NetMD Report

april 1, 2002

Well, I have a report on NetMD -- Sony's way of countering the influx of cheap memory-based MP3 players. With solid state memory-based MP3 players if you want to expand your music listening you'll have to go and buy and expensive memory card. The draw of the NetMD is that if you want to expand the number of minutes of music that you want to carry with you, all you have to do is buy another $2 MD. With regular MD recorders, all recordings are done in real-time (if you want to record 80 minutes of music, it'll take you 80 minutes to record it). With NetMD you'll get up to 16x transfer rates via your computer's USB port.

First, I must say the NetMD hardware is wonderful. It sounds great, works well, is small enough to compete with MP3 players and is solid. There's no question that Sony's MD hardware is the best. When used as a stand-alone unit, the MZ-N505 is a solid music machine.

I could record in three different modes. Standard MD which gives up to 80 minutes of music, MDLP2 which gives up to 160 minutes, or MDLP4 which gives up to 320 minutes. Standard MD recording gives true CD quality sound. MDLP2 sounds like a 128kbit MP3 (it's actual recording rate is 132kbit). MDLP4 is good mostly for voice recordings because it is pretty terrible for music. So with this kind of hardware, what makes NetMD not so exciting? NetMD shoots itself in the foot when it comes to the back-assed software that is used to transfer music to the recorder. The software treats everyone like a criminal. And in trying to protect itself (Sony) from being ripped off, since they do own Sony Music, they created this software called OpenMG. Lets get this straight, there's nothing open about OpenMG.

The worst feature of the software is that for each song that you "check in" to the system, it is converted to an encrypted format named ATRAC3. So, you can import your MP3s and even rip from CDs, but it'll all stay in ATRAC3 format -- for those of you who have lots of MP3s get ready for a long wait because this process is long. But, the check in process is not the problem, it's the check out process that sucks.

For each song that you check in to your "jukebox" you can only check that song out to different MDs THREE TIMES. So, for example, if you made three compilation MDs using that one song and you wanted to make another MD with that song, well you can't unless you "check in" that song from one of the other three MDs. This system of treating a consumer like a thief is not the way to go. Not only is it frustrating to have to live by this check in/out rule for music I own but it is also just plain stupid. If I were to copy music over and over again -- say for a friend -- why would I use an MD to do it (MDs cost $2 a piece remember)? I would just run out and get me a cake of 50 CD-Rs and copy CDs (at a cost of say 10 cents a piece). I wonder what lawyer thought of this protection scheme...

Another thing that stinks about NetMD is that there is no true way of getting standard MD recordings done with it. All music that is checked in or ripped into your collection is done at either MDLP2 (132kbit) or MDLP4 (~64kbit) quality. You can definitely write to an MD using standard MD quality, but you'll be writing those MDLP2 or MDLP4 recordings to the MD. Come on, let me do standard MD recordings. I want to sometimes have more quality over just more quantity on a MD. For now if I want to do standard MD recordings, I have to do it in real-time. Sigh.

The last thing that stinks about NetMD, which doesn't affect me too much, is that it's just a one-way system. If you do a lot of live recordings with your MD recorder, don't expect to get those recordings onto your computer via NetMD. You can only record to your MD recorder. Too bad.

Is NetMD a serious contender in a market flooded with MP3 players? It could have been and it still could be. The media is cheap enough to compete at $2 a pop and the sound quality is good. The hardware is great and small enough. If Sony would actually make a piece of software for NetMD that was easy to use and treats consumers like they actually own their music (to which a majority do) then this NetMD thing could really help boost MD sales. As it is, NetMD stinks and everyone should skip it and just go out and get an MP3 player.

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