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Old 01-06-2008, 04:29 PM
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Location: Tokyo
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Arrow Right mpio MG200 Review

Korean maker mpio targets the Japanese market with its latest portable player, the MG200. With flash memory now cheaper than the content which it can hold even on an uncompressed basis, flash players equipped with memory expansion slots can be expected to challenge their larger capacity, hard-disk siblings. Weighing in at only 42 grams, the MG200 is available with 1⁓4GB of internal storage and the ability to read high-capacity SD cards of up to 8GB per wafer.

Will gamepad-style controls, SDHC support and a bright, attractive OLED display be sufficient to make some space for the MG200 in an already crowded and competitive marketplace? The 2GB version is currently selling for around $85.

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What's In the Box?
Other than the player itself, you get a pair of earbuds on a 1.2m Y-shaped cable, neck-strap, USB cable, destruction manual and a software CD which includes an application for transcoding movie files to the "MTV" format recognised by the player, plus a USB driver for Windows 98.

Power
The MG200 runs from an internal, non-user-replaceable 330mAh lithium-polymer battery which apparently can keep a robot entertained for 18 hours of listening or 4 hours of viewing before a recharge of up to 4 hours would be necessary. In practice, charging commences automatically whenever the device is plugged into a live USB socket so I'm yet to witness a "dead battery" event.

Design
The dual 4-way circular control pads are distinctive and may prove irresistable to those with nimble thumbs. The buttons themselves notch inwards with each press so there is never any doubt. The controls sit atop a very elegant black gloss faceplate which also protects the dazzling 128x128 pixel OLED display. The silver edge may be a matter of taste but is not as garish as it appears in the promotional photos, in fact it's pretty classy.
Along the right edge is the hold key locking switch and neatly recessed voice recorder microphone with a metal grill. Around to the back and practicality takes over from presentation with a robust, matt-finish plastic housing. This is lighter and less slippery than a metal backplate but could still benefit from some stick-on rubber feet to keep it from sliding off the desk and onto the floor.
Minor quibbles:-
The small size concave buttons work best when pressed at the circumference, so before long the surrounding mirror finish bears the smudge of a hundred thumbprints. The whole front surface is a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
The pouch which accompanied the MG100 is gone, the lanyard now attaching directly to the top left corner of the player. This makes the screen appear upside-down to the wearer, but is good for educating nearby commuters about your musical preferences via subliminal ID3 tag projection.
The SD card slot cover on the top edge is a bit fiddly, not something you'd want to be opening on a daily basis.

User Interface
The eight control buttons demand some retraining but I found the controls so intuitive and logical that the user's manual was barely necessary. The keywords here are simplicity and predictability - if you want to browse by artist or play by genre then you should look elsewhere or take some time to rearrange your music folders. The player is always ready to pick up where you left off with resume mode permanently engaged. Navigating the directory structure is quick and painless, and a variety of EQ settings is available, including 5-band graphic.

MG200-icons.jpg
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FM Radio
A non-essential but very handy feature is the FM radio, and the MG200's receiver is well configured for portable use, picking up weak signals with ease. The scan function works well and manual channel programming is a breeze. Switching between scan and preset modes takes a single button press. The threshold for stereo detection is set fairly high, so don't expect any significant stereo separation unless you have a strong signal. Tonal quality in radio mode is a bit midrangey but voice reproduction is excellent.
After hearing the radio, I was concerned that the MG200 may be weak in the bass, so I did some tests which revealed that the bass is fine provided the impedance of the headphones is not too low. With 32 Ohm headphones the rolloff was down at 25Hz, no problem.

Sound Quality
In WAV mode (yes, the MG200 can play WAV's too, why is that kept secret!?) sound quality was on par with a typical home DVD player plugged into a consumer mini-system playing the same CD through the same headphones. Make no mistake, that is an outstanding performance for a portable device running from a battery!
When listening in a dead silent environment, during quiet parts of the music or between tracks I occasionally noticed a faint buzz which turned out to be interference from the electronics powering the OLED screen. However, it did not get louder when the volume was turned up and it went away altogether when the screen blanked out. With less sensitive headphones (102dB/V) it was not possible to hear this buzz at all, but people using super sensitive ear canal 'phones may notice and use an in-line volume control to eliminate it. For reference, the Sennheiser HD215 headphones I used are rated at 112dB/V sensitivity. Typical volume settings were 8/40 on pop music and 16/40 for classical. [Edit: In trains, planes or automobiles, or even sitting next to a whirring computer, you won't be able to hear the aforementioned buzz, it's that faint.]
The MG200 has an excellent, low impedance output but at the same time has plenty of headroom. It will easily drive 300 Ohm headphones which are often said to require an external amplifier. The sound is clear, tonally accurate and doesn't distort even at full volume or with crazy EQ settings.

Open Standards
One big advantage mpio has in the Japanese market is mass-storage-class (MSC) operation, i.e. the ability to drag and drop music files into the player without proprietary software or DRM hinderance. As far as I'm aware, none of the Japanese manufacturers provides this feature to the domestic market, including Sony which recently surrendered that fight in the U.S. market.

Mpio's consumer friendly, maximum compatibility approach shows in other areas too, like the selection of a standard USB-to-mini cable, the provision of a Win98 USB driver and allowing direct downloads of firmware updates without having to install "firmware downloader" bloatware on your "XP or Vista only" computer. Sansa, take note!

Other Features
The MG200 can read photographs fresh from a digital camera SD card and reduce those huge JPEG images to tiny reproductions on its screen but really, what's the point? The degree of detail is just not there. Likewise, movie content is possible after transcoding but aside from amusing animated GIFs it's hard to imagine what application this feature may have. SitComs wouldn't show very well and sport is out of the question... Maybe South Park? Or music videos with plenty of portrait close-ups.

Voice and FM (mono) recordings can be made in ADPCM format at 22.05kHz (voice) and 44.1kHz (FM) sampling rates with 4 bits per sample, an acceptable compromise between sound quality and file space. During FM recording the volume is locked at a low level. Recordings may be played back on the device or freely uploaded to computer.

Wishlist
How could this player be better?
+ Add FLAC and AAC support
+ Triple the number of FM presets to 30 stations
+ Display more info during MP3 playback, such as bitrate, remaining time and embedded album art
+ Add UTF-8 character set support in ID3 tags

Conclusion
Despite the higher model number, in some ways the MG200 is actually a cut down version of its MG100 predecessor, starting with a near 30% reduction in the number of pixels in its display. Most controversial will be the dual joystick controls replacing the familiar joystick-plus-fire arrangement, but this ultimately comes down to familiarity and personal preference.

In other ways the MG200 is a conundrum. The built-in lithium battery which makes changing batteries a thing of the past will one day make this player a thing of the past too, or at best reduce it to a USB memory card reader. Similarly, the miniature shining screen which gives the MG200 its alluring glow turns out to be far from satisfactory for displaying images or even ID3 tags, being only 14 characters wide.

No doubt such concerns are far from consumers' minds when they go shopping. An MP3 player must be pretty, compact, somehow trendy, and hopefully sound OK. While lacking the individualistic flair of an FL500, the MG200 fulfils all those requirements and more, is convenient for single-handed operation and sounds fantastic. Highly recommended.

MG200-playing.jpg
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Pros
+ outstanding audio quality for a portable, with distortion free output to insane volume levels
+ lightweight, attractive, robust player with a brilliant screen
+ supports MSC drag-and-drop in addition to MTP
+ good FM radio
+ SD card slot adds many possibilities

Cons
- narrow screen
- incomplete ID3v2.4 implementation
- firmware needs some tweaking
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