Audible and similar services are great for those who understand English and have the tech know-how to get it all working, but that is actually a rather small part of society. A lot of people still rely on CDs for audio books, and it’s not easy bridging the gap between old tech and new tech. A new concept from my home country of Norway however might be the solution: it’s a player designed to play back audio books off of magnetically attached memory cards, and among some of the key features are on-card bookmarks, an FM transmitter and an internal speaker. Enter the Kibano/Lydbokforlaget Digispiller, or Digiplayer in English.
- Kibano Digiplayer
- Size: 55.5 x 81.5 x 11.1mm
- Battery: 10 hours
- Supported Formats: MP3, WMA
- Storage: None, uses Digicards
- Extra features: speaker, FM transmitter, FM radio, sleep mode
- MSRP: 499 NOK
In the box
The box with the actual player comes with a lanyard, earphones, mini USB cable and a USB AC adapter. You can’t connect it to a computer to transfer anything, but the USB cable is used to charge the player. The earphones are standard bad quality headphones like any other player on the market comes with, but can of course be replaced since it uses a normal 3.5mm jack. There are no accessories available (other than the cards) but since it uses only standardized connectors that isn’t necessary either. Havign an AC adapter included in the box is a must when you target the less tech savvy users as you cannot expect them to have access to a computer, and it’s nice to see it included instead of being a separate accessory.
How it works
The concept here is pretty simple. You buy credit card sized plastic cards from the bookshop (or get them from a library) and slot them onto the back of the player. There are metal connectors on both the player and the card which then match up and you can play the content on the cards. In reality, the cards are normal microSD cards – just with some plastic and magnetic tape around them. In fact you can feel the microSD card if you press down around the connector area on the card. I tried holding a normal 4GB microSDHC card with an MP3 file on it to the connector and it played the file with no problem. You might wonder what the point of this is, but consider the target market. The Digicards are much easier to insert, not as easy to use, they have enough surface area for a proper sticker telling you what is on it and anyone can manage to insert one regardless of age or eye vision. A blind person could even use these cards (though for some reason the cards aren’t market with braille), which you can’t say about microSD cards. As pointless as it might seem to enlarge microSD cards this way, it actually makes it much more suited for this type of use.
For now the Digispiller is only available in Norway (it also came out only a few weeks ago) but who knows, maybe it will be available in other countries in the future. Kibano is the company that makes it, although the development is done in cooperation with Lydbokforlaget (Norwegian audio book company) which also sells the actual product and cards. The concept is rather brilliant if you ask me; while it’s not very exciting for the majority of people on here, it’s a brilliant concept for those who still use CDs and don’t know how to use an MP3 player, or for those that like to buy books in a bookstore or borrow them from the library. I can see this system being used for the music industry as well, preferably bundled with a CD for the same price. The large surface area of the card is as perfect for album covers as for books covers, and if they made the microSD card inside removable it would work on other players and cell phones as well – of course them DRM would become an issue.
A few years ago the same company came out with the first version of the Digiplayer, called the Digibok. Basically you bought an MP3 player pre-loaded with the audio book, and the result was a very cheap bad quality player and a concept that deserved some sort of award for least environmentally friendly product ever. I have one with me here, and let me just tell you that in seeing the new Digiplayer you wouldn’t believe the same company was behind both concepts. The Digiplayer has a much better feel to it and lacks all the flimsy buttons and bad build quality of the predecessor. That is to be expected since you now only buy the player once and don’t have to buy one with every book, which means there’s a higher profit margin and easier to make a good player.
The player is shaped like a book, which is fitting. When you hold it like you would a book the Digicard points towards you, and since that has the sticker with the book cover on it the effect is even more book-like. The card fits inside a lowered slot so it’s completely flush when inserted and looks like part of the player. To remove it, you simply press it on the corner of the card where the underside is lower than the rest and it pops out. The “back” with the screen and some of the buttons has a mirror finish which includes the screen, so the screen is almost invisible when off. The buttons are rubber, and there are 7 of them plus a hold switch and a volume control, which is a significant improvement over the Digibok as well. The controls on the back act as a d-pad for navigation and menu controls, while the main playback controls are located on the side and is reminiscent of old cassette walkmans. These buttons are play/pause, forward/next track and rewind/previous track. The play/pause button also doubles as the on/off button.
