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    Choosing simple flash-based MP3 player

    8th February 2007

    I decided to buy a digital companion to use while commuting, travelling for longer distances, creating voice memos, probably even listening to some FM.

    Quite quickly I figured out my list of basic requirements:

    • it must have a decent sound quality
    • it must have not-worse-than-average FM radio with recording and encoding directly to MP3
    • it’s voice recorder must be able to record meetings, lectures etc, and – again – encode straight to MP3
    • it must be convenient and intuitive in use
    • it should have USB-A stick in it (for extra ease of use with no cables)
    • there should be nothing more than the necessary minimum ;-)
    • it should run on standard-size batteries/accumulators, like AA or AAA (no proprietary built-in accumulators)
    • it should have mic-in or line-in
    • the price/quality and price/features ratios should be good (do not want to pay for the name only)

    (Looking for the models which would correspond to my requirements, I found that having USB-A together with AA/AAA-type battery is not possible for a good-quality mp3-player; you either have USB-A with LiPol, or mini-USB with AA/AAA. I had to decide which is more important, and decided that having AA/AAA is better: this gives usually longer play-times, and less dependence on the wall outlet or USB port nearby. The inconvenience with mini-USB-to-USB cable can be partially solved by using a short adapter dongle, which is even sometimes included with players.)

    What I definitely didn’t want – the “photo and movie functions” with the tiny colour screen. I do like the Creative Zen V Plus, for example, but:

    • the screen is way too small to watch movies or even view photos. I’m sure you know people who complain that 21″ home monitor with HDTV resolution is “still not like going to the movie theatre”… so what’s the talk about 2″ at most?
    • you have to convert (downgrade the quality) of the movies to watch them on the devices of this type. It’s additional unnecessary time-wasting hassle. And for what?
    • the better screen eats more power. Thus, even if you only use MP3, you are disadvantaged by the bundled colour screen.
    • does anybody really _needs_ this kind of thing? The same can be said about MP3-only players, I agree, but in this case visual isolation is added to the aural, which is much worse (that’s a whole large but different topic about TV/digital isolation).

    The list is incomplete, it was just to name some bright points.

    On the other hand, complete absence of screen in my opinion severely limits the functionality and usability of the device, especially if it has not only mp3-player, but also a voice recorder and FM receiver inside. Thus, some screen is needed – but basic, even textual will do.

    Enough said, below are the models I considered. They are themselves the result of some pre-selection, based on what I want. Data is taken both from official specifications and reviews (whichever value was worse ;-) ).

    Cowon iAudio G3 (2 GB) (cable, line-in, EQ 5, FM 24, mic 96-128 mp3, line-in 96-128 mp3, 35 hours, 1.9 mb/sec, AA, Nov 2004)
    Creative Zen Nano Plus (1 GB) (cable, line-in, EQ 5, FM 32, mic WAV ADPCM, line-in 96-160 mp3, 18 hours, 1.8 mb/sec, AAA)
    Cowon iAudio U2 (2 GB) (adapter, line-in, EQ 5, FM 24, mic 96-128 mp3, line-in 96-128 mp3, 15 hours, 1.9 mb/sec, built-in LiPol, July 2004)
    Cowon iAudio 5 (adapter, line-in, EQ 5, FM 24, mic 96-128 mp3, line-in 96-128 mp3, 15 hours, 1.9 mb/sec, AAA, Dec 2004)
    MPIO FY500 (cable, EQ 5, FM 20, mic WAV ADPCM, 14 hours, 1.5 mb/sec, AAA, 2005)
    Samsung YP-U2Z (1 GB) (USB-A, EQ 9, FM 20, mic WAV ADPCM, 14 hours, built-in LiPol, 2006)

    Please ignore the capacities stated. Manufacturers often have a single model with varying capacities, and for the non-movie-enabled this range is 128 mb – 2 GB, to the best of my knowledge. Evidently, 128mb and 256mb models at the moment of writing are not easily available ;-)

    For each model, the following data is shown: USB type (cable, mini-USB-to-USB-A adapter, or USB-A), line-in presence, equalizer bands, FM stations remembered, type of microphone recording, type of line-in (if any) recording, maximal time of non-stop playing, battery type, transfer speed, and year of release. Not for all models all data was collected/available.

