Review: Dell DJ30
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mkozlows

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Background

The Dell DJ doesn't get much notice in geek circles. I suspect that's for two reasons: 1) Dell isn't a company known for making cool electronics, and 2) up until very recently, it was a lame proprietary player that required lousy proprietary software (MusicMatch for loading songs, and DJ Explorer for loading data).

Well, Dell's image may not have changed, but their player has -- in the last month or so, they released a PlaysForSure-compliant firmware upgrade that completely changes the nature of this player. Throw away DJ Explorer and MusicMatch; they're not needed, and they don't even work. Now, the DJ is compliant with MTP (meaning it can sync up to Windows Media Player, Yahoo Music Engine, and presumably other applications without any drivers at all), USB Mass Storage (so you can drag and drop data files on right from Windows Explorer), and the Janus DRM scheme (so it works with Yahoo Unlimited, Napster, and what-have-you).

The sudden spread of PlaysForSure is the sort of thing that totally changes the landscape. Before, each digital music player was merely one piece of a whole elaborate ecosystem of drivers, programs, and compatible services; now, digital music players are nearly standardized. They all (except, obviously, for the iPod) work with the same software, the same services, the same music. This is great, because it frees device makers up from creating software (which they're lousy at) and lets them focus on creating devices. Each player still is its own UI and build quality, of course, but fundamentally, they're interchangeable commodities. And if there's any company that knows how to do commodity hardware, it's Dell.

So, it's about time somebody reviewed this thing. I ordered a Dell DJ30 last week, on the basis that it looked like it could be decent, and was only $235 for a 30GB player, so definitely worth a shot.

To give background on where I'm coming from, I've bought and/or used extensively three digital music players before -- the Creative Zen Portable Media Center, the iPod, and the iRiver H320. The PMC was promising, but very rough around the edges; the iPod was promising, but I didn't like the idea of being locked into Apple's proprietary world (especially when I couldn't even get the thing to sync up to iTunes on my totally non-weird computer); the iRiver H320 is a terrible, terrible player that everyone involved with should be ashamed of.

On the headphone side, I've got Etymotic ER-4p headphones that I use while traveling, and Sennheiser HD650 phones that I prefer to use at home. No amp yet (although there's a better than even chance that HeadRoom will be seeing an order from me soon).

Out of the Box

The iPod launched the trend of really gorgeous packaging, and Creative ran with it. Dell laughs at this trend, and packages the DJ in brown corrugated cardboard. Inside this charming packaging is:

1. The player itself, obviously.

2. A "manual" that isn't a manual at all, but simply a brochure of warnings, warranties, and other legalese.

3. A CD containing drivers and applications (the aforementioned sucky MusicMatch and DJ Explorer), as well as a real manual in PDF form.

4. Headphones. They're apparently decent enough, as earbuds go -- I gave them to my wife, who avowed that they were much better than the ones that came with the iRiver H320 (which is her player). But you're reading a review on head-fi, so you don't care about the headphones.

5. A dock, a USB cable, and a power cable.

6. A totally useless case that hides the front panel of the device. If you really really need a belt holster, well, here you are. Otherwise, pointless. But I feel that cases for music players are silly anyway, so no great loss.

7. A little laminated quick-start guide that labels the player and tells you how to get started.

8. A little card telling you how to upgrade the firmware to be PlaysForSure compliant.

Note that last item: The player doesn't come with the upgraded firmware already installed. This means that you need to: 1) install a bunch of lame drivers on your computer so it can see the device, 2) download and run the firmware installer, which will obviate the need for those lame drivers, and then 3) optionally uninstall the drivers. This was a frustrating waste of 15 minutes, and a less technical person might be too scared to even attempt this, thereby ending up with a horribly under-functional device. This is an amazingly terrible thing to force customers to do out of the box, and I hope Dell soon starts shipping the players with the proper firmware installed.

The Physical Player

The DJ30 is, I have to say, quite attractive. The aluminum case is finished in Dell's standard powder-coat metallic look, and looks attractive; the buttons are well laid out and elegant-looking (with a non-garish blue glow when the player is illuminated); the overall shape of the player is reasonably sleek and aesthetically-pleasing; the screen is attractive (as monochrome goes) with a nice blue light on illumination. It's light years ahead of the clunky Zen PMC or the claw-your-eyes-out ugly iRiver H320, and... well, I'm about to verge on heresy here: I think it looks nicer than the iPod. I mean, okay, right, it's not as cleanly simple, but the white-and-shiny suppository look of the iPod is getting a bit old, and Dell's player is at least as well-proportioned. (And I prefer the nice, normal font on the Dell's UI to the classic, but ugly, Chicago font on the iPod.)