In the corner between the side of the player and the top you have the volume control. It’s a spring loaded wheel button like you used to have on the old Creative MuVo players and works well to control the volume. The top has the final button, or rather switch – which is the hold switch. The audio jack is also located on the top, while the USB port, a lanyard connector and the speaker is located on the bottom. The final side of the player – or the spine if you think of it like a book – has nothing on it.
Size-wise the player is somewhere along the lines of Sansa Fuze that’s a bit thicker but lighter. It’s all plastic so it feels light for the size. Considering the target market it’s not big though, but with a rated battery life of only 10 hours I would think they could have fitted a bigger battery in there if they wanted to.
This player is completely custom on the outside, so it’s natural it also has a custom interface. Although the screen is technically a color screen, the only time I ever saw anything in color was when I inserted the card when the player was on, which made the book cover pop up on-screen for a couple of seconds. Everything else is black or white, and you can only choose between black-on-white and white-on-black for the menu colors. However, you don’t really need anything more complicated, and considering the low 10 hour battery life it’s probably a good thing there isn’t too much happening on the screen.
The main menu is very simple, and simply lists all the features without any fancy UI elements of any kind. There is only that single menu which holds everything and no secondary menus available from the playback screen or anything like that. That means that in addition to having options for the Digikort (the card) , the radio and the settings it also has options for bookmarks, FM transmitter and speaker.
Slowness in the menus was a major issue with the old Digibok but there is none of that on the Digiplayer. It skips tracks a bit slow, but the actual menu operation is fast. Selecting the “Digikort” option will bring you into a folder view if there are more than one book on the card, or straight to the file list if there are several. This is only a file browser and if you put a microSD card on it with music you browse it the same way. I’m guessing that if you ripped out the microSD card from the Digicard and connected it to a computer it would be a bunch of unprotected MP3 files in folders.
The playback screen is very peculiar and it took me a few seconds to figure out the logic in what is displayed. Basically there are three numbers on the screen; one is the track number, the second is the remaining hour/minute count for the current file and the last is the total time remaining. I don’t know if other books are a single file, but it seems odd to me to measure remaining time for the file in hours and minutes but not seconds when there’s a single file for each chapter and no chapter is long enough to be measured in hours. This also means that if they ever do start offering music in this format, they will need to update the firmware since it doesn’t work well for music.
As for settings, you have options for language, shuffle/repeat, sleep mode, an EQ with predefined options and display settings. Sleep mode is nice to have on a player meant for audio books, but an audio EQ and shuffle features indicate the use of the player for music although it will have some effect on audio books as well.
As you might have gathered form the interface description the player is easy to use and very straight forward, as it should be. It will remember the last played position if you turn it off, as long as you don’t remove the card when the player is on or start it without a card. To be on the safe side it’s best to add a bookmark, which is done by accessing the menu, bookmarks, and adding a new bookmark. These are saved on the card itself, so they will stay with the card, and you can have 30 per book. A peculiar bug is that you can’t add bookmarks while the playback is paused, only when it’s playing, which to me is a bit counter intuitive since I’d be more likely to pause it first and then add a bookmark.
Speaking of bugs, the player will charge from any USB port but if there is a data connection present on that port it won’t let you play while charging, while you can do that if you charge through the included USB charger or any other charger that doesn’t have a data connection. This is a feature often seem on normal MP3 players where they will connect to the computer if possible but only charge if there’s no data connection – the Sansa Clip is one player that does this. However the Digiplayer can’t connect to a PC to transfer files or anything like that, which means there’s no point in making it act this way. It can be annoying if you need to use a PC to charge it and want to listen while you do so as that simply can’t be done without modifying the USB cable or turning off the PC and hoping it has a USB charge feature while off.
