Toshiba set the bar mighty high when it created one of our top-rated MP3 players, the Gigabeat S. The company's latest player, the flash-based Gigabeat U (2GB, $99), maintains Toshiba's reputation for solid construction and fine sound quality in a lighter and leaner package.
Measuring a demure 3 inches tall, 1.3 inches wide, and just a hair under a half-inch thick, the Gigabeat U certainly falls into the Nano-size category. The top of the player features an easy-to-use textured black-plastic power switch that doubles as a button hold. Lining the bottom of the player are the Gigabeat U's headphone jack, a metal-reinforced lanyard loophole, and a standard mini USB port. All the action is on the front of the player, where you'll find the 1-inch color OLED screen, a menu key, an options button, and a four-way directional pad with a center button that acts as a play/pause/enter key.
One of the biggest bragging points on the Gigabeat U is the quality and feel of the construction. The brushed metal taking up the front and back of the player lend the Gigabeat a kind of permanence you don't see in many sub-$100 gadgets. Overall, there's a mature, understated elegance to the design that only a company such as Toshiba or Sony could accomplish.
Unfortunately, the design team must have been laid off before getting to the Gigabeat's graphical user interface. While the usability of the Gigabeat U is quite good, the graphics, unfortunately, look amateurish. Fonts and icons appear blocky, and the screensaver looks like an Adobe Illustrator demo from 1993. Mind you, creating an attractive interface for a 1-inch screen is a unique design challenge, but our expectations for Toshiba were higher considering the exquisite Portable Media Center interface on the Gigabeat S.
Don't let the Gigabeat U's classy, understated design fool you; this player has got plenty going on under the hood. For the $99 price tag, you get 2GB of music storage (MP3, WMA, and WAV); a JPEG photo viewer; an FM radio with autoscan and 10 presets; line-input recording; radio recording; and a countdown clock. Although Toshiba makes no mention of it on its packaging or in the manual, we had no problem getting the Gigabeat U to work with DRM-protected subscription music, such as Rhapsody, or with purchased music. We weren't surprised that the Gigabeat U lacks support for video playback--who would watch video on a 1-inch screen?--but we were a little shocked that there's no voice recording option. Of course, as a workaround, you could plug a basic lapel microphone into the line-input jack and get better-than-average results.
The music player on the Gigabeat U has a few tricks up its sleeve. Despite its small screen, you can set up the Gigabeat U to display album artwork during music playback (a rare find in this price range). Playlist support is also included, as well as a misleading feature called "bookmark" that allows you to create on-the-go playlists. There's no support for connecting the Gigabeat U to your computer as a drag-and-drop-friendly UMS device, unfortunately, so Mac users are left out and Windows users will need to use a program such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody to manage the transfer of music files. We're also sorry to say that the Gigabeat U does not support Audible audio books.