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Music on the N93: Not So Cool.

The Nokia N93 has three major groups of features:  phone, photography, and music. I’ve written about the phone, and photography features previously.  Now for music. 

Nokia provides a simple music manager application on the PC to synchronize tracks with the phone and media player capabilities on the handset.  Think of it as a simplified Windows Media Player or iTunes.  It allows you to group tracks, create playlists, and download them to the device.  While downloading it is also capable of converting music files from the storage format to Nokia’s mobile-optimized eAAC.

Once on the device, you can then open the media player, import the files to the media player library, and play your music.  The headphones provided are decent quality, and it sounds pretty good.

And that’s eventually where I ended up last night. It was a painful experience getting there.

My music is stored on an AudioRequest ARQ1 media server in a server closet, and delivered to various devices around my house either via wireless networking, ethernet, or good old fashioned RCA cables.  The files on the ARQ1 are stored as MP3s, and can be access either from its console, or via the SAMBA network interface (it mounts on the network as a standard Windows file server).  The PCs I used were running Windows XP SP2, and Windows Vista. 

The first problem I encountered was simply that the Nokia the music manager application doesn’t know about networked devices.  It cannot take a fully qualified pathname (such as \\arq1\mp3s) as an input, which means that all files must be on the local PC.  The problem was solved by opening a command line window, and mapping the server share to a local drive (net use x: \\arq1\mp3s). After that, you can simply use the scan PC command in the Nokia software to search the X drive to find all the media files.  Nokia could have avoided the whole problem by using the standard Windows file open dialog rather than writing custom Nokia boxes.  Writing a custom dialog is a great example of Not Invented Here syndrome, delivering no tangible benefit to the user.

Once the files are loaded you can then select a few, add them to your “collection”, and have the software compress them, download them, and send them to the device.  First, however, you must connect the device to the PC, so that this synchronization can take place.  My second big problem cropped up here.

Connectivity on the N93 is a step backward from the N91.  The N91 finally implemented a USB connector for file transfer.  With the N93, we’re back to the proprietary Nokia “pop-top” cable.  And, of course, at this point the drivers for this cable in Windows Vista are broken.  Yes, they load, but Nokia’s PC Suite software doesn’t recognize the devices. On Windows XP they work fine, but not on Vista. Eventually, I made a connection to the N93 using the standard Bluetooth driver included with Windows Vista, which worked fine, but was quite slow.  However, if Nokia had used a standard USB connector and driver, the situation might have been different.  Note: As I was struggling to get the music onto my N93 using Windows Vista, I was listening to music on my new Blackberry Pearl, which interfaces via a standard USB cable.  The Blackberry had no trouble being recognized by Windows Vista. 

Transferring the files turned out to be an exercise in frustration also.  A bug in the music manager software caused it to crash each time I started a transfer.  Eventually, through trial and error, it became clear that it was Nokia’s MP3 to eAAC compression algorithm that was the culprit.  Turning off the compression allowed the transfer to continue.  However, turning off the compression also meant I was downloading 320kbps MP3 files (6 to 8 megabytes per song) to the device rather than the skinny minny eAAC files I had been hoping for.  Bob Dylan’s fabulous Blonde on Blonde was the only CD I downloaded as a result.  It took 45 minutes uncompressed, via Bluetooth.

Et Voila, music.  Phew!

I wondered if there was a better way.  A little research on the internet revealed an agreement betweeen Nokia and Microsoft to integrate the N Series devices into Windows Media Player, which looked very promising.  If integrated, I would be able to use all my standard playlists, and management tools.

Windows Media player, initially, did not recognize the N93.  Plugging the N93 in via USB, however, will cause the N93 to present a menu of “modes”, one of which is media player mode.  Once selected, the PC treats the N93 like any other Windows Media player device.  Cool! 

Or… not so cool. 

I plugged the cable in, Windows dutifully went to fetch the driver, and announced that the .INF file for the driver had an error in it.  A problem on Windows Vista, I thought? Maybe a driver format change from one OS to the next? Nope.  Also broken on Windows XP. 

There you have it.  A Windows Vista driver for a proprietary cable missing, and two pieces of broken software conspired to turn what would have been a 20 minute exercise on an iPod into 4 hours of agony.

Nokia isn’t a software company.  Their hardware is beautiful and works well, but the lack of software smarts kills them everytime.  Unfortunately, this application — synching music from a PC to a handheld device — demands software expertise.  These music features aren’t close to ready for prime time, and will be agony for all but the most dedicated of users.  I certainly won’t use them again until they’re more thoroughly debugged by Nokia.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Jim Courtney November 14, 2006, 7:48 pm

    You want music: simply listen to the FM Radio on the N93 (of course it's the radio stations selections, not yours, that get played). The N-seris FM Radio also comes in handy in my gym where there are six TV sets available to watch during exercise routines — all putting out their audio via an FM transmitter at different frequncies.

  • Bernie Goldbach December 1, 2006, 11:21 pm

    I'm interested in whether you think the Nokia N95 handles its MP3 file transfers any better. That's the phone many of the early adopters finger as the device of choice for the task you're trying here.

  • Donarld December 24, 2006, 5:41 am

    Thanks for the advice on Music Manager. I had the same problem with the crashing.

  • Simon Smith February 10, 2007, 12:30 pm

    Hi,
    I just got my N93 yesterday. As far as transfering music, I found this a doddle. I have a Dell Inspiron laptop running windows xp latest SP. the phone is firmware version V11.0.034. When you connect the supplied USB cable you get several options on the phone:

    Media player ( for use with windows media player)
    PC suite ( for nokia PC suite)
    Data transfer ( this makes the phone appear as a removal disk drive and doesn't need any nokia specific drivers)
    Image transfer ( for USB OTG printing)

    I haven't tried the media player stuff because I'm not a fan of windows media player. But through the nokia PC suite i found this to work fine. In all reality, I'm more likely to use the bulk transfer because this is generally a faster transfer method.

    But most of the time I found the best option for file transfer is using WLAN and the bundled home media server app. This found all the files on my local PC and brought up a standard windows file dialogue box to boot.

    Once I got my WLAN setup and then configured the home server correctly on my phone, the phone
    allowed me to browse the library on my phone and transfer any files to the phone memory or stream them directly from the PC

    Although I haven't got Vista ( and it's probably worth noting that itunes has trouble with Vista)I found your review vastly different from my experience. Have you tried any of the other methods? It might be worth giving them a go ….

    cheers

  • Vincent June 22, 2007, 10:13 am

    I have the N95 and use vista on my pc and xp service 2 on my laptop. I find that the Ican transfere music using the media player mode inboth vista and xp but the files are too large. The Music convertion and tranfer on PC Suit only works on xpand quadruples the amount of music i cat put on the phone.

    It's worth noting that the music tranfere program on PC Suit duplicates the mosic file which may create problems if you have limited memory on you pc.

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