Oono MiniDAB pocket digital radio
The Archers in your pocket, in 1s and 0s
Review The MiniDAB is slighly smaller than early iPods, and while it's very much lighter than the Apple device - it feels like it's missing the battery, even though it isn't - it has none of the iPods looks. Apart from the iPod-like black and white colour schemes, the MiniDAB has a rather 1990s look about it: simplicity is out, complexity is in - presumably to imply a large feature set.
The display is a monochrome seven-line LCD. Above it sits the voice-recording mic; below it sit Mode, Timer and Rec buttons, and the MiniDAB's main control cluster. At the bottom is the unit's speaker grille. The control's a circular four-way job: push up or down to skip through recordings, and left or right for rewind fast-forward, and to call up the station list in DAB mode. At the centre is the play/stop button, and surround the navigator are four further keys: Menu, Delete/Back, Info and Repeat. Alas, these four don't extend a full quarter of the way round the wheel...
On the left-hand side of the device are the volume control, Hold switch and recessed reset button. Roung the other side, you'll find the line-in, 'phones and SD card connectors. There's a mini USB port on the bottom for charging and file transfer. The port has a cover, but it's not connected to the player so expect to lose this sooner or later.
The shiny black MiniDAB fits snuggly in your hand, but the all-plastic casing has a cheap feel that's exacerbated by the way the buttons rattle. It has the air of an early, no-name MP3 player, and the look of one too.
Powering the device up puts you into MP3 player mode. There's 128MB to 2GB of built-in memory, depending on which model you choose, and you can add up to 2GB more using the aforementioned SD card slot, which also has a cover, this time attached to the player. I was sent the 128MB unit - enough for two or three albums if they're short.
Music transfer is quick and easy enough using USB 2.0 - the MiniDAB mounts as a Mass Storage device. Sys Admin friendly, the device lists albums as folders under a Root directory, with each folder's contents listed and ordered by filename. There are no modern conveniences like artist/song/genre listings, or even playlists.
Playback's decent - provided you use something other than the bundled 'bass-lite' earphones - with all the repeat and EQ pre-sets you'd expect from a recent MP3 player - or even one of this gadget's apparent vintage. The screen's used to good effect to display track details. You can delete files on the fly, but that's probably more useful in Voice mode, which uses the same folder-style UI to list your MP3 voice recordings. A nice touch: Oono bundles a clip-on microphone, but there's one built in too.
Recordings are also listed under Music, to which mode the MiniDAB drops when you've finished recording a memo. Pressing the Mode buttons takes you on to Voice, then to DAB and, last in the sequence, FM - the MiniDAB's two radio options. The FM's there for back-up, and reception's as good as you're going to get from devices that use the earphone cable as an antenna. You can save stations, but the listing of ten pre-sets is purely numerical.
But back to DAB mode, which is really what the machine's about. Alas, with the earphones in, the radio's reception is a little hit or miss. I experience distortion on some multiplexes - the bands multiple stations are transmitted upon - mono playback on others. A few were OK, but I rarely saw the MiniDAB's on-screen signal strength meter go above a couple of bars.
Oono supplies an aerial cable which plugs into the earphone socket but doesn't disable the built in speaker. By stretching it out, you should get better reception, but the speaker's not up to much - it's a bit quiet - and if you're going to have a static device, you may as well buy a standard portable radio from Roberts or Pure.
Recording broadcasts is simple: press the Record button for an ad hoc archive or press the Timer button to set up a timed and, if you like, a periodic recording. The latter's limited by the need to set up station pre-sets first - why, when it's so easy to scroll through the list of station names sent via DAB? Recordings are made in MP3 format, and the timer set-up screen lets you choose set bit-rates from 32-256Kbps. No so ad hoc recordings - they're all at an FM radio-like 64Kbps. Either way, recordings are named using the date, time and multiplex number all squashed together as a single, space-less string. The device could at least have used the station name.
Actually, I later found you can change the ad hoc recording bit-rate, but you need to know that pressing and holding the Menu button produces a different menu from simply pushing it once. I discovered this by perusing the dozens and dozens of modal button presses and menu listings in the manual, which reveals just how complex controlling the MiniDAB is. To be fair the manual tells you everything, but who's going to be able to remember all this when they're out and about?
Up to ten timer entries can be set at any one time. While one-off recordings are placed in a DAB folder in the Music menu, scheduled recordings appear in a folder called Schedule in the Voice menu. Go figure... It's also entirely unclear how you remove an entry from the recording schedule.
Oono claims you'll get around eight hours' digital-radio playback from the MiniDAB's built-in rechargeable battery, and I wouldn't argue with that. You should get up to 22 hours' MP3 playback, the company adds.
It's a bold attempt, but Oono's MiniDAB isn't going to get the UK population off its iPods and into handheld digital radio. The user interface is five years behind the times and the player's looks are even more outmoded. It's expensive too. Yes, it works and there' no question it's one of the lightest portable audio gadgets out there, but I'm not sold, oono I'm not. One for the die-hard DAB buff only. ®