The $350 Riot looks promising when you first take it out of the box. Weighing 10 ounces and measuring 5.38 by 3.63 by 1.38 inches, the player is smaller than a paperback book and somewhat resembles a handheld gaming device. The sturdy, plastic case has convenient handgrips on either end, and most of the controls--including a half-concealed scroll wheel; a play-stop-forward-reverse mouse; and Menu, Select, and Back buttons--are within easy reach. Smack dab in the middle of the device is an impressive 1.50-by-2.25-inch backlit display. The display is one of our favorite aspects of the Riot since it allows you to view the slick menu graphics and multitude of song titles while browsing. We just wish that the titles would scroll so that long song names would still be readable. Initially, we thought the display had a slight ghosting effect (meaning that you can see faint outlines of items that used to be on the screen), but it turns out that Sonicblue did this intentionally to help with navigation.Â
Time to reinvent the wheel
Unfortunately, the scroll wheel isn't as simple to use as it looks. Because only half of this dial appears outside of the Riot's case, we couldn't spin it nearly as quickly as the iPod's scroll wheel, which is fully exposed. Another design flaw: the small, hard-to-press volume-control buttons are hidden on the side of the Riot and are especially tough to access when the player is in its nice, padded case. And while the Select, Back, and Menu buttons are well placed, they don't always work the way that you'd expect. For instance, from the Play Music menu, the Back button returns you to the previous menu. That's intuitive enough, but from the Radio menu, the Back key doesn't do anything. For some reason, in certain situations you must use the Menu key--rather than the Back button--to return from whence you came. Ugh.
Transferring music to the Riot is a simple yet time-consuming process. Just fire up the included RealJukebox software (iTunes for Mac users), add your music to the program's library, and drag the files to the Riot. Be prepared for a long wait, though. It took us 50 minutes to move about 1GB of MP3s over the Riot's USB connection; transferring the same amount of files over the iPod's FireWire port took 2 minutes. It takes more than 16 hours to fill the 20GB Riot. While you probably won't be moving 20GB worth of files to the player every day, we wish the Riot could transfer files over a faster, state-of-the-art FireWire or USB 2.0 connection.
File syncing: Missing in action
Once all of our tunes were on the Riot, we found ourselves missing the iPod's autosync function (the Riot doesn't sync with your system's jukebox software). Sure, you can make your own playlists on the device itself, but our fingers started to go numb re-creating all of the existing playlists on our system. (And no, you can't drag playlists from RealJukebox or iTunes to the Riot.) When you're dealing with 20GB of music, file-syncing capabilities or at least PC-based song organization is essential. That said, creating playlists on the Riot isn't too awful, thanks to the large display, the scrolling mechanism, and a navigation system that works well for this task.
The Riot files songs by artist, album, or genre, which means that you'll have a tough time finding your MP3s if their ID3 tags aren't pretty complete--unless you enjoy plowing through thousands of songs by title. Thankfully, the included MoodLogic software can clean up most of those ID3 tags. We highly recommend that you use it before you transfer your songs to the player.