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Switched On: PopCatcher teaches a new 'Pod old tricks (Part 1)


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

Before MP3 players, CD burning and even the Mini-Disc, there was the analog mix tape. Patient proto-playlist creators would wait as a needle hovered over vinyl, descending into a groove that would cue the synchronized pressing of 'Record" and "Play" buttons. The truly determined would stage vigils by a cassette-recording boombox, hoping to catch a telltale chord or DJ introduction to songs now offered on "FM gold" compilations.

Terrestrial radio recording has faded in the post-CD era. The original Napster established the PC as the epicenter of digital music acquisition. Portable players -- from last year's Sansa Connect to Archos Generation 5 players to the just-released Slacker Portable -- have only begun to break free from the PC's tether. Even these rely on broadband and WiFi for Internet service-based music discovery, making them pricey and relatively complex "poor man's" alternatives.

But new hope for the thrifty and technophobic is on its way from a Swedish company called PopCatcher. The PopCatcher Ripper records songs from FM radio and transfers them to an MP3 player. The product is no homage to the notorious Jack the Ripper, a depraved murderer who disemboweled destitute victims peddling sex, although that description approximates how the content industry characterizes entertainment pirates.

Unlike FM radio time-shifting products such as PoGo! Products' RadioYourWay that use preset recording times like VCRs, the PopCatcher radio fills up memory cards, thumb drives, or MP3 players with playlists of songs culled automatically from radio stations, stripped of commercials and DJ patter. Whereas radio time-shifting products deliver a bath tub's worth of a lake's contents, PopCatcher is a fishing pole. It can thus bring many of the benefits of digital music to those who lack the skills or time required to rip CDs or acquire music online as well as complement the libraries or services of those who do.

There isn't much to the appearance of the PopCatcher hardware, a glossy black brick with a blue four-digit display that can show the time, radio station frequency, track number for playing back songs recorded in its internal memory, and progress in updating a transfer. In the last mode, "31:38" means it is transferring the 31st of 38 new songs in the queue. It features a USB port on the top, as well as slots for an SD or Memory Stick card, as well as a four-way D-pad (for volume and tuning / track navigation) with a center mode button. Tuning and volume controls were actually a bit sluggish and sometimes overshot the intended target.

PopCatcher lives up to its claim of being "ridiculously simple." Tune it to a station and it will eventually begin recording up to about 40 songs in its internal memory. After its buffer is filled, the newest tracks replace the oldest ones in first-in-first-out order. Holding down the mode button lets you delete a recorded track.

Plug in an MP3 player that supports mass storage-mode drag-and-drop file transfers and the Ripper begins transferring these songs to the player, creating free music to go. The Ripper remembers where it left off and so will only transfer new tunes whenever you plug a player. Songs are stored in a "PopCatcher" folder on the MP3 player so more advanced users can have PC-transferred music side-by-side with its trapped tunes, creating a kind of "discovery sandbox."

What could possibly be wrong with free digital music on the go? Next week's column will discuss some of the Ripper's limitations.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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