Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
The giants of the consumer electronics industry exercised exceptional restraint in veering beyond established product categories at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show back in January. Philips emerged as one of the few companies willing to court the chaos of convergence with the PSS110, which is 80 percent miniature boombox, 15 percent alarm clock, and 5 percent iPod accessory. It's also 100 percent digital albeit with a paltry 256 MB of flash memory and no flash card slot. As white as a polar bear in a wedding dress, the PSS110 promised to add a spontaneous soundtrack in any space for up to ten hours. Now that it's hit store shelves, is this bit-bound bantam boombox a binaural bust?
The PSS110 experience starts out edgy enough. Philips ships the device charged from the factory with "play-through" packaging that allows shoppers to hear the device within its plastic cocoon. Unfortunately for anyone hoping to get a sense of the PSS110's sound quality, though, the speakers are not exposed, so the best one will hear is a muffled version of what the device can output. Of the four 128 kbps MP3 songs Philips includes on the device, at least one would not make it onto the public airwaves without some strategic volume adjustments. Yes, while the history of consumer electronics includes many devices that have moved consumers to exclaim profanities, the PSS110 may be the first to beat them to the punch before they even tear into the blister packaging.
The device�s curvy design bespeaks an attractive minimalism � so much so that you may need to consult the manual to figure out that all of its ports are behind a plastic panel. It takes some obvious design cues from a certain very popular portable digital music player and sports two relatively large speakers flanking a multi-line LCD. Indeed, the PSS110 can function as an external speaker set for an iPod or any device with a mini-jack output. Its solid heft would not be advantageous near a verbal sparring partner with a tendency to throw things.
Much like other portable speakers that make use of neodynium speakers, the PSS110 delivers respectable sound for its size, and Philips� Dynamic Bass Boost technology, activated via a small top-mounted button, compensates for the product�s otherwise deficient bass. Distortion started becoming apparent at about 80 percent of the maximum volume.
From there, the list of disappointments starts to grow quickly. The small stylish buttons that control the interface are stiff and the animated menu moves like a slide show. Even the interface for controlling the FM radio is awkward. The PSS110 can be connected directly to a PC without any additional software, but � unlike with other flash-based products � you can�t simply drag song files into the device. They�ll copy over but won�t play, making the PSS110 one of the largest, heaviest flash drives on the market. Instead, songs must be transferred with the included MusicMatch Jukebox 9; an included sheet notes that version 10 won�t work. While the PSS110 supports WMA files, it doesn�t support protected files.
The product�s low memory capacity might actually seem relatively generous for a product intended as an alarm clock. Unfortunately, while the PSS110 might be pressed into duty as a travel alarm, it�s clearly not intended for regular duty in that role. Even when plugged in, the device essentially shuts off after a few minutes so the time is not displayed. There�s also no snooze button.
When compared with its closest competition, a portable MP3 player connected to something like the Altec-Lansing inMotion speakers, the PSS110 is more convenient. The handheld boombox is a fun concept. Still, even Philips tacitly recognizes the PSS110�s significant shortcomings, touting the ability to upgrade its firmware. Such an update will have to correct some serious design flaws, however, to move this audio experiment from intriguing form to attractive function.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at email@example.com.