My "new" Iomega HipZip MP3 Player


 

I remember my first portable MP3 player, it was a Samsung Yepp YP-E32 that I bought in early 2000 from a shop on Tottenham Court Road in London. For those who are unfamiliar, Tottenham Court Road is, or strictly speaking was, the place in the UK to get the latest tech gear. Think of it as the Akihabara of London. No big box store sold MP3 players at that time, heck most people didn't know what an MP3 file was. But I knew that if I could find this extremely sleek and classy looking new player anywhere, it would be on Tottenham Court Road...

Samsung Yepp YP-E32S MP3 Player 

And they didn't disappoint, it could be mine for a little under 200 UK pounds after the customary haggling. 32MB of on-board RAM meant it could hold 32 minutes of music at the 128kbps quality rate I and most others used at the time, so I coughed up another 65 UK pounds for a 32MB Smart Media card which gave me an hour of music for my commute to work, although I'd have to listen to the same music again on the way home.

So why am I talking about a Samsung player when this post is about a different unit by Iomega? Well, mainly to give you an idea of what state of the art was in MP3 players around the year 2000 and what made the HipZip an interesting idea the following year. Simply put, the Achilles heel of MP3 players at the time was storage space, not so much the lack of it but rather the cost. Smart Media cards were some of the cheapest forms of flash memory you could get and 32MB was upwards of 60 UK pounds giving you just 30 minutes of music with 64MB and an hour of music coming in at well over 100 UK pounds! Not exactly cost effective when you compared this media to blank CD's, which although bulky gave you 65MB or nearly 11 hours of music for just 40 pence..

Enter portable storage masters Iomega, who miniaturized their hugely successful 100MB Zip disk to produce the Pocket Zip (initially called the Clik!) disc, a more robust device offering 40MB of storage but under 2 inches square and extremely thin. It would only hold 40 minutes of music, but the magic was in the price, just 10 UK pounds per disc... If I didn't already have the Yepp I would have been quite tempted by the HipZip, I was a big fan of Iomega back then, both due to their cool advertising, exciting colorful designs (just compare a Zip drive or one of their purple CD-ROM drives to the beige boxes that were still of the vogue) and they were just extremely innovative. But I heard a rumor that Iomega knew the limited capacity was a problem and they had a 100MB version of the discs under development but it never materialized.

So fast forward 17 years and I couldn't resist snapping up a brand new in box HipZip drive from eBay even though the asking price was too high, sealed box or otherwise. So what did I get for my $40?

 Iomega HipZip MP3 Player and Pocket Zip (Clik!) Discs

  • MP3 and WMA playback support
  • Backlit LCD screen
  • BodyGlove style case with belt clip
  • USB data transfer cable
  • Built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery giving 12 hours of playback per charge
  • Earbuds
  • 2x free Pocket Zip discs
  • Software CD
  • AC Charger 

I figured that buying new would reduce the chances of getting a defective player but I was worried about the built-in battery which would surely be damaged if not completely dead after sitting unused for 17 years, so when I unpacked it the first thing I did was try to switch the unit on. Predictably it wouldn't power up so any charge from the factory was long gone. I plugged in the charger and tried again but no dice so I left it plugged in for an hour but still no luck. At this point I suspected the battery had been damaged from sitting with no charge for so long and decided to disassemble the player to see if I could source a replacement on eBay as these battery packs are often off the shelf items. It looked fairly generic, but an extensive search turned up no 4.2V candidates so the best I would be able to do is construct a new pack out of three 4.2V cells, but soldering batteries isn't something I relish so I reluctantly re-assembled the unit, and left it plugged in over night.

The next day, wonder of wonders, it powered right up! The screen displayed the "charging" symbol even though it should have completed charging by this time (a full charge takes 2 hours according to the manual) and leaving it on for the rest of the day didn't change that, so there was a possibility the battery was not taking a full charge, but just how much charge it had been willing to accept was a mystery. The two included discs are pre-loaded with music so I slipped one in with that satisfying "click" sound that gave them their (initial) name, set the unit to continuous play mode and hit the play button. To my amazement it kept right on playing for 12 hours and 15 minutes which was the promised run time when it was new, so it seems I lucked out.

The next plan was to load my own music onto a disc. I popped the included CD into my Windows 2000 laptop but the version of the software included was not compatible with that OS. Before looking online for a newer version I decided to use the included USB cable to hook the player up directly, and lo and behold it simply appeared as a drive on the desktop, just like plugging in a USB memory stick or hard drive! I deleted the included music and dragged over a few 128kbps MP3 files from back in my college days in the mid-late 90's. The included Labtec earbuds were of low quality as expected, but when using decent headphones the sound was more than acceptable given the source material, as good as any iPod or smartphone.

My 40 minute commute via public transport was perfect for testing it out and over a couple of weeks I came to the conclusion that it was a perfectly usable device for me, even today. When the iPod was first released, just a few months after the HipZip, the idea of carrying my entire music collection was attractive enough that I bought the first of many such units from Apple and I was extremely happy with all of them. But I came to realize I was a creature of habit, albeit shifting habits, What I mean is, I generally listen to just a few songs over and over, then after a while I'll switch to another set. Even with 4 thousand tracks loaded onto my iPhone I generally listen to the same couple of mix playlists every day on my commute. So the 40 minute capacity of the Pocket Zip discs was no problem as I was happy listening to those tracks on my way to work and home again. But if I got bored I could swap the disc for another 40 minutes mix.

But that's not to say a device as seemingly simple as the HipZip is without its flaws, for one thing it doesn't remember which track you were playing when you powered it off, much less where on a specific track. That might not seem like too much of a problem except it has very aggressive power management. If you stop or even pause the music for more than a few seconds it powers itself off automatically which is annoying. The annoyance is further compounded by the fact that you can't quickly skip to the track you were last on as the player insists on skipping only 1 track at a time, spinning the drive up and down in-between which means it will take a few seconds just to skip 4 or 5 songs. There is also a 1 second delay between tracks as the disc spins up to fetch the next one which spoils the flow of your music mix somewhat, especially on albums that are designed not to have a gap between tracks. And finally the fairly high pitched whir of the drive when it does spin up might annoy some people, although I found it rather endearing...

The reason for my buying the HipZip over another old MP3 player was due to its unusual storage system. I say unusual as opposed to unique as there were two other players that also used the format and even a digital camera, but in the grand scheme of things it's extremely unusual. If you were interesting in buying an old MP3 player for nostalgia or any other reason, you'd be better off buying a flash storage based unit or even an early iPod as of course the cost of such storage is no longer a factor so a Pocket Zip based unit has no benefit beyond novelty.

I'm not saying that everyone should rush out and buy an old MP3 player, after all there's no need with today's smart phones as having access to more songs, streaming music and podcasts is not only possible but more convenient and who wants to carry two devices? The big surprise though, for my specific habits and commute time, was that I didn't miss any of those things. I was perfectly happy with the PocketZip despite its limitations.

 

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