iRiver U10 media player
The iPod Nano killer?
Review There's an interesting story behind the U10. Apparently, the head of River got together the whole design and engineering team in Korea and told them to that they needed to change their thinking. He told them to go back to the drawing board and come up with something new, to make a complete U-turn with their thinking. A U-Turn, or a U10, geddit?!?
It was a sensible idea. iRiver's range of largely me-too MP3 players were dull but worthy, and there was no chance that they were ever going to make any inroads on Apple's market share. Having said that, last year's N10 was one of the most stylish players ever...
And if there's one thing the U10 is, it's certainly different. The player measures 6.9 x 4.7 x 1.6cm. It's thicker than an iPod Nano but shorter. Compared to the 42g nano, it is bulky, though - and at 70g, noticeably heavier.
The first time you plug in the player it will charge, taking one hour to fill up to 50 per cent, and 2.5 hours to charge fully. Playback for audio is rated at a chunky 20 hours.
The device sports a 2.2in, 320 x 240 screen that can display 260,000 colours - and that's it. Rather than being festooned with myriad small buttons too small to press, all the navigation controls are built into the screen, which is a four-way navigation control in its own right. Press the left-hand side of the screen to move left, for example. With the constant pressing on the screen, you need to carry a cleaning cloth with the player at all times otherwise the screen gets covered in fingerprints.
There are some buttons: the power switch on the right and beneath that a button that toggles the screen between landscape and portrait mode. There are two small buttons to control the volume. Underneath there's a hold button, and a small reset switch. To get advanced options you press and hold on the right button and you do the same to get back to the currently playing track when you're in a different menu. For a Flash-based player it does take a tad too long to turn on, and the animations make navigation a bit on the sluggish side, though there is a setting to speed this up.
The player is undeniably awash with features. On the audio side, it will play MP3, WMA, ASF and the ultra-efficient Ogg. Only the Apple-flavoured AAC is conspicuous by its absence, though that's hardly surprising. It can also record to MP3, either from the built-in microphone or from the built-in FM radio. It can also play back video, though only at 15fps.
However, for all its good features, design and navigation, iRiver falls down for the same reason that every other PC-focused manufacturer does - getting content onto the device itself. The U10 uses no less than three different methods.
Firstly, music can be transferred using Windows Media Player. To be fair, this works quite well. WMP might not be as good as iTunes, but once you get to know its quirks you'll be transferring your tracks in no time. However, if you want to transfer pictures you have to use the supplied Picture Plus application. This is because pictures need to be converted to a proprietary format rather than just copied over. The software does enable you to place pictures in their own folders and when you copy your pictures over the metadata contained in the file is displayed too.
Videos, on the other hand, are copied over using Windows Explorer. For some inexplicable reason the video folder isn't a sub-folder of the Media folder, but is in the Data folder. The iRiver can only play back video in a very specific AVI format and rather short-sightedly, no utility is supplied to convert video. Fortunately, there are third-party conversion tools available, and with judicious compression you can fit a couple of full-length movies on the 1GB player and still have room left for music and pictures. However the screen is so small, watching shorter things like TV episodes might be more suitable.
There are six Macromedia Flash games on the device and while there not exactly PSP quality, they are mildly diverting, including a Space Invaders clone, Sodoku and one where you have to keep a fat man from falling off a log. They're better than the ones on the iPod.
FM radio quality was as good as can be expected and navigating stations was easy. Press up and down to scroll through the frequencies manually or hold the screen down to switch between presets. Recording was easy but there was no way of playing back the recording on the device itself - it could only be accessed once connected to a PC.
I was as impressed as ever by the U10's sound quality, which is loud, clear and accurate. The screen was also good, with bright, vibrant colours for photos. However, this is only if you look straight on. Angle it either up or down or to the side and the colours immediately become washed out. It could also do with a touch more contrast, and dark scenes in videos are hard to make out.
In addition to the player itself, iRiver has an optional cradle that costs £40. With the U10 housed inside it looks very much like a miniature television from the 1960s. The cradle has a remote control and if you plug some speakers into the line out, you can listen and control your music from a distance. There's even a line-in on the cradle, and the U10 will then encode direct to MP3. A cool feature is snooze button on top of the cradle so you can use the player as alarm clock and wake up to a track or the radio.
There's no doubt that the U10 is a player brimming with features - I can't think of anything this size that can do so much. However, you have to pay for the privilege. The 1GB player is £140, the same as a 2GB iPod Nano. Just £20 more will buy you an 8GB Creative Zen Micro Photo, though that has a smaller screen and can't play video. Feature-wise, the iRiver wins with FM radio and video playback, but with the latter, the 2GB version would be more useful and that will set you back £190 when it's released.
While the U10 itself scores highly for usability, the non-Apple product loses out as a complete user experience. iRiver needs to sit down and create an iTunes rival to consolidate all the different applications that are currently required to get content onto the player.
So while the U10 might be eye catching, you'll need to be on the techie side to actually make the most of it. For the more technically confident and patient, this is a great alternative to the Nano. It looks good, it sounds great and is the more capable device.
The U10 has an innovative interface that works well. The player is feature laden, with music, pictures, video, text, radio and games in one tiny package. The downsides are the relatively high price and the clumsy method of getting content onto the device. Get past those, and the U10 is a winner that just might take a few sales away from the iPod Nano.