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Jul
31

RIP PhatBox

I am fortunate to have a 2002 BMW E46 M3 convertible. It’s a great car that I love to drive. Unfortunately, it has auto electronics circa 2001 (when I actually purchased the car). About a year into owning it, I decided that the trunk-mounted CD player just wasn’t going to cut it. I had a huge number of ripped CDs and even though downloadable MP3s weren’t quite readily available yet, I knew that they would be broadly available soon. In searching for a way to play MP3 files through the standard radio interface of the car, I found the Holy Grail. Well, it seemed that way at the time. A removable disk-based MP3 player that used the existing BMW wiring to connect to the standard head unit in the dash. All praise the PhatNoise PhatBox.
PhatBox
The idea was great, a device with a removable disk drive (20GB!) that used the same cabling as the target vehicle. In my case, a 3-Series BMW. The drive could be removed from its semi-permanent home in the trunk of my car, inserted into a docking port connected to my computer and synced with my MP3 database of tunes. What could possibly go wrong, right? A spinning disk in an enclosed space without any climate control and subject to the shaking, rattling and rolling of a tightly sprung sports sedan. Perfect conditions for a fast-spinning disk drive . . . Not.

Well, this device has been a rock-solid stud. Almost never a skip or a missed beat, even on washboard New England roads in 90 degree heat and equal humidity. The PhatBox never failed to play all my favorites. On call, all the time. Along the way, I lost the docking station and stopped updating the music on the PhatBox. No matter really, since I mostly listen to classic rock and there’s not a lot of that coming out these days by definition.

The PhatBox is a seriously great product. Not only did it put up with being in the trunk of a car for the last dozen years, for its day, it was an exhibitionist of great engineering. PhatNoise dealt with the limited interface on the BMW Nav/Infotainment unit by synthesizing voice directives so that they could use the limited number of buttons available to multiplex several functions. When a button is pressed once, the PhatBox announces, “the current playlist is XYZ.” When pressed again, the next playlist is announced. Easy smeazy. The synchronization app worked flawlessly – much better than Apple’s abomination, iTunes. No muss, no fuss and it didn’t even cost a lot. Yeah, sure, I had to fabricate a mounting bracket for it so that it fit where the old CD changer was mounted, but that was just a few hours of work. Unfortunately, it appears that PhatNoise couldn’t keep up. They appear to still be in business, but no longer sell the PhatBox. The solid state, iPod dominant ship came ashore and sailed and PhatNoise didn’t get on board.

PhatBoxSo, today, the PhatBox got lovingly removed from the M3 (these photos are of my PhatBox after removal from the car). It’s brought me loads of joy over the years, but my inability to update it – a man can’t live on classic rock alone, after all – has forced me to move on. I replaced it with an Audiovox Mediabridge that uses an external iPod or USB memory stick loaded with MP3s. It also has a Bluetooth connection and can wirelessly connect to my phone. It’s not like landing on Mars or anything, but it is an advance in technology.

PhatNoise created a terrific product that has brought me loads of enjoyment over many years. It’s too bad that they couldn’t make a go of it and bring all their great engineering prowess into the present. I have incredible respect for the people who built the product. It’s been a total blast to use for all these years.

Thanks, PhatNoise.

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 July 31st, 2014  
 Will  
 Cars, Gadgets  
   
 9 Comments

9 Responses to RIP PhatBox

  1. I’ll be sure to share this article with my friends. They designed it.

  2. I have two Empeg units that have sadly demised in the same way.
    Pity as they were, and stil are, great units.

    • Empeg . . . I looked at them way back. I liked the idea of an in-dash solution. My car has a Nav unit, though and no DIN-sized receptacle, so I needed a trunk mounted unit. Or a full Nav replacement.

  3. I have a PhatBox synching cradle sitting in a box in my garage that I don’t need anymore. The car that had the PhatBox, a 2001 VW New Beetle 1.8T, got totaled a couple of years ago.

    • Dan, thanks for the offer! I think I’ve moved on at this point. The disk has many bad blocks and some of the music doesn’t play any more. 20 Gigs is a little confining as well. 🙂

  4. Hey there – this is a great eulogy for a great product.

    I’m the PhatBox’s original designer and co-founder of PhatNoise. The concept started out as a Linux box in my apartment as a college student in Los Angeles in 1998. As PhatNoise grew into a real company, I continued as CTO, where I wrote all of the original microcontroller code and designed the voice interface as well.

    I wont go into detail on the history of PhatNoise (I actually had written a blog post about it, but alas that blog has since died and needs resurrection).

    So many products are impersonal, and made by people that are simply chasing a buck and watching the clock. But some products, such as the PhatBox, are much more than that. For those that design them, they are more like art: manifestations of thought, feeling, and the time they lived in. The PhatBox has many flaws (believe me, I know) — and countless hours of frustration went into it — but within its aluminum frame it also captured my personal creativity, my passion, and my imagination for what it could be. Such products may become technically obsolete, but for their creators they serve as a memorial for a time and a mindset. I think that, like art, great products also capture a time and a place in their owner’s lives too.

    I’m glad to see the PhatBox gave you so much joy. If you don’t mind, keep some part of it around. It may serve as a reminder of all the pleasure you had driving with it for the past decade.

    – Dan Benyamin

    • Dan, thanks so much for commenting and thanks for creating such a terrific product. I can only imagine the passion that went into creating it.

      To be fair, I could probably make my PhatBox last a while longer. I believe my main problem is bad blocks on the disk. It appears that the unit is mapping around the bad blocks, causing many songs to be skipped. Just guessing here, of course. If that’s right, kudos to you and your team for designing it that way.

      As an engineer, I always keep products or components of products that I think had a lasting impact on me or society in general. The PhatBox will certainly be added to that collection.

  5. williamhertling

    I have a PhatBox I don’t need.

    • Thanks, William! I’ve moved onto a solid state solution. As it turns out, it’s not nearly as good as a PhatBox in terms of function, but it uses a cheap iPod and the Apple ecosystem (not that I’m a fan). I appreciate the offer, though.