In terms of buttons, the Dell is unique among the players that I've used in that there is no modality to the buttons at all. Every single button on it does the same thing no matter what the player is doing at the time. The play/pause button always plays/pauses, the skip buttons always skip, the home button always displays the main menu, the back button always goes back to the last screen, the scroll wheel always scrolls through choices on the screen and selects one when clicked, the power button always toggles the power, and the volume buttons always change the volume.

By contrast, on the iRiver, each button is overloaded with forty-five different functions depending on what screen the player is displaying, whether you hold the button down or merely click it, and the phase of the moon. Even the iPod, which is thankfully much simpler than the iRiver, overloads the scrollwheel to do both screen selection and volume control.

The advantage of the Dell approach is that you always know what each button is going to do, and you're able to access any of the button-linked features at any time. The downside is that it has more buttons than might be strictly necessary. It'd be defensible to have the scroll wheel change the volume while on the "Now Playing" screen, or have the home button toggle power when held down. But it works as it is, and pretty well.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention the scroll wheel itself. Obviously, it's not really a scroll wheel a la the iPod, but a barrel that rolls up or down. On the whole it works pretty unobtrusively. Rolling it slowly goes line-at-a-time, giving it a good twirl accelerates the scrolling, and it generally makes long lists manageable. It's definitely preferable to the hard button approach used by iRiver or the Zen PMC; it's a little better than the touchpad on the iRiver H10 (based on the little experience I've had with that player); and I think it compares reasonably well with the iPod's fabled wheel. Probably not quite as good, but definitely acceptable.

The Device UI

The device UI is, I have to say, simply great. It does everything you want a UI to do in the ways you'd expect it to do it.

From the main screen (accessible at any time by pressing the Home button), you can access "Music Library", "Now Playing", "Play Mode", Date & Time", and "Settings & Info". I'm not sure why Date & Time is its own entry, rather than a few choices under Settings & Info -- my guess is that they had some extra screen space to kill -- but it doesn't hurt anything to be broken out that way.

The settings are pretty basic: the player name, EQ settings (a handful of presets, and a four-band custom EQ option), backlight and contrast settings, idle shutdown, and language. Some people, the people who actually like the iRiver H320, will complain about how lacking its capabilities are. People who appreciate straightforward simplicity, though, will like the minimal option set.

Play Mode lets you select all the standard modes (shuffle, repeat, normal, with various per-disc, per-track, and for-everything permutations). Again, nice and simple.

Now Playing, when clicked, gives you several options. You can go to the current song, which is your bog-standard now playing screen -- song, artist, album displayed; the position in the current play list (e.g., "7 of 24"); and a progress bar and times elapsed and remaining. Clean, straightforward, and useful. Or, you can view the current list of queued songs, to modify (or just view) what's coming up.

Music Library, obviously, is where the bulk of the functionality lies. There are options for Playlists, Albums Artists, Genres, Recordings (which I assume applies only if you buy the optional FM tuner/microphone thing), Play All Music Tracks (for those who like the total shuffle experience, and View All Music Tracks.

Clicking on any of the primary options gives you a top-level list of your music grouped by Artist/Album/Genre. On top of the list is a "Find" choice, which when selected lets you quickly scroll through first letters, so you can get to your "S" artists without scrolling through all 300 of your A-R artists.

From there, clicking on a choice gives you a popup menu with possible options. For instance, clicking on an artist's name gives you the following choices: Play Artist, View Albums, View Tracks, Add to Selected, Delete Artist.

This is occasionally annoying -- much of the time, you'll mean the default action, so it feels like you're essentially forced to double-click -- but is in general pretty useful. You get all the reasonable set of options available without having to remember which badly-labeled button does what. You have only one way of interacting with the UI, and it's the wheel. It might be nice if there was a secondary button, so that pushing the wheel would do the default action while pushing the secondary button would bring up the menu... but maybe not; that might just complicate the player unnecessarily. At any rate, the UI as it stands is simple, intuitive, capable of basically anything you'd reasonably want to do with your music.

