Apple's dominance of MP3 players is forcing others to concentrate on design, and that's producing some sleek, elegant competitors, like the 30GB Philips GoGear HDD6330.

It may not be perfect — the interface often responds slowly and battery life won't wow you — but the combination of good sound, ultra-stylish looks and a broad feature set makes this a solid alternative to the iPod, especially for those who prefer Windows Media Player 10 to iTunes.

At 5.3 ounces, the HDD6330 has a fairly solid feel. It's slightly bigger — 4.1 by 2.5 by 0.7 inches (HWD) — in each direction than a fourth-generation, 20GB iPod and much thicker than Apple's current 30GB version.

Powered off, the HDD6330 looks like a miniature version of the blank black monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Power the player up, though, and the controls suddenly appear, backlit by blue LEDs in the shiny black polycarbonate front. (Of course, that flashy face collects fingerprints like a crime scene investigator and isn't scratchproof, although it does resist marks from very light contact). The back — silver-colored brushed aluminum — is rounded on the top and bottom.

To turn the player on, you slide the power/hold switch (located on the side, as are the volume buttons) and hold it for about four seconds — a slightly difficult maneuver without using a fingernail. The context-sensitive touch interface illuminates controls for available functions.

A vertical touch strip with LEDs that follow the motion of your finger looks somewhat like the display on the front of K.I.T.T., the sentient "Knight Rider" car.

You can't adjust the strip's sensitivity (as you can with those on Creative players), but we found it responsive enough. It supports several different gestures, from taps for moving up or down one item in a list, to swipes for scrolling through long lists.

You navigate the contextual menu system, activated with an appropriately labeled button, using a right arrow to make selections and a left arrow to return to the previous menu.

The menus are very handy for making adjustments to sound settings, play mode, and so on, but overall navigation can be painfully slow. If you're listening to a song and you go back into the menus to choose another, for example, you'll experience a lag of up to 5 seconds until the next tune starts.

And of course, virtual controls displayed on a smooth face offer no tactile feedback, so forget about operating the player while it's in your pocket. A wired remote would come in handy — but then again, this black beauty can grab attention only when it's in view.

The HDD6330 is tied to Windows Media Player (WMP) 10, so Mac users are out of luck, but syncing music in WMP is easy and works right out of the box.

You can copy music just using Windows Explorer, but you lose the playlist-transfer capability that syncing with WMP gives you. You can load photos, also, but viewing them requires you to install a plug-in application from the included CD.

Playlist features are pretty good. You can create "On the Go" playlists and save them, but you can't name them (another area where Creative hits the mark). You can delete lists and remove items from them but can't delete files (except for those from voice, FM, and line-in recordings). The HDD6330 does create an automatic "Most Played" playlist, though.

Music and Photo Capabilities

The player supports MP3, WAV, WMA, and protected WMA formats, including content from online download and subscription services. You can tag tracks you want to purchase by selecting the Buy Now option in the contextual menu.

If you've got a track on your player from a service like Napster To Go, the next time you sync the device with WMP, you'll see an option to purchase the track from MSN Music (no word yet on whether this will apply to the forthcoming Microsoft/MTV service). For radio listening, the FM tuner works well, is easy to use, and supports up to 20 station presets.

This is one of those rare times when we won't bug you to upgrade the included earbuds, which are in-ear style and sound better than most stock sets. Of course, if you're really into sound and have your MP3s encoded at a high enough bit rate (above 192 Kbps), you'll still hear a difference when using upper-echelon phones from companies like Ultimate Ears, Shure, and Etymotic.

We listened to a variety of music, including rock folk, hip-hop, funk, jazz, classical, and ambient, all of which sounded very good on the HDD6330, with plenty of clarity and presence in the bass and highs.

Our lab tests using SIA Software's SmaartLive confirmed that the player's frequency response is admirably flat, with a very slow rolloff in the bass region. Harmonic distortion starts to kick in at about five notches below full volume, but the overall output is strong enough that you shouldn't have to turn the player up that high anyway.

Boosting the bass using the custom 5-band equalizer adds significant harmonic distortion at any volume. Although this doesn't happen with most of the presets, we didn't like what any of them did to the sound.

Also, the graphic EQ bands aren't labeled with frequencies but with letters indicating bass, low, mid, high, and treble. The SRS WOW feature expands the soundstage and boosts the bass but isn't adjustable, makes the music sound a bit harsh, and causes the midrange to seem distant.

One of the best things about this player is its recording capability. The built-in mic is impressive, though it doesn't have adjustable gain control. Despite the fixed input volume, it handles a wide dynamic range with aplomb: We played a trumpet at a distance of 10 feet and the mic didn't distort. Files are saved in uncompressed PCM WAV format.

Voice recordings are very clear, but when the hard drive spins, the whine is captured. Luckily, the drive runs only every minute or so; otherwise, there's only a very light background hiss.

FM recording is crystal clear, though there's the standard lag of a couple seconds before capture starts. Sadly, line-in recording (also in WAV format) is available only with the optional docking cradle.

We were hoping for a bit more battery life than the 15.5 hours we got on our battery rundown test, which uses a real-world mix of MP3s encoded at 128 to 320Kbps.

Considering that the combination USB cable/AC charger is so messy and bulky, we think this may be an issue for some users. But we do like the quick-charge feature, which gives you about 70 percent battery capacity after just 1 hour.

Photos look reasonably sharp on the 2-inch, 220-by-176 pixel display. Colors are vibrant and on the warm side, with a slight yellow cast. We like that you can scroll through images quickly using the touch strip, much like you can on an iPod. Slide show settings are flexible and include a couple of basic transitions.

From the menu, you can choose a music playlist to accompany the show, but you can't start a slide show with music that's already playing. You can listen to your current music selection and look at individual photos.

To transfer images directly from a digital camera (provided it's on the list of supported models), you can purchase an optional digicam cable. You can even present photos and slide shows on a TV set — with yet another optional accessory (the docking cradle).

The HDD6330 is a sharp-looking, versatile 30GB player at a reasonable price. Our quibbles are mainly with the slow interface and ho-hum battery life, though a slightly bigger screen would be nice.

We're also not crazy about the messy charger/USB cable combo or the protective neoprene sleeve, but neither will bring down civilization. Recording and playback quality are impressive, and we're thrilled with the included earbuds.

The Philips GoGear HDD6330 may not be our top choice, but it's definitely a solid contender.

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