Back to the operation of the player, one of the best features about the Digiplayer is that it has a built in FM transmitter. That can be invaluable if you’re in a car or just want to listen through your radio or home stereo. The FM transmitter actually works rather well, and since you can select any frequency with a 0.1Mhz interval you should be able to find an unused frequency. You do of course lose some quality using a FM transmitter, but that doesn’t matter as much with audio books as it does with music. It maintained a strong signal through a couple of walls for me, so there shouldn’t be any issue with making it work properly.
The internal speaker is unfortunately another matter as it’s very weak and doesn’t sound very well. It’s close to the speaker in a Zen Stone speaker version than what you’d find in a smartphone, and I doubt many people will find it all that useful. Luckily there’s the FM transmitter to fall back on which means that you can find a speaker for it practically anywhere.
Lastly there’s the built in radio, which ironically is weak. I live in a building with poor radio reception, yet using the same headphones my Sansa Clip+ was able to tune into stations while the Digiplayer wasn’t able to tune into anything. There are also no presets, no auto tune, no radio recording or any other feature you might find on MP3 players with a radio feature. If you live in an area with better reception it will still be usable and for the people who would get this player it would most likely be their only pocket sized radio, so having one included is definitely a good thing regardless.
Obviously sound quality isn’t as important for audio books as for music, but the recording quality is another matter. I don’t know what bitrate the audio books are in but I’d guess 96-128kbps, which means very good for spoken audio. Unfortunately the player itself hisses a lot, which is especially noticeable when using low impedance headphones (like IEMs) or the internal speaker. I’m not sure if the target market will even notice this, but for someone who’s used to absolutely no hiss it’s very noticeable. Audio books also have a lot of silent pauses, so it can definitely become an issue for some. I’m guessing the hardware is based off some Chinese OEM player and that might explain this problem since many of those have that issue. Still, I don’t expect this to be a major problem for the target group.
The Digiplayer is based off old technology, but what makes the concept unique is the way that technology has been tweaked to fit a target market that no other player has really had much success in. Everyone here knows someone who is hopeless with technology, young or old, who still think CDs are modern marvels and who look at an MP3 player and asks you where you insert the music. Up until now this has been a painful thing to explain involving computers, transferring files, and possibly extremely tiny memory cards that even geeks insert upside down every now and then. The Digicard system fixes that and gives the user a decent sized well labeled card that literally snaps into place by itself when you put it on the back of the player, and then you’re ready to go.
I’m not suggesting SanDisk replace the Clip+ and Fuze+ with Digicard players, but for the target group this system is perfect. The cards also look very nice with their full color book cover stickers on them, compared to a microSD card which you can barely fit your initials on. While the player does have its issues in terms of battery life, hissing and a lousy radio, I think the overall product is one of the most innovative players to hit the portable audio market in years. It doesn’t always have to be about adding a higher resolution screen or Internet capabilities; sometimes it’s enough to tweak existing features so that new market can benefit from them. You can give the Digiplayer to your kid, your parents or your grandparents and they’ll ll be able to use it with minimal explanation, which is not something you can say about pretty much any other audio player on the market. It’s also very obvious that the player is designed and carefully thought out to fit the target market, both from the design of the player, the included AC adapter, the convenience of the cards and the integrated FM transmitter. Nothing is left complicated and hard to understand, which is what makes this a winner.
The player is currently only available in Norway, and it’s unlikely it will pop up outside Scandinavia. If we’re lucky the concept will catch on and spread to other countries, as I think the system has potential anywhere. The introduction price for the player is 349 NOK [$60) which will go up to 499 NOK next year. Digicards cost between 149 NOK and 399 NOK, in other words substantially more expensive than online international services like Audible, but similarly priced or cheaper than audio books on CD in Norway. The books will also be available in libraries, which means that you can buy the player and get the books from there. For those who actually live in Norway, the Digiplayer and the Digicards can be purchased from Lydbokforlaget.