The Linux Twist of the Neuros 442

Neuros Audio LLC sent us in for a spin their latest versions of their two main products, the Neuros 442 Digital Media Player/Recorder and the Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder 1. UPDATE: Firmware upgrade adds timer recording, pause recording and a shuffle option for audio files.1. Neurus 442

The Neurus 442 is a portable media player and recorder. Much like the Archos, iRiver, Creative (and other Windows Media-based PVRs) and RCA Lyra devices, it can playback both music and video/pictures. And it’s among the few that can also record video from external sources.

The device can playback mp3, WMA (not all kbps ranges are supported) and AAC-LC on its 40 GB hard drive. The video player is able to playback MPEG4/DivX 3.11/4.0/5.0/WMV v9. Older versions of WMV do not work. The internal photo viewer supports JPEG/GIF/BMP on either the 3.6″ internal screen or on an NTSC/PAL TV.

The Neuros 442 has a similar size to the iRiver PMP-120 and the RCA-Lyra RD2780. It feels very solid in one’s hands and the weight feels right too. The device has an on/off button, two volume buttons (-/+), a headphone-out, a mini-usb jack that makes the hard drive look like an external drive under any operating system, a line-in, a line-out, a lock button, a 5-way joystick, a “back” button and a menu button. Under the device one can find an SD/MMC slot for easy copy of media back and forth. In the package you will find headphones, a USB cable, a owner’s manual, two composite video input/output cables, the installation CD, an AC adapter and a leather carrying case.

The Neurus 442 loads pretty quickly, about 4 seconds after you press the ON/OFF button. The user is then presented with a horizontally scrolling interface with options of audio, video playback, photos, microphone recording, files management and PVR.

One peculiar thing was the fact that the device only came with folders called DSC, PVR and VOICE. I had to manually create the “video”, “music” and “pictures” folder and throw my media files in them as I don’t like putting files on the root of a given filesystem. The device was able to read all my mp3s, jpegs and bmps I threw at it, but it had problems with a 20 kHz WMA file. Additionally, I found the volume level pretty low compared to my iPod, as I like listening to my dance music pretty loud. The 442 played my DivX and mp4 videos (not .3gp though) without a problem, even at resolutions higher than its suggested QVGA one. The “War of the Worlds” mp4 trailer was 656×352 for example, and its dual-cpu setup played back the trailer without dropping any frames. This XVid video crashed the device though. The screen is very bright but it has a low viewing angle and it’s “slow” (you can see the interlacing lines when playing back video).

Each of the video and audio screens look like the file manager’s view. By navigating to their respective folders you can start playing the files sequentially. The device came with a generic .m3u playlist file, but the audio application can’t “see” it, so I am not sure how well these playlists are supported…

The settings display allow you to change the automatic power off timer, the LCD brightness, date and time and it also gives you information about the firmware version. You are also given a DivX registration code that you can use with to download protected content. The current 1.2.2 firmware supports 7 languages. The interface is really spiffy and battery life is very good (it lasted about 4.2 hours with video-only and LCD on, which is good for video harddrive-based devices).

There are a few problems with the device though: I have a huge beef with the lack of a built-in “stand” like the one in the RCA Lyra that let’s you tilt the device on a flat surface, and the lack of an external speaker. Then, there is the fact that you need external hardware to use the voice recording as there is no built-in microphone, making the feature kind of useless. Picture viewing is not great either, as the only menu options for it are the same generic ones as for the audio and video ones, there is not a way to rotate or zoom a picture for example.

The PVR can not be set to schedule recordings in the future and its HVGA (640×240) recording resolution is not compatible with many media players because the 442 does not document that the file format does not use square pixels and so Windows Media Player for PocketPC or TCPMP for PPC/PalmOS render the video as a long stretch (unwatchable). VLC, Real and WMP think that the file is 320×240 instead, and only WinAMP is able to playback the file correctly (in a VGA-sized window). The 442 is able to playback its own recording file fine though. To avoid such problems with other players though, always record in QVGA instead of HVGA. Additionally, the user must install on Windows an audio codec if he wants to playback his recordings on a PC, otherwise there is no sound. On PDAs, only TCPMP supports that audio codec, Pocket Windows Media Player does not have sound at all and there are no available audio codecs for it.

However, many of the above software disadvantages will go away with the upcoming version of the 442 which will be based on Linux. The Neuros 442 is not a product that you buy once and it stays still. It is an evolutionary product. Neuros Audio LLC has put up a blog discussing the new, Linux-based firmware that is coming soon and it’s to replace the current proprietary firmware. Current customers will be able to upgrade their device easily and additional hardware tweaking can be done for a nominal fee. The Neuros Audio folks are asking your help to give them feedback and help out with the firmware’s development. Slashdot, Wired and Newsforge had recently an article detailing the whole process behind this switch to open source.

Recording sample (normal QVGA)
Recording sample (skewed, HVGA)
Recording sample (skewed, HVGA)

Overall: 7.5/10

2. Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder 1

Here is a great PVR product with a twist! It can record from any video-output device, like a cable box, DVD, camcorder, etc. It is no bigger than a PDA in size, and less heavy than one! The device has no internal storage and it records directly to your CF or SD card in .ASF mpeg-4 format using the G.726 audio codec, same audio codec as the 442 uses.

The device came with a remote control, a pair of I/O cables, a power supply, a USB cable and a descriptive & very visual user’s manual. The CD includes a Ulead application that allows you to export the .asf files to other formats/resolutions.

Setup was very easy, and the menus are easy to navigate through with the remote control through your TV. The main screen includes 4 big icons, one for mp3 play back, one for video playback (ASF and DivX), one for video recording and one for picture viewing. Each of these four actions has its own options (e.g. rotate or zoom for the picture viewing), while on the main settings menu you can set up the recording resolution (352/388×240 at 30/25 fps respectively or phone resolution at 176×144), date and time, recording quality, NTSC or PAL, etc.

The newly released firmware for the MPEG-4 Recorder 1 also includes new options for scheduling recording (e.g. once, every week, daily at the same time) in addition to the manual date/time scheduling. Quality of the ASF in “normal” mode is very good and it looks fabulous on the 3.5″ screens of PDAs or the 442. It looks like VCR quality on big TV screens, like on my 55″ SHARP widescreen HDTV.

The device comes with a USB cable that you can then connect it to a PC like a flash storage reader and use a file manager to manage the files in the attached SD or CF cards. What’s great about the Neuros Recorder 1 is that you don’t have to take the middle step of re-encoding your DVDs or your VCR/DVD-R recordings for small devices or your phone.

I will have to seriously nitpick about the fact that it only encodes videos in .ASF format instead of DivX or .mp4 though, because a 2-hour movie requires about 750 MBs of space with *mono* sound. A similar quality/resolution DivX recording with stereo sound it would weigh below 260 MBs and an h.264 recording below 180 MBs. So the device got cheaper by using a less powerful CPU, but the customer pays later for it by having to use larger SD/CF cards. Another problem is that the device is not “clever” enough to not encode line 21 of the TV stream, which is only used for closed caption, resulting in annoying playback on that line.

The new version of the Recorder, the Recorder 2, is expected at the end of this month, for $149. It records in higher resolution and directly in the PSP movie format. It also includes a memory stick slot instead of an SD one.

Recording sample (NTSC recording, normal quality)

Overall: 9/10


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