NEW YORK -- It was a poker game like any other. Five of us were slung around a table eating tacos, swigging beer and slamming cards onto the tabletop.
Then the music ran out.
Instead of facing my turn at dealing in silence, I pulled an ace from my sleeve.
For just such a crisis, I'd tossed the Archos Jukebox 6000 MP3 player/recorder into my backpack. I'd loaded it with a few hours of bawdy blues, jazz and country music I'd downloaded for free.
The $349 Archos comes with a patch cable, which I connected to my friend's stereo. I hit the "play" button and the machine's alphabetical playlist kicked into Grant Green, Hank Snow, Isley Brothers and Jimmy McGriff.
Crisis solved, my friends clamored for information on the little player.
I explained that the Walkman-sized Archos - essentially a portable hard drive - can hold more music than most folks' entire CD libraries.
Best of all, the Archos can record MP3s as easily as it plays them, converting analog sound to a digital file and encoding it as an MP3. You simply plug into an auxiliary RCA slot on your stereo, and the player records from cassette, CD, LP or radio.
A version without recording capabilities sells for $249.
Like all good ideas, the premise of the Archos Jukebox is startlingly simple: You fill it with your favorite songs. Then you tote the machine, not a crate of music media.
The player becomes your personal entertainment module, functioning as a standalone player with headphones, or a removable component of your home stereo. You can tote it along to parties - or poker games - and plug it into your host's sound system. You can catalog all your old records and disintegrating cassettes, and even use it as an external computer hard drive, loading it with data and software.
The Archos, a 12-ounce metal box with "ruggedized" plastic corners and six to eight hours of battery life, is about as big as a point-and-shoot camera, which makes it larger than most other MP3 players.
But most players hold 64 or 128 MB of music, room for a couple dozen tracks.
With six gigabytes of recording capacity - almost 100 times the space of a 64 MB player, and more than my home computer - the Archos can hold about 150 CDs. The company also sells the $369 Jukebox Studio 20 MP3 Player that holds 20 GB of data - 500 CDs worth - but has no recording capability.
The original large-capacity MP3 players, the comparably priced 6 GB and 20 GB Nomad Jukeboxes from Creative Systems, are larger and heavier than the Archos and can't simultaneously record and encode MP3s.
The Archos plugs into your computer's USB port. An accompanying CD carries the USB drivers and MusicMatch software to help you store and label tracks, and "rip" MP3s from a CD.
When I plugged the Archos into my computer, it was recognized as an external device. After installing the driver, the Archos showed up as a lettered external drive. From there, I just dragged and dropped MP3 files onto the disk icon.
Archos, a French manufacturer known for computer peripherals, also sells a portable hard drive and CD burner. The company plans to release a portable DVD player Oct. 15.
Archos sells a $39 Jukebox travel kit, with adapters to connect to a car's cassette player and cigarette lighter power source.
The Jukebox supports Mac 8.6 operating system or better and Windows 98 or better - though Windows NT, the system I happen to use at home, is not supported. That was my biggest frustration.
Other disappointments included the wimpy volume level - too meek to cut through the din of a New York City Subway station - and the chintzy headphones.
My poker buddies were the real winners. They got a couple hours' worth of free music - and a good chunk of my hard-earned pay.
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