Mac Daniel's Advice

Make Your Own Digital Jukebox

Evan Kleiman - 2002.02.01

Q. I've seen the new $1,000 "Digital Jukebox" from Hewlett-Packard in this weekend's Best Buy ad. Can't I make something just like this for even less?

A. After looking at this product myself, I've realized that pretty much all it is is a large MP3 player with a 40 GB hard drive and a CD player which is capable of "ripping" your existing CDs into MP3s and storing them on the hard drive that is built into the machine. This, of course, all hooks-up into your main audio system.

This is a really great idea except for one thing, the $1,000 dollar price tag! Why should a very oversized (and not at all portable) MP3 player/ripper cost so much when you can clearly get a much more affordable Macintosh-based solution for hundreds less with much more functionality?

Any PowerPC-based Macintosh or PowerBook is capable of playing all MP3 files in with pretty good clarity with a large bevy of available players such as Audion and, of course, the ever-popular and free iTunes. So why not just get a cheaper used PowerBook of some sort instead of the new player by Hewlett-Packard?

It's pretty easy, so let me just show you how.

We have a US$1,000 budget to prove that this "miracle" Hewlett-Packard Digital Jukebox isn't all it's cracked up to be. So first we're going to need a computer, right? My recommendation for this would be the Low End Mac "Best Buy" PowerBook 1400 or something like it. And since we'll only be using this computer for MP3 music (in theory), even the "Road Apple" 117 MHz model will do, since all it's going to be needed for is MP3 rendering and a network connection (if you desire). We'll cover this later on, when we get into totally beating all of the abilities of the H-P Digital Jukebox.

Of course most PowerBooks of this era only had 1.2 GB or smaller hard drives, which is clearly only a shadow of the "monstrous" 40 GB ogre of a hard drive in the Digital Jukebox. To truly hold all of your MP3s and CDs and then some, you might wish to consider actually getting a 40 GB or larger hard drive for your homemade digital jukebox. These can be had on eBay for under US$300.

Now all you need is a typical Y-cable from any local electronics vendor (i.e., Radio Shack or Walmart, or even my personal favorite, Target) Just hook this up to your PowerBook and then into your stereo, and you already have a much better "Digital Jukebox" than Hewlett-Packard sells.

Also, in my opinion at least, a PowerBook 1400cs (or something equivalent) has a much higher "wow-factor" when hooked up to your stereo system than some boring black looking box about the size of a traditional DVD player, plus or minus a few inches in any direction.

Okay, so now that you have the exact capabilities of this new Digital Jukebox for around 70% of the price and around one-third of the size (with the lid closed, of course), what else can you do to make this thing even cooler?

Well first, you obviously (unlike the Hewlett-Packard Box, to the best of my knowledge, as I do not own this waste of money) can choose your own software on your Digital Mac Jukebox. My best pick for this one, if you are going for even more of the "wow factor," is Audion. This is purely not performance related, but rather looks alone. This is because with Audion there are thousands of available "face plates" for the software, so you will be able to make your new jukebox look even cooler. iTunes is also another good option, as is MusicMatch Jukebox or just the default QuickTime player of system 8.0 and later.

Also, networking is another very viable option of which the new Hewlett-Packard Digital Jukebox is incapable. By attaching your new Macintosh Digital Jukebox to your stereo and to your other Macs on the network, you will be able to do many things, such as download music directly to your jukebox (something which the Hewlett-Packard is incapable of, unless you hook it into the Internet, of course, with its supplied modem).

Also, with networking you could seemingly have an unlimited amount of storage, as well as the ability to add additional nodes to your new MP3 Library or access your entire MP3 collection from anywhere in your house from any computer. This option is multiplied by many factors if you add a few AirPort cards into the equation. Imagine the many possibilities.

In the end, the only option you're really missing is the CD-RW, which you can get rather cheaply with the US$300 or so you have left over. LEM

Editor's note: If this isn't cheap enough, consider a Power Mac 6100 (maybe $50) with a 36 GB SCSI hard drive ($150 or so, see DealMac). Add a mouse, keyboard, and monitor, and you're probably still under $300 - and the 6100 usually comes with a CD-ROM, so you can use that to rip your own MP3s. If you want to burn CDs, check DealMac for SCSI CD-RW burners. To put the 6100 on a network, all you need is an AAUI adapter for $10 or so on the LEM Swap List. Total: less than 40% the cost of HP's Digital Jukebox.

Paint the beige case black or silver to make it look at home with your stereo components if you want.

Another option is the Power Mac/Performa 6360, which often sells for under $50 on eBay. This uses IDE hard drives, so you can drop 40 GB in for under $100 (see DealMac). You can add an IDE CD-RW drive for about $70-80 (DealMac). Add a keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the whole package, and you've spent maybe $300-350.

Once set up, either of these can run without a keyboard and with the monitor disconnected if you're letting the MP3 player randomly select tunes - or you could remotely control your Mac jukebox from any computer on the same network using VNC (free) or Timbuktu. And if you want bigger drives or a faster CD-RW, you'll still save a bundle compared with the H-P.

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