Switched On: A tube for toting your tunes

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Here's to the frugal ones -- the discounters, the copycats, the bean counters, the followers who knock off established flagships, the ones who do things cheaply. They're not fond of design patents and they have no respect for the sine qua non. You can mock them, ridicule their brands, deride their usability or quality. But the only thing you can't do is lowball them. Because they sell things. They push the average price downward. And while some may see in them the parasitic blight of top-tier corporations, we see the efficiency of low overhead and outsourced manufacturing. Because the ones who are bold enough to try selling commoditized products for less are the ones who do.

Before the iPod overtook the Hampton Jitney as New Yorkers' favored way to escape New York, a far less expensive portable music device graced many a Manhattan neck. Popular at closeout havens like the defunct Odd-Job and still sold in drug store chains, the Coby Mini AM-FM Radio with Neck Strap -- well-represented by model CX-7 -- delivered low-tech downmarket chic. Coby and its ilk have thrived offering aging portable audio formats. Among its extensive line of 12 CD boomboxes are models that resemble bygone designs from Sony and JVC. And that's just a warmup. The company's Web site lists a mind-boggling 43 models of portable CD players. It seems that some Coby products take longer to retire than the Rolling Stones.

Over the past few years, though, Coby -- which now boasts the lofty tagline "Innovations for Every Lifestyle" -- has dabbled in hipper products such as LCD televisions, two 20GB portable MP3 players (one even with a color screen and touch controls) and even a trio of portable video players, one of which has a 40 GB hard drive and 7-inch screen! Yet, I was quite surprised when I saw something at Coby's 2005 CES booth that actually came to the the US market in late 2006 -- a smal, inexpensive, flash-based boombox/alarm clock. The unambiguously named MP-C341 Portable MP3 Boom Box with 256MB of built-in flash memory and an SD card slot includes an AC adapter and removeable carry rope, although removing it makes it look like the product has a single earring. This is an obvious marketing ploy for the pirate market.

Powered by four C batteries, the tubular mini-boombox looks like something the Jolly Green Giant's doctor would prescribe after a bender spent frolicking around in the garden drinking too much fermented baby corn. A sliding panel in the rear reveals the card slot, mini-USB and other ports while a row of buttons at the top provides navigation and playback controls as well as a decent snooze button. Other goodies include an FM radio, MP3 encoding, and a few diigital EQ presets just to finish ticking off the audiophiles.

While it is larger and feels cheaper than the Philips ShoqBox that Switched On discussed back in 2005, the Coby mini-boombox is much better-executed with memory expansion, a better user interface, and easy mass storage connectivity for Windows and Mac compatibility. (ShoqBox users were stuck with MusicMatch 9 being the only supported program for audio transfers although the freeware ShoqBox Buddy provides some relief.) The alarm clock function is the best I've seen to date in a disc-free digital product. Whereas the ShoqBox and Samsung K5 were designed for use as travel alarms, you can leave the Coby unit plugged in all day and it will dutifully display the time even if its dim screen is disproportionately small.

Its four speakers are just fine for pumping out FM-quality tunes at moderate volume levels. With the boombox's street price at about $60, they will likely avoid much criticism. Unlike its ubiquitous portable radios, though, the Coby flash boombox is a bit hard to find. J&R Music and Computer World, New York's staple downtown electronics retailer, is one of the few offering the product online, and for the lowest price I could find.

At its core, it may be little more than a little flash MP3 player in a big plastic case, but the Coby flash-based mini-boombox is just right if you want to share a few hours of tunes at a small party without worrying about someone knocking or filching your iPod out of a speaker enclosure.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at