    Disclaimer: I am in no way associated, or get profit from any of the companies/trademarks mentioned. This post is not sponsored by any pay-for-posting initiatives. All the information is provided on the “as-is” basis, and I cannot be kept responsible for any type of losses resulting from actions based on this post. Read at your own risk :-).

    Now I’ll try to quickly run through these choices.

    The first one, Cowon iAudio G3 (2 GB), became the one I decided to take.

    Among its stronger sides:

    • sound quality is definitely good
    • equalizer works without distortions, and there are multiple effects available
    • SNR is said to be 95dB, measured – around 90dB
    • up to 50 hours playback from a single AA battery, and
    • the battery is replaceable,
    • ability to set up to 20 bookmarks within mp3 files (good for audiobooks),
    • intuitive and comfy controls,
    • a number of audio formats supported (in addition to mp3 and wma also ogg vorbis, wav and asf),
    • ability to write from internal microphone and line-in at 44.1 kHz 128kbps mp3,
    • no special software to upload music (works as a usual flash drive, except if you need transferring DRM-protected music)
    • microphone and line-in have adjustable sensitivity (volume)
    • produces 13 mW output per channel (with 16Ohm earphones), which is not outstanding, but is good (and twice the 6mW a number of Europe-sold models have.

    But there’s also a list of what might have been better about it:

    • it could be made of aluminium, not plastic, for better durability. Larger drawback, from my point of view. I prefer really solid things :).
    • the screen could be more to my liking – e.g., it could be inverse white-on-black, with the player’s body black as well. In other words, though I do like the design (which reminds me of older-times large-cassette dictating machines – especially from the look of the three buttons on the top panel – Play, Record, and Stop… i.e. Mode), it might have been much more eye-catching.
    • there should have been no limit on the number of files (currently 650) and the number of folders (currently ~50) the player can handle. This is especially true for the 2GB version.

    You can learn more about it from the manufacturer, russian-language review (also featuring iAudio U2), and CNET’s review (do check out the user opinions). For iAudio products, the is a good resource as well (look at the forums there as well).

    Next one, Creative Zen Nano Plus (1 GB), is also a good choice. Here’s review 1 and review 2, and you can find some more. I dropped this model because it records from internal mic only into WAV ADPCM, and also based on reviews, which did not say it’s any different in SQ from others.

    Cowon iAudio 5 and Cowon iAudio U2 are nearly the same as G3 (check this page). iAudio 5 and G3 differ only in: display type, body size/design, and battery type. I dropped U2 because of the internal accumulator (otherwise this is definitely a worthy gadget). Choice between G3 and iAudio 5 is hard and purely subjective. I had chosen G3 for the longer playback time (though it appears that iAudio 5 is more power-efficient, albeit it’s battery has 2.5-3 times less power capacity), more common AA batteries (I already have plenty of AA accumulators), and also based on some reports that FM radio in G3 is somewhat more sensitive than that in iAudio 5. However, iAudio 5 has less problems with built-in mic recording: there’s evidence that G3′s mic holes are slightly misplaced, “muffling” the sound (easily fixable by drilling some more mic holes ;-) ). Both G3 and iAudio 5 have good package contents (model 5 includes the handy USB adapter for no-cable use, G3 has a plastic case, and some more).

    Samsung YP-U2Z (1 GB) doesn’t fit my requirements, though was found to be a worthy player as well. If not the battery requirement, I think I’d take this one. It looks good, has good overall SQ and feature set, lasts long enough.

    There were other models I considered, but dropped for various reasons. I had to drop the MPIO manufacturer, which seems to be under-represented on the internet (like not too many people have and use it), though its models (MPIO FY500, MPIO FY700, MPIO FG100, MPIO ML100) were definitely interesting. For example, MPIO FG100 is on par with G3 in functions (with lesser differences), and is just a bit larger. MPIO FY500 has metal body, etc.


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