The UI is always quite responsive to input, never feeling bogged down in processing (which the Zen PMC sometimes did). There's a slight delay before the songs you've selected start playing (which is more noticeable with DRMed tracks), but once they are playing, skipping ahead to the next song is instantaneous for non-DRMed tracks, and nearly instantaneous for DRMed ones.

Interoperability

Because this is a PlaysForSure device, you're not limited to any particular music program. Windows Media Player is the obvious (and, in my opinion, best) choice, but you can do all your syncing from Yahoo Music Engine or (I'm told) the latest version of MusicMatch if you prefer. I have, as of now, two main sources of music: my archive of ripped CDs, stored in WMA Lossless; and a Yahoo Unlimited subscription, which is 192kbps Janus DRM-protected stuff.

Syncing with the WMA Lossless stuff is easy enough with WMP, as it automatically downconverts the music to (at my request) 192kbps WMA so the player can play it. A word of advice, though: The downconversion takes a long time, so if you're doing this, get a large enough hard drive that you can give WMP a 30GB (or whatever) cache to store the downconverted music in permanently, and set it up to convert in the background at all times. With any luck, the music will be all ready to go by the time you want to sync.

Syncing the Yahoo stuff has been slightly more troublesome. It was problem-free at first, but lately, I've been getting weird errors. If I try it with the Yahoo Music Engine, the thing just freezes; if I do it with WMP, I get slightly better feedback: something about a broken I/O thread. No clue what's causing this, so it might be the player, it might be Yahoo, it might be my computer, or it might be some bug in the Microsoft PlaysForSure stack.

In general, though, interoperability is par for the course for a PlaysForSure player.

Sound Quality

I don't have too much to say here. I've been listening to it almost exclusively with the HD650 phones so far, which is cruel in the extreme, as those are demanding headphones that most portable devices can't handle at all. Neither the iPod nor the Zen PMC was capable of driving them at volume, for instance. The Dell DJ30 can, not quite as loud as the iRiver, but definitely acceptably. Beyond that, the sound quality is perfectly fine, but not amazingly transparent or anything. But I'm playing compressed music on demanding headphones without amplification, so it's not like I can make a broad general judgment. In general, I'd say that the sound quality is perfectly acceptable.
 
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andrew_plamondon

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I bought this player a month or so ago, and I'm quite satisfied with it so far. I was looking for a cheap but great player, and after looking for "the one", I was going to buy an iPod. But then, I saw a sale at Dell.ca where they were selling the DJ for 250$ CAN, shipping included. I bought it, thinking that I could sell it for more if I wasn't satisfied.
So far it's pretty good, really simple and sound quality seems fair to me. I listen to music mainly in the bus, so sound quality isn't that much of an issue. The most important part for me was to find a player that had some sort of customizable EQ, and the DJ has a 4-band EQ which is far from being perfect but is still better than having to deal with presets (even though there are some).

The only problem I had so far was the USB 2.0 drivers I had to find somewhere and install, while they weren't anywhere on the net because of some sort of legal issue.
Transfering music is really easy using WMP. I tried the one which came with the player and Dudebox Explorer, but they were slow and they stopped working for some reason.

The player itself is great, the software was made by Creative, I think, so it's not a player that might have many problems, software-wise.

Bliss.
 
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apnk

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Great review! Yes i agree the dj is a underrated player, I chose it over the karma because of the better build and to me it sounded the same as the karma.
 
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crimsonadam

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Quote:

Originally Posted by apnk
it sounded the same as the karma.


not even close.

the dell sounds as good as the Karma, only if there are no headphones plugged in, the volume is turned to 0, the battery is removed and the player is set on fire.
 
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blessingx

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Well, the Karma doesn't even sound as good as the Karma.

Thanks for the very detailed review mkozlows. I'm not sure I agree with your opinion of the proprietary nature of PlaysForSure, but I appreciate the advantages of Mass Storage, etc. The lossless downsampling seems great. if there's a headphone output level that fakes a line level, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the HD650 with amplification.
 
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PFJ

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Quote:

Originally Posted by andrew_plamondon
But then, I saw a sale at Dell.ca where they were selling the DJ for 250$ CAN, shipping included.


Heh, I bought mine on the same sale. Great deal, makes all the Ipod owners I know grit their teeth as 30GB cost the same as a mini. I uninstalled Musicmatch and just use Dell DJ explorer to load music and data, works fine and very straightforward. I don't use playlists so thats all I need.

Controls are intuitive, sound quality is good, I actually like the belt holster and the included dock is handy. It's been a really good deal. The only thing I really don't like is the stock headphones, which got replaced pretty quick.
 
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andrew_plamondon

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The unit itself boots fast, it takes me 2 seconds before it plays music, which is way faster than my cd player reading mp3s.

I also like the case, even though I don't put it on my belt. I think it's a solid case which protects the player really well. Not much to say against it, it does what it was made for.

The line out on the dock is also pretty handy

The only problem is that I'd like to be able to see the year and the label of each albums...
I also don't unerstand why the USB connector is stuck to the connector you have to use when not using the dock. I think you could take them apart on the GEN1 Dell DJ, and it would be better if we could plug the AC connector without having to take the USB thing too...
 
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apnk

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Quote:

Originally Posted by crimsonadam
not even close.

the dell sounds as good as the Karma, only if there are no headphones plugged in, the volume is turned to 0, the battery is removed and the player is set on fire.



Yes with the EQ. I dont use the EQ.
 
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Quote:

They all (except, obviously, for the iPod) work with the same software


LIES!!!!11111111!!onewon!!!111
 
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mkozlows

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PlaysForSure addendum: I'm unable to resolve the problem with Yahoo Unlimited, and looking at Dell's support forums, I'm not the only one. It's not clear if the problem is with Yahoo (some people report that Yahoo and Napster flake out, but Rhapsody works great; and Yahoo is, after all, in Beta) or the player. For the moment, though, if it's the subscription stuff that interests you, I'm going to say not to buy this player unless the services or the player get an upgrade.

Note that this doesn't mean the PlaysForSure upgrade is worthless -- even without robust subscription support, it's still an enormous and necessary improvement.
 
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grox

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Nice review! I would have liked more detail on SQ but anyhow, well done! Why don't you post some pictures
 
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mkozlows

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The reason I'm not talking much about sound quality is because I don't think I can do so fairly. Comparing to the Zen PMC is unfair, because I was playing WMA Lossless on that and downconverted 192kbps WMA on this (despite which the Dell still sounds better -- on the Zen, you could noticeably hear electronic noise when the hard drive spun up and down, plus the output stage was weaker); comparing to the iPod is impossible, because I was never able to get it to sync with iTunes reliably, so only listened to like one song on it, very briefly (I forget if it came preloaded or what); comparing it to the iRiver H320 is feasible, but the main difference I take away from that comparison is that the Dell is quieter.

And since I'm doing this comparison using un-amped HD650 phones, which I know darn well are difficult to drive, it seems unfair to ding a player for not being able to drive them loudly. I mean, it's a relevant point if you plan on listening to them with such demanding phones unamped, but otherwise isn't very informative.

Plus, to be honest, I'm too lazy to sit here A/B-ing the Dell and iRiver, especially since that would mean voluntarily subjecting myself to the iRiver's UI.
 
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I was interested in what you had to say since I owned the DJ for a few months, but after your " the iRiver H320 is a terrible, terrible player that everyone involved with should be ashamed of" I didn't read anything else you had to say because your opinion is out of wack. Best of luck to you in life buddy.
 
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mkozlows

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It's just as well. Somebody who likes the iRiver H320 is using evaluation criteria that are totally foreign to me. A player that syncs via USB 1.1, that doesn't even include an esoteric feature like using the tags to browse by album/artist/genre, that has hard-to-use buttons whose functions are not apparent without reading the manual, and that is beside large and ugly... well, this is pretty clearly a terrible player in my book. USB 1.1! No browsing by tags! Seriously, these are basic and elementary features of a music player.
 
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jeffgeno

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Quote:

Originally Posted by mkozlows
PlaysForSure addendum: I'm unable to resolve the problem with Yahoo Unlimited, and looking at Dell's support forums, I'm not the only one. It's not clear if the problem is with Yahoo (some people report that Yahoo and Napster flake out, but Rhapsody works great; and Yahoo is, after all, in Beta) or the player. For the moment, though, if it's the subscription stuff that interests you, I'm going to say not to buy this player unless the services or the player get an upgrade.


I just bought the DJ 30 and subscribed to Yahoo Music last week. I haven't had a single problem with the set up. The player syncs automatically when I dock it and every subscription song has transferred without incident. Thusfar, connectivity with Yahoo's software has been better than I expected.

The DJ replaced the Zen Xtra I've been using for the last year and a half. I can't tell a difference in sound quality between the two, both of which I listen to without playing with any of the sound settings.
 
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