But damn, the hardware sure is nice. That built-in FM transmitter is worth the price of admission. I currently have a radio and/or amplified speakers in my office, my bedroom, my bathroom, my motorhome and my shop. When I'm not in the mood for headphones I currently walk around, plugging and unplugging the Archos. With the Neuros I simply lay it beside the radio, turn on the radio and tune in the correct frequency. Painless.

If Neuros hadn't (apparently) lied about this being open source, the decision would be easy - keep the hardware and wait until I or someone else hacks up a version without the database and with the features that we've become used to in RockBox. As it is, I don't know. The optimist in me says that they'll eventually do what they said they'd do and release the sources. The pessimist in me says "riiiight, right after Gates open sources Winders." The vindictive side of me says "screw 'em. send it back and let the liars take the hit." Decisions, decisions. I think I'll revisit this again tomorrow night.

Time to end today's log. Same bat time, same bat station tomorrow....

------------------

--- John De Armond johngdDONTYOUDARE_at_bellsouth.net http://bellsouthpwp.net/j/o/johngd/ Cleveland, Occupied